OTTAWA — It was a night of sticky ice, last-minute player signings and a disappointingly small crowd.
The glitches that marred the NHL’s debut seem mere footnotes now as the world’s premier hockey league celebrates its 100th anniversary with an outdoor game Saturday evening between the Montreal Canadiens and host Ottawa Senators.
Amid the humble beginnings, few could have foreseen the days of multimillion-dollar contracts, instant replays and franchises in Florida.
As a bloody war raged in Europe, the four-team NHL’s first games took place Wed., Dec. 19, 1917.
The Canadiens took on an early incarnation of the Senators in Ottawa, while the Toronto Arenas played the Wanderers in Montreal.
The daily newspapers of the time, and their anonymous scribes, dutifully recorded the colour and chaos of the league’s emergence from the ashes of the National Hockey Association, alongside advertisements for gramophones, dyspepsia tablets and handkerchiefs.
Ottawa dominated the Canadiens in the final NHA season, winning six of seven matchups.
But for their first NHL meeting, the Senators were missing top scorer Frank Nighbor, an enlisted airman whose military commitment kept him off the ice. The “Pembroke Peach” would go on to win several Stanley Cups with the Ottawa team.
One of his descendants, Derek Nighbor, plans to be at Ottawa’s TD Place Stadium for the NHL 100 Classic game with his brother and nephew, sporting their heritage Sens jerseys emblazoned with Frank’s No. 6.
“Our family’s pretty proud of the connection,” he said. “It’s not only the Nighbor name, but it’s Pembroke. Still today, with our Junior ‘A’ Lumber Kings, hockey is really central to life in the Ottawa Valley.”
The 1917 edition of the Senators had another headache on opening night: contract disputes meant several players signed at the eleventh hour and two — Jack Darragh and Hamby Shore — even missed the first part of the game.
Canadiens sharpshooter Joe Malone scored three times in the first period, and Montreal led 5-3 heading into the third.
Ottawa forced the play, but “it was useless, what looked like sure goals being missed by overskating the puck, missing passes and poor shooting,” the Ottawa Journal reported.
Montreal won 7-4. Ottawa might have fared better if it had begun the game at full strength, said the Journal, adding the fact the ice became “very sticky” near the end of the game “may have had a lot to do with their poor work here.”
The Daily Star confidently predicted the hometown Torontos, as the team was known, “should win in a walk” over the Wanderers, though the paper later acknowledged the Montreal roster was ”not as weak” as player-coach Art Ross — future namesake of the league scoring trophy — “would have it believed.”
The Wanderers president invited soldiers who had been injured overseas to attend the Montreal Arena as honoured guests. Even so, the Montreal Gazette noted the turnout of 700 was “one of the smallest crowds” to see a season opener and “many of the well-known patrons of the game were missing.”
A Star story concluded the contest was certainly a first-of-the-season affair, as “the hockey was pretty rough in spots.”
“Torontos showed plenty of speed and dash on the attack, but were weak on the defence.”
The Arenas’ goaltending also failed to impress, with starter Sammy Hebert chased from the net in favour of Art Brooks.
“Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” a fan told the Star.
One reporter considered the Wanderers lucky to outlast the Torontos, as Montreal faded in the late going, barely hanging on for a 10-9 victory.
No fewer than 20 minor penalties and two majors were handed out, said an account in the Ottawa Journal. “The game was not rough, but the players were irritable.”
Wanderers centre Harry Hyland — who scored five goals — suffered the only injury, however, when the puck bounced off his own goalie’s stick and “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”
The Montreal arena burned down just weeks later and the Wanderers disbanded. In the playoffs, Toronto defeated the Canadiens for the league championship.
The season was notable for a major rule change in January 1918 — allowing goalies to drop to the ice to stop the puck.
The league also tried to stay a stride ahead of sneaky fans by providing referees with special new whistles, preventing people in the crowd from stopping play by blowing the same type used by officials.
“They are really wonders in their way,” the Star noted. “When blown into from the centre their sound resembles something between the roaring of an infuriated bull and the summer night lullaby of the latter’s amphibious namesake, the bullfrog.”