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The NHLs Original Six Impeded the Growth of the Sport in the U.S.

nhlBY EVAN WEINER
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

There is a whiff of hockey nostalgia in the air. Four of National Hockey League's "Original Six" franchises are in the second round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers. The other two "originals", the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs were knocked out in the first round.

The Boston-New York Rangers playoff series will bring up memories of a different era. Both "Original Six" teams were hampered by the Norris family running the franchise's arenas back in the glory days. The New York Rangers franchise was not even on par with the circus - the Norris family kicked out the Rangers during playoff season in the 1950s - as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was far more valuable to the Norris's bottom line than a Rangers playoff game. New York played playoff "home" games in Toronto.

The National Hockey League expansion of 1967 came after great debate within the league. The NHL actually had more than six teams prior to 1942 with teams coming and going throughout the 1930s. The Depression knocked out some teams and the league was down to eight teams by the late 1930s representing six cities, the Montreal Canadiens and Maroons, the New York Americans and Rangers, the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Maroons left in 1938 and the Americans "temporarily" suspended operations in 1942. Red Dutton's Americans franchise was sharing Madison Square Garden with the Rangers and changed the team name to the Brooklyn Americans with the idea of getting a building in the boro and rejoining the league after World War II.

The NHL never did play in Brooklyn, although that will change on September 21st, when the New York Islanders host the New Jersey Devils in a pre-season game. The Uniondale, New York-based Islanders will permanently move to Brooklyn by 2015 although that could be moved up a year. Brooklyn will finally get a team, some 70 years after Dutton envisioned an NHL franchise in the boro.

The NHL and Madison Square Garden forgot about Red Dutton and the Americans, but the Original Six almost became seven after World War II. There was also some interest from Philadelphia investors who wanted to move the "retired" Maroons franchise to the United States third largest market; but, Philadelphia didnt have a suitable hockey arena.

In the mid 1950s, Cleveland's American Hockey League team, the Barons decided to "challenge" for the Stanley Cup and join the league. They didn't.

The National Hockey League had numerous American franchises in the 1920s and 1930s. The Boston Bruins joined the league in 1924 and the Montreal Maroons also entered the NHL that year. The New York Americans franchise started out in the 19th century as a Quebec City team and were named the Quebec Bulldogs in 1909. Quebec did not have a team in 1910 after the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Shamrocks bolted from the Canadian Hockey Association for the National Hockey Association. Quebec joined the NHA in 1910 and by 1917, the Quebec Bulldogs were a charter NHL franchise but financial difficulties kept the team of the ice until 1919-20. The team moved to Hamilton, Ontario in 1920 and to New York in 1925, proceeding the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by a year. Hamilton moved to New York after Tiger players staged a strike when they asked for and were denied $200 a man to play in the playoffs. Hamilton was disqualified from the playoffs and eventually Dwyer purchased the team for $75,000. The Pittsburgh Pirates also entered the NHL in 1925.

The Rangers came into being after Madison Square Garden president Colonel John S. Hammond was convinced by promoter Tex Rickard that the facility should own a team instead of renting the building to William V. Dryer, a notorious bootlegger during Prohibition. The Americans franchise was a huge success. The Rangers eventually would drive the Americans out of business. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Cougars (who would be renamed the Detroit Falcons and Red Wings) came in with the Rangers, and the NHL had ten teams with the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Maroons, New York Americans, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs in the Canadian Division and Boston Bruins, Chicago, Detroit, the Rangers and Pittsburgh in the American Division.

Pittsburgh moved to Philadelphia in 1930 and changed names to the Quakers, the team would fold in 1931. Ottawa suspended operations in 1931-32, came back in 1932 and moved to St. Louis in 1934. The Eagles would fold in 1935. With the demise of the Maroons and Americans, the "Original Six" came into being in 1942.

Players didn't make much money during the 1930s and had little leverage in dealing with owners. The Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1939 led by Milt Schmidt, who eventually was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Schmidt was paid $3,500 for the season. Schmidt was a "lifelong" Bruins employee until 1972, with that lifelong commitment interrupted by World War II. He resurfaced in Washington shortly thereafter as the General manager of the Washington Capitals.

