What were the original NHL teams? (Hint: There were 4)

Original 4? Shouldn’t it be Original 6? When I looked into the history of the NHL, as a lifelong hockey fan I was surprised that the NHL started with just 4 teams, not 6. And only 1 of the original 4 teams is part of what is known as the original 6.

So, who were the first NHL teams? When the NHL had its inaugural season in 1917 there were four teams: Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, and the Ottawa Senators. The NHL did have a fifth franchise, the Quebec Bulldogs, however it was an inactive franchise and did not play any games.

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The NHL was not the first professional hockey league in North America. There were a number of professional leagues that preceded the NHL.  The most relevant to the discussion of the original four hockey teams was the NHA or the National Hockey Association because 3 of the 4 teams that started with the NHL in 1917 were part of the NHA.  These three teams – Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, and Ottawa Senators – did not start with the beginning of the NHL but existed as amateur or professional teams with leagues prior to the start of the NHL.

The NHL was brought into existence because the owners of three of the teams did not want to be partners or be in the same professional league with David Livingston, the owner of the Toronto franchise of the NHA. The owners took their teams out of the NHA and formed the NHL without Livingston.  The NHL was thought to be only a temporary solution, while they out waited Livingston to leave the NHA. However, the NHL would add a fourth team in Toronto and the league and the original four were born.

So who were the four original NHL teams and what happened to them?

Of the Original Four teams, the Montreal Canadiens is the only team that is left in the current form it was founded in. Let’s look at the history of each the teams and what happened to each of them.

Montreal Wanderers 1917-1918

As you noticed of the four original teams in the NHL, two of them played in Montreal. The teams were set up so that the Canadiens represented the French speaking portion of Montreal while the Wanderers represented the English speaking.

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The Montreal Wanderers were founded in 1903 and played in several amateur and professional leagues prior to their entry into the NHL. Moreover, they were actually an extremely successful team during their existence; they can boast 4 Stanley Cup championships and several Hall of Fame players, including Lester Patrick and Art Ross — who eventually had the award for Most Points by a player named after him.

Despite having a glorious history of success, during the years heading into their first NHL season they were anything but. They had a number of consecutive losing seasons, they had lost many of their best players to other teams or the war and attendance was down.

The Montreal Wanderers only played a part of the first season NHL before folding. They managed to win their first game of the season at home against Toronto 10-9, but would later lose their next three games by a combined score of 26-9.

Tragedy struck the Wanderers on January 2nd, 1918 when their Westmount arena burnt down. The next day the Wanderers decided to shut down their operations for good, and would end up dispersing their players to the other three existing NHL teams.

Montreal Canadiens 1917-present

The Montreal Canadiens have been the most successful NHL team and one of the most successful professional sports franchises of all-time. They have won the most Stanley Cups with 23 – the first in 1916 and the last in 1993.

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The Canadiens were originally founded in 1909 as part of the NHA and represented the French speaking part of Montreal.

The Montreal Canadiens started the first season playing out of the Westmount arena along with the Wanderers. However, when the Westmount arena burned down they simply moved to a different stadium across town.

In that first NHL season, the Canadiens started out strong securing the first half title and a spot in the NHL Championship against Toronto but would end up losing 10-7.

Montreal is the only team to have survived from the original NHL without a name change or relocation.

Toronto Arenas 1917-1919

The inaugural Toronto club looked very much like the Toronto club of the NHA, with seven of the same players but having one big difference: no more association with NHA owner David Livingston! The team was now owned by the Toronto Arena company.

Although the team is often referred to as the Arenas in hockey history, they were not actually called the Arenas until the 1918-1919 season. Amongst the followers of the team in Toronto, they were known as the Blues or the Blue Shirts.

The Toronto team was also seen as a fresh start to professional hockey in the area. At the time, there was a debate in sport and within hockey of whether sports should be only amateur and not professional. Within hockey circles, Toronto was the epicentre for the argument that hockey should be only played as an amateur game thus protecting the purity of the sport.

The hope was that this new Toronto franchise would be able to create some positive goodwill often lost due to the constant infighting and political games of the promoters and owners of the game (led by David Livingston).

Toronto had a fantastic inaugural season in the NHL, winning the championship against the Montreal Canadiens 10-7. They would then go on to defeat the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Vancouver Millionaires in the Stanley Cup championship: 3-2 in a best of five series. This would be the first of Toronto’s 13 Stanley Cup wins, with the last being in 1967.

In 1919 the team was renamed to the St. Patricks and would later be renamed, under Conn Smythe, to their current moniker: the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ottawa Senators 1917-1934

The Ottawa Senators were formally founded in 1883 as the Ottawa Hockey Club. Following the nicknames of “the Generals” and “the Silver Seven”, the club would adopt the Senators nickname in 1908.

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This Ottawa franchise won the Stanley Cup 11 times, including 4 times as part of the NHL.

This version of the Ottawa Senators should not be confused with the current Ottawa Senators, who were founded in 1992. Neither the NHL nor the Senators claim any continuation of the original franchise: the awards and statistics of both eras are kept separate. (Senators original team wiki)

In the inaugural NHL season, no other team had lost as many players to the Great War as the Ottawa Senators. They iced a patched up roster, but were no match for the more powerful Montreal and Toronto franchises.

The Ottawa team would turn things around, becoming the first dominant team in the NHL; they won the Stanley cup in 3 of 4 years (1920, 21, 23).

However, with the expansion of the NHL into the US, the Ottawa team had a hard time competing financially with the larger American and Canadian clubs. They would end up selling off some of their best players (including King Clancy) for cash flow. They were forced to take a season off in 1931 due to debt levels, and would end up relocating to St. Louis in 1934.

Related Questions

Who were the Quebec Bulldogs?

When the NHL was formed in 1917, the Quebec Bulldogs were part of the league, but immediately took a leave of absence and did not play in the inaugural season. They tried to form a team, but due to a shortage of players — caused by many factors including the Great War — they were unable to get a full roster. The players they did have were loaned to the remaining 4 NHL teams.

The Quebec Bulldogs would go on to take part in the next NHL season, but were soon relocated to Hamilton in 1920.

I thought there was an Original Six not Four?

It is common to hear the term “The Original Six” when talking about the first teams and the start of the NHL. The Original Six refer to the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, & Detroit Red Wings.   

The NHL started in 1917 and here are the dates the Original Six came into existence:

  • Montreal Canadiens – 1917
  • Toronto Maple Leafs – 1927 (previously the Toronto Arenas 1917-19 then the Toronto St. Patricks 1919-27)
  • Boston Bruins – 1924
  • New York Rangers – 1926
  • Chicago Blackhawks – 1926
  • Detroit Red Wings – 1932

There were other teams who were in & out of the early league, but these six teams were the only ones play for 25 seasons: from 1942-43 until 1967 when the league expanded to 12 teams.

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