Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price signs autographs for young hockey players following an outdoor practice Friday in Ottawa. The Ottawa Senators will play the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL 100 Classic. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price signs autographs for young hockey players following an outdoor practice Friday in Ottawa. The Ottawa Senators will play the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL 100 Classic. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL debuted 100 years ago with contract disputes, dodgy ice and plenty of goals

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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Researchers look over a map aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it sets sail in the North Pacific Ocean toward the Bering Strait to traverse the Arctic's Northwest Passage on July 6, 2017. The Canadian government wants more study on the impacts of banning heavy fuel oil in the Arctic before it signs on to an international agreement to do so. It has been 16 months since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then U.S. President Barack Obama jointly committed to phase down the use of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, David Goldman
‘You cannot claim any more:’ Russia seeks bigger piece of Arctic Ocean seabed

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Russia wants to stretch out imaginary lines on the… Continue reading

The Queen, centre, Prince Philip, right, and Princess Anne relax as they sail to Victoria, B.C., on May 3, 1971 accompanied out of Vancouver harbour by numerous small craft. Prince Philip, the Queen's husband of more than 70 years, passed away at Windsor Castle on Friday, Buckingham Palace announced. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Croke
Andrew: Philip’s death has left ‘huge void’ in queen’s life

LONDON — The death of Prince Philip has left a “huge void”… Continue reading

Most Read