"As far as the salaries were concerned, there was no differences as far as the Boston Bruins were concerned. I got the same kind of money as I did before I went into the service," said Schmidt in the year 2000, of the NHL's salary structure in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

"I think the owners got everything in my day and I think a few of the owners who are now down and underneath are probably rolling over in their graves think about what they would have to pay some players today in order to have a championship team. You got to pay some money in order to do that."

"Overall, it's quite a difference in salary. They get more per diem than I got in salary. In 1939, $3,500, and I didn't get any bonus except the playoff split was close to a thousand dollars. But that was a lot of money in those days and I was very happy to be on a Stanley Cup team. We were athletes and wanted to win and that was most important. It was really an honor to be on a Stanley Cup team because there are many great players in the National Hockey League now and forever that will never be on a Stanley Cup team, so it was quite an honor."

Schmidt joined the Bruins as an 18 year old in 1936. He missed three years between 1942 and 1945 and then resumed his career. He was named Bruins coach in 1955. Schmidt was a three time First Team All-Star, the league's top scorer in 1940, and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player in 1951. He coached the team from 1955-61 and returned to coaching in 1962 staying on the job until 1966 when the Bruins named him assistant general manager. He became the GM in 1967 and was given an executive position in 1972 but Schmidt and Boston parted ways when the Bruins refused to give him a four year contract. Schmidt spent 34 years with the Bruins, but he wasn't necessarily a Bruins employee for life. He wanted out but was blocked during his playing days by management like many NHL players of the day.

"I can honestly say the last few years I played in Boston, I wanted to be traded. I didn't care who to," he said. "For the simple reason that I wanted to be in the same category of (Maurice) Richard, (Jean) Beliveau or (Gordie) Howe, which I wasn't as far as salary was concerned. I wanted to be in the same category as them so I said trade me.

"They said, no. They said you will have a job when your playing days are over. Where was I going to go? I didn't have any education to go anyplace. So I stayed with the Bruins. Thank goodness I did because they did give me a job as a coach, an assistant general manager and a manager. So it worked out very well. They took care of me. They promised me a job which they gave to me and I am very pleased about the whole situation."

While Schmidt was rewarded with virtually a lifetime job, many players had to worry about making squads annually and made very little money. Only the top caliber players, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, and Schmidt are assured of jobs. There were only about 100 big league jobs. Detroit Red Wing Ted Lindsay started to organize a players association in February 1957. Lindsay had led the league in scoring in 1949-50 and was part of four Stanley Cup Championship teams. He became the Red Wings captain in 1952-53 but was traded on July 23, 1957 as punishment for trying to establish a legitimate players association and establishing players rights.

Players held out for more money frequently, but the owners held the upper hand. Torontos Frank Mahovlich should have had more bargaining power. He was the Maple Leafs top offensive weapon and led the club to the 1962 Stanley Cup Championship. But by training camp in 1962, Mahovlich was on the trading block, and Chicago was interested. Jim Norris offered Toronto one million dollars for Mahovlich and the Maple Leafs nearly took the offer.

That was in 1962, and the late James Norris tried to purchase me from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the beginning of the season. I think it was at All-Star Game time, recalled the Big M. I went on strike, it was only a one man strike mind you but at training camp, my contract had come up the previous year and we won the Stanley Cup. I think I scored something around 80 or 90 goals in two years and I was having a difficult time trying to get 500 dollars from them. Norris decided he was going to purchase me.

He made an offer which they agreed on and then the next day they reneged on it and I still ended up in Toronto.

The "Original Six" owners included the brothers Jim Norris in Chicago and Bruce Norris in Detroit, and the Norris family controlled Madison Square Garden. By the mid 1960s, as the population is fanning out around the United States and Canada, it became obvious that the NHL had no choice but to expand its numbers.

"They were not content for a long time," said Brian O'Neil who joined the league in the 1960s and was the NHL Executive Vice President in the 1990s before retiring in talking about the need to expand. "The expansion had been coming; there was some resistance among some of the owners.

"But there were some of them that had great foresight like Bill Jennings in particular. I always admired Bill Jennings from the New York Rangers. He knew what had to be done. The primary interest was to get from coast to coast. That's why LA was almost a shoe in from the beginning as was San Francisco. They didn't have to have a strong presentation they just wanted them in there from a geographic point of view. That was the driving factor.

