Professional hockey was in trouble 100 years ago. World War I was raging in Europe. Conscription into Canada’s army threatened to take away more players, while forcing others into essential war work. Teams folded as more and more fans wondered why some fit, young men were dying overseas while others were playing games at home.
The Windsor Hotel in Montreal hosted meetings throughout November 1917 about these and other issues facing pro hockey. It was those discussions that marked the end of the National Hockey Association, founded in 1909, and created the National Hockey League. The new league’s official announcement came on Nov. 26.
But before then, there was much debate over which team would join the Ottawa Senators, the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Wanderers in the N.H.L. Not until the Quebec Bulldogs confirmed that they would not be part of the league was the fourth franchise reluctantly awarded to Toronto.
It is hard to imagine the N.H.L. without a Toronto team, but interpersonal squabbles almost made it that way.
Eddie Livingstone had operated Toronto teams in the N.H.A. since the 1914-15 season. The other owners hated him.
“Livingstone was always arguing. No place for arguing in hockey,” Tommy Gorman of the Senators said in a 1965 Toronto Maple Leafs program article. “Let’s make money instead.”
Elmer Ferguson, who wrote the article, covered the 1917 meetings for The Montreal Herald, and much of what is known of them comes from his stories over the years.
In the 1965 article, Sam Lichtenhein of the Montreal Wanderers said the other owners did not throw Livingstone out: “We just resigned and wished him a fine future with his National Association franchise.”
With Livingstone out, Toronto’s N.H.L team would be run by the owners of the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, most of whom were based in Montreal. Still, Toronto’s team mainly comprised players who had competed for Livingstone in the N.H.A. Their names are not as familiar to fans today as the Montreal legends Georges Vezina, Joe Malone or Bad Joe Hall, but Toronto featured the future Hall of Famers Reg Noble, Harry Cameron and Rusty Crawford, as well as Jack Adams, who would later run the Detroit Red Wings.
The N.H.L.’s first season began on Dec. 19, 1917, and Toronto got off to a slow start. Goaltending was the main problem, but the team was able to acquire another future Hall of Famer: Hap Holmes, a former Toronto star in the N.H.A.
Holmes had been playing with the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, who won the Stanley Cup in 1917. When he was made available to N.H.L. clubs, Holmes hoped to sign with Toronto, but the Wanderers claimed his rights. However, when fire destroyed the Wanderers’ arena two weeks into the season, the team withdrew from the league.
Holmes was free to sign with Toronto, and he led the team to the top spot in the standings during the second half of the split-season schedule. Toronto then defeated the first-half champion Canadiens to win the N.H.L. championship before beating the Vancouver Millionaires from the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association to win the Stanley Cup.
In a picture commemorating the title, the N.H.L.’s first champions were called the Arena Hockey Club of Toronto. The team has been known traditionally as the Toronto Arenas, but during the 1917–18 season, newspapers often referred to the team as the Blue Shirts, the Blueshirts or the Torontos. Those names had also been applied to the former N.H.A. team.
It was apparent from articles throughout the season that fans and newspapers saw no real difference between the N.H.A. and the N.H.L. The Montreal-based owners initially had no compelling reason to discourage the use of previously popular Toronto nicknames, but that soon changed.
According to Charlie Querrie, who managed the arena and Toronto’s N.H.L. team, the ownership offered Livingstone a check for $6,900 at the close of the 1917–18 season. He refused to take it, demanding $20,000 for the appropriation of his franchise. The new owners refused to pay it, so Livingstone took them to court.
Suddenly, the nickname Arenas became prominent.
Livingstone’s court case lingered for years, and supporters of pro hockey in Toronto were fed up with articles on litigation dominating the sports page. When the team slumped badly, fans turned their attention to the city’s many popular amateur clubs. Toronto’s attendance became so poor that when it was eliminated from playoff contention with two weeks to go in the 1918–19 season, the team disbanded.
It was sold twice before the 1919–20 season, winding up in the hands of a group who owned an amateur team known as the St. Patricks.
Babe Dye, another future Hall of Famer, joined the team, usually referred to as the Toronto St. Pats, in 1919–20 and quickly became a top scorer. In 1921–22, Dye helped bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto. But once again the good times did not last.
By 1926–27, the St. Pats were one of the worst teams in what had become a 10-team N.H.L. With six of the clubs based in the United States, Canadians feared for the future of their game.
Conn Smythe was a proud Canadian who had coached successful amateur teams at the University of Toronto before and after serving in World War I. He was hired to head up the expansion New York Rangers in the fall of 1926 but was fired before the season started.
“It is impossible to imagine,” wrote Frank Selke, the Hall of Fame executive, in his 1962 autobiography “Behind the Cheering,” “what would have happened to professional hockey in Canada had Smythe stayed in New York.”
During November 1926, C.C. Pyle, the American sports agent, offered to buy the St. Pats for $200,000. He planned to move the team to Philadelphia.
“If Mr. Pyle takes [the] St. Pats team and moves it to Philadelphia,” reported Toronto’s Evening Telegram on Nov. 19, 1926, “the fate of pro hockey in Toronto is doubtful.”
Smythe did not have enough money to save his hometown team. Fortunately, J.P. Bickell had a $40,000 share of the St. Pats, and he promised that if Smythe could raise $160,000 to pay off the other owners, he would ensure they sold to him instead of Pyle. Smythe put down $10,000 and rounded up a team of investors. They paid $75,000 to buy the team on Feb. 14, 1927, with an understanding to pay the remaining $75,000 over the next 30 days.
With that, Smythe took over the St. Pats. He changed their name to the Maple Leafs.
Published at Fri, 24 Nov 2017 22:10:50 +0000