The History of the NHL: Pre-NHL Days (1870s-1916)


Hockey is one of the most popular sports in North America today, especially in Canada. Have you ever wondered how the main body of professional hockey, the National Hockey League, got started? If you have, then you’ll want to stick around for this. I will give you a series of articles telling the rich history of the NHL. From using a ball to the use of pucks, from an offensive style of hockey to the game of skill and speed we see today, this is the history of the National Hockey League.

Origins of the Game

I guess that if we’re going to talk about the history of a sport or league, we might as well cover the game. The game originated in Nova Scotia sometime in the 1870s. From there, the game spread to Montreal and into Kingston, Ontario, where it thrived. It was based off of a mix of lacrosse, hurley, and shinty . The first documented game took place in Montreal on March 3, 1875. The game, or games as it was a three game series, featured nine players a side and the players were trying to get a flat, wooden puck between two flag poles that acted as goal posts. There were no nets, so players could score from either side of the goal line. There was no forward passing here. Players had to pass backwards or laterally. Uniforms consisted of turtleneck sweaters, knitted wool hats, and thin shin guards. Shots were rarely lifted off the ice back then, so goalies had to wear larger shin pads. The first indoor hockey game took place between two team from Montreal, the AAA and the Victorias, at the Victoria Rink in 1891. There were no boards, just a slight curb around around the rink to keep the puck in play.

First indoor hockey game in 1891 (Credit: McCord Museum)

Formation of Amateur and Pro Teams

All across Canada and even into Europe, men’s and women’s teams and leagues were sprouting everywhere. Most of these were amateur teams, but hockey back then was still an evergrowing sport. In 1899, a team of Russians faced a team from England from St. Petersburg, and England’s first hockey game took place in 1895. 10 years earlier, Lord Stanley’s daughter, Isobel, played for a Government team against the Rideau ladies team. By the 1900s, women’s teams had been formed as far west as Vancouver. Competition for the Stanley Cup began in 1893, when the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada introduced it. We’ll get into that a bit later.


The first rule regarding the number of players a team could have on the ice was instated some time in the 1880s, when the Montreal Winter Carnival restricted teams to seven players a side. As aforementioned, there was no forward passing, following the rules of lacrosse. As I will go on to mention, goalies could not lay on the ice to make saves.

Formation of Pro Leagues

Numerous amateur leagues had been formed by the time that the International Pro Hockey League (1903) and Ontario Professional Hockey League (1908) were formed. However, two pro leagues had been regarded as the top leagues, the National Hockey Association and Pacific Coast Hockey Association. In 1914, the two leagues had exclusive possession over the Cup. In 1910, the Canadian Hockey Association had dissolved and became the NHA. The PCHA was founded in 1911 by two brothers who would become innovators of the game, Frank and Lester Patrick. The Patrick’s were the first to record assists on goals, paint the blue lines, allow goalies to lie down to save a shot (something the NHA did not allow) and, most importantly in terms of the growth of the game, they founded American teams. They also invented a version of the penalty shot and helped fans identify players better by putting numbers on the back of the players’ jerseys. Those changes would soon, indirectly at the time, change the way the game was played.

Stanley Cup Competition

In 1914, the NHA’s Toronto and the PCHA’s Victoria faced off in the first Stanley Cup series. Toronto won the cup, confirming most fans’ belief that the NHA was more superior. However, the Vancouver Millionaires would stun the hockey world in 1915, beating Ottawa in two games to claim the first Cup for the PCHA. The following year, the Montreal Canadiens won it’s first Stanley Cup.

Stars of the Game

Back then, the game was more of an offensive show than it was a defensive battle. Players like Newsy Lalonde, Frank Nighbor, Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, and Hobey Baker were the major stars of the era. However, there was one mega star, and his name was, not John Cena, but Joe Malone. Malone debuted for the Quebec Bulldogs in 1908 and thrived there. However, he really exploded when the NHL formed in 1917. We’ll talk about that in the next article. In 1916, he scored 41 goals in Quebec’s 19 games, his only recorded Pre-NHL season.

And there you have it. The history before the history of the NHL. In the next article, we’ll cover 1917-1930. Until then, shares this with your friends and give me feedback about what you did or didn’t like.

Information from the book The Official Illustrated NHL History by Arthur Pincus contributed to this article

Photo Credit: legendsofhockey.net

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