"There was resistance and it took a while to get them convinced that they should do it. The fact that they want from six to 12 right away, that was a major, major decision."

The six National Hockey League owners and Commissioner Clarence Campbell did not embrace the thought of expansion at first. In fact, Campbell thought television was a menace as far back as 1951, but television expanded interest in hockey and by 1956, CBS showed games on Saturday afternoon in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York.  Also, the Canadian Broadcasting Company started Hockey Night in Canada, which became a Saturday night Canadian institution.

In 1952, Cleveland Baron General Manager Jim Hendy made overtures to the NHL. The Barons were going to join the NHL as the seventh team and leave the American Hockey League, but after months of negotiations and approval from Campbell, the NHL owners said no. The NHL wasn't solidly entrenched in the four American markets as Chicago played some of their "home" games in St. Louis and the New York Rangers closed the upper balcony at Madison Square Garden because of poor attendance.

The NHL first started televising its games on CBS in 1956 on a limited bases in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York.

While the NHL remained at six teams, George Leader and the Western Hockey League were making noises about elevating the league's status from minor pro to "major league." Los Angeles and San Francisco joined the league in 1961 and both cities were growing and had major league teams with football's Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers both operating since 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moving west in 1958, the Minneapolis Lakers ending up in LA in 1960, and the Philadelphia Warriors going to San Francisco in 1962. In 1960, the NHL Board of Governors announced that Los Angeles and San Francisco would be given consideration should the league decide to expand.

By 1964, there were reports that the NHL was ready to begin a six team league in the west. But, it wasn't until March 11, 1965 at an NHL owners meeting in New York that the league owners decided to double in size.

"Bill Jennings was more than the President of the New York Rangers, he was a very forward thinking, league oriented lawyer and executive," said Norman MacLean, who was Jennings assistant. "Bill wanted the National Hockey League to get out of its little northeast corner, six teams, and his goal was network television. The only way to do that was going to the west coast. That's why the, what became the shambles California Golden Seals existed, and Los Angeles was obvious. They figured it out."

MacLean remembers a meeting in Jennings' Byrum, Connecticut house where Campbell and Jennings met to map out strategy for the doubling of the NHL.

"It was about three in the morning where they decided to put all of the six teams, Western Conference in one division and put the old six in the other and let them compete. One of the other thrusts that forced this to happen when it did was the fact that the Western Hockey League, a triple A league along with the American Hockey League, was threatening to go major league," said MacLean in 2001.

"The Western Hockey League was independently owned, they took some players from the National Hockey League. They weren't farm teams, whereas the AHL was, Pittsburgh was the Toronto farm team, Springfield was the Ranger farm team, Hershey was the Boston farm. So they (the AHL) were married and had much of their expenses paid by the NHL. So they were not a threat. They were the smaller eastern cities, but the larger western cities, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, could have conceivably have gone major league, and George Leader, the President of the Western League, threatened to do it three or four times. They paid salaries in some cases for big guns that stayed in a particular town more than average role players in the NHL. That was the thrust of it.

"They absolutely did not want the WHL to go major league because there would have been a scramble for players as happened later with the World Hockey association and it would have prevented the NHL from expanding and getting a shot at network TV, which to this day has never totally workout out, its probably closer now than it ever was. It was still a goal at that time and nobody recognized at that time that hockey would have limitations and they all thought it could be the next NFL."

The league did go to LA, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and St. Louis with Baltimore, Vancouver and Buffalo not making the cut. The NHL suddenly had a presence across the country and 10 teams in the United States by summer, 1967.

There may be some romance about the "Original Six" but the "Original Six" was controlled by the Norris family which suffocated and stifled the growth of hockey in the United States. The Rangers franchise in particular suffered greatly because of the Norris tactics. The so-called golden age of the NHL, the 25-year period of six teams wasn't exactly the "Golden Era."

Evan Weiner can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His e-book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at www.bickley.comand Amazon.com and his e-books, America's Passion: How a Coal Miner's Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports are available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, versent books, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel.

 

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