With a current lineup of 31 teams and soon to be 32, the National Hockey League looks nothing like it did when it started over a hundred years ago. The NHL has grown to become the world’s premier ice hockey league. The best of the world’s players now freely play for teams all across North America. Here’s how it started.
In the late 1880s, a number of hockey tournaments existed in Canada. There were attempts to regulate these competitive tournaments, but it wasn’t until 1887 that it finally happened. That year, four teams in Montreal formed the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC). Lord Stanley would donate his cup in 1892 to be awarded to the league’s champion and a tradition was born.
Several other leagues such as the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) and the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA) formed in the early 1900s. Both leagues mixed paid and amateur players. Bidding wars for players forced most teams to lose money and eventually the ECAHA folded. The result was the formation of the National Hockey Association (NHA) and the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA).
The NHA was comprised of teams with wealthy business owners. The CHA was not and never did complete a full season. Out of this mess, the National Hockey League was born in 1917. It was only supposed to operate for one season.
The Early NHL
Earlier hockey had been played with seven players to a side. The new NHL adopted the old NHA constitution and played with six. The original NHL consisted of just four teams, all in Canada. The league faced competition from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) and the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL).
The league expanded to include its first American team, the Boston Bruins, in 1924. Several new teams entered the league and many of them failed. By the beginning of the 1942-43 season, the NHL was reduced to just six teams and a new era of hockey was about to begin.
The Original Six
From 1942 to 1967, the NHL consisted of just six teams: Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Only Montreal and Toronto were around at the inception of the NHL in 1917 and all six franchises still exist today.
The game rose in popularity during the Original Six era as new rules opened up the game and made it more exciting to watch. The first official NHL All-Star game was held in 1947. Players like Montreal’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard became celebrities and teams like the Canadiens and Maple Leafs had long periods of dominance. Toronto won five Stanley Cups between 1944-45 and 1950-51. Beginning in 1948-49, Detroit won seven straight regular season titles and four Stanley Cups. Montreal won five straight Cups between 1956 and 1960 something no NHL team has done since.
New York Rangers governor William Jennings proposed the idea of expanding to the West Coast of the United States in 1963. Two years later, the NHL agreed to expand by six teams and double the size of the league. Franchises were awarded to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Oakland, and St. Louis. Just three years later in 1970, the NHL also added franchises in Vancouver and Buffalo.
The early part of the expansion era saw the rise of a very physical, aggressive style of play. Boston’s Bobby Orr scored 21 goals in 1968-69 to set a record for goals by a defenseman. That year, he would win the first of eight consecutive Norris Trophies given annually to the league’s top defenseman. His teammate, Phil Esposito, became the first NHL player to score 100 points in a season notching 126 in 1968-69.
The WHA & The Merger
In the 1970s, the NHL faced competition from a new league, the World Hockey Association (WHA). The new league was able to lure some big name players away from the NHL. Chicago’s Bobby Hull signed with Winnipeg for $2.75 million and instantly NHL players began defecting to the new league. Because of the competition, the NHL quickly added the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in 1972 and the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals in 1974.
By the mid-1970s, both the NHL and WHA were facing serious financial difficulties. A few teams, like the St. Louis Blues, were on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1976, the NHL approved the move of two franchises – Kansas City to Denver where the Scouts became the Colorado Rockies and the California Golden Seals to Cleveland to become the Barons (the Barons eventually merged with the Minnesota North Stars).
The WHA folded after the 1978-79 season and four of its teams were welcomed to the NHL: Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg. By 1980, the NHL now had 21 teams. The merger gave one of the game’s greats, Gordie Howe, one last NHL season in 1979-80. Howe would finish his brilliant career with 801 goals and 1,850 points.
To close the 1970s, the Montreal Canadiens won four straight Stanley Cups. To begin the 1980s, the New York Islanders, led by Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier – won four straight titles. In the 1980s, Edmonton would rise to prominence led by a young Wayne Gretzky. During the ’79-’80 season, Gretzky would total 137 points and win the first of nine Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player. Gretzky would establish numerous NHL records for scoring in his illustrious career.
Between 1984 and 1990, Gretzky and his Oilers would win five Stanley Cup championships, including one run of four straight. Gretzky would eventually be traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. The late 1980s also brought another change to the NHL.
Most foreign-born players – those from such hockey hotbeds as Russia, the old Czechoslovakia, and others – were prevented from leaving their countries to play in the NHL. European players were rare in the 1980s until the defection of the Stastny brothers, Peter and Anton. They represented the first wave of Europeans to enter the NHL. By the late 1980s, teams were drafting players from the old Soviet Union in hopes they would be able to play. Now, European-born players flourish throughout the NHL.
The Modern NHL
The NHL expanded once again in the early 1990s welcoming the San Jose Sharks, the Ottawa Senators, and the Tampa Bay Lightning. New franchises also popped up in Anaheim and Florida. In 1998, the Nashville Predators joined the NHL and in 2000 the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets brought the team total to 30. The 2017-18 season brought the Vegas Golden Knights, who made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, to the NHL and the league has already approved its 32nd franchise to begin play in Seattle in the 2021-22 season.
Current division and conference lineups for the NHL.