OTTAWA, Ontario — It was a night of sticky ice, last-minute player signings and a small crowd.
Such were the glitches when the NHL it made its debut 100 years ago. Now, the world’s premier hockey league celebrates its centennial with an outdoor game Saturday night between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
The days of multimillion-dollar contracts, instant replays and Florida were a long way off when the four-team NHL’s first games took place on Dec. 19, 1917, while a gruesome war raged in Europe.
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 color 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 11th 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 that 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 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 that the game had the look of an opener, finding the hockey “pretty rough in spots.” The Torontos were said to have shown “plenty of speed and dash on the attack, but were weak on the defence.”
Their goaltending also failed to impress, with starter Sammy Hebert chased from the net in favor of Art Brooks.
“Sammy Hebert couldn’t stop a flock of balloons,” a fan told the Star.
One reporter considered the Wanderers lucky to win, with Montreal hanging on for a 10-9 victory.
No fewer than 20 minor penalties and two majors were handed out, the Ottawa Journal reported, saying the “game was not rough, but the players were irritable.”
Wanderers center Harry Hyland, who scored five goals, sustained the only injury. 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 devious fans by providing referees with special whistles, preventing people in the crowd from stopping play by blowing the same kind used by officials.
“They are really wonders in their way,” the Star noted, saying “their sound resembles something between the roaring of an infuriated bull and the summer night lullaby of the latter’s amphibious namesake, the bullfrog.”