The National hockey league was founded in 1917 but was introduced in a video game in 1991 in the game titled 'NHL Hockey' on the MegaDrive and the Genesis.
The NHL was far from the first professional hockey league. Like many other sports, hockey professionalized in stages. The Stanley Cup
, for example, now stands as the most coveted prize in professional hockey, but it was originally established in 1893 as an award for the best amateur hockey team in Canada
. By the end of the nineteenth century, amateur hockey clubs would host paid players, but the sport remained a hybrid.
The floodgates opened during the twentieth century. The International Professional Hockey League, a short lived organization that formed in Ontario and Michigan, has the honor of being the first fully professional hockey organization. It had folded by 1907. The NHL's immediate precursor, the National Hockey Association (NHA), had better luck. It lasted from 1909 until 1917, when internal dissension among the NHA's owners led to the formation of the NHL.
The league began with four teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, the Toronto Arenas and the Ottawa Senators. Only half of the teams would make it through the great depression. The early years of the NHL were lean ones, but the businessmen who owned the teams were shrewd enough to attract the best talent in Canada to the league. Soon, the NHL would be ready for expansion.
The Boston Bruins became the first team from the U.S. to join the fledgling league. The Bruins joined in 1924, and, a year later, there were teams in New York and Pittsburgh. Teams in Detroit and Chicago joined in 1926. The league had a brief flowering that ended decisively with the Great Depression.
The Original Six
The so-called "Original Six," were not the first six hockey teams to play in the NHL. Instead, it designates the six teams that survived the Great Depression, when declining revenues caused the league to contract. The Bruins, Canadiens, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Detroit Red Wings were the only six teams to play in the NHL from 1942 until 1967. It was a historical time, when dynasties would flourish and rivalries would be born. The period saw the introduction of the hockey mask, the first black player (the Boston Bruins' Willie O'Ree) and the birth of traditions that endure to this day, such as the tendency Red Wings fans have for throwing octopi on the ice during Stanley Cup finals.
The Second Expansion
The NHL expanded again in 1967. Teams started in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Louis. Vancouver and Buffalo would get their franchises three years later. This period saw speedy modernization of the sport, as increased competition led to innovations on the ice. The game became more integrated, with defensemen taking a more active role on offense, and the transition game became more crucial to a team's success. The pairing of Boston's center Phil Esposito and defenseman Bobby Orr is a perfect example of shift of the game.
The seventies were fat years for hockey, and there was enough room for a serious competitor to the NHL. The World Hockey Association (WHA) started in 1972 with a lot of money. The league lured players away from the NHL and brought world class European players to North America in large numbers. What they couldn't draw was the fans. The NHL countered by expanding a again, until it numbered 18 teams. Soon, the WHA would go under.
Superstars and Dynasties
The eighties and nineties were an exciting time to be a hockey fan. Two of the greatest players ever to strap on skates dominated the decades. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were naturally gifted forwards whose skill behind the puck brought new fans to the league. Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers won five Stanley Cups, and Lemieux led his Pittsburgh Penguins to two.
The end of European communism was a boon for North American hockey, and players came to the league in droves from the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The new influx of talent brought the league new dynasties and another expansion. The Detroit Red Wings, famously stacked with former Soviet players, began to dominate the era. Teams began in far-flung areas of the country where, a decade earlier, hockey was practically unheard of. By 2000, the league would number 30 teams, as it does to this day.
The New NHL
After the 2004-05 labor dispute and player lockout, the NHL retooled its rules to encourage more scoring. Today's game is faster, and games never end in ties. Unfortunately, the popularity of hockey has been flagging steadily, especially in the United States. Teams without a long history are finding it hard to draw fans, and many critics believe that the NHL has outgrown itself. We may see another period of contraction as economic realities take their toll on the NHL. Evidence of this is with the Phoenix Coyotes who are having trouble finding an owner.