The National Hockey League has existed for over 100 years. When it started in 1917, the NHL was a tiny fraction of what it has become today. The beginning founders and players probably would have never guessed what the sport would blossom into down the road.
Now, the NHL is much larger than it used to be, with games played throughout the United States and Canada. It is full of giant stadiums, die-hard fans, and long-established clubs. The sport’s start pales in comparison to what it has become today.
Those looking to find out who were the original NHL teams might hear conflicting information. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Original Six, but in reality, the NHL started with just four teams. Why is there confusion?
This post answers that question, plus everything you need to know about the original NHL teams. The four-team beginning might have been one chapter in this ongoing tale of athletic achievement, but it’s not the only important fact from long ago.
- The Four-Team Beginning of the NHL
- Who Were the Original NHL Teams?
- Circumstances Surrounding the NHL’s Beginnings
- The Original Six
- The Expansion Era
- Who Were the Original NHL Teams? A Wrap-Up
The Four-Team Beginning of the NHL
In the early 20th century, hockey began to gain traction as a popular sport in the United States and Canada. The NHL was not the first major league on the scene.
The National Hockey Association (NHA) started in 1909 and saw games played in Ontario and Quebec, Canada, for nearly a decade before the NHL came to be. The Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which started in 1911, was also around before the NHL.
And then, in 1917, the National Hockey League (NHL) started. The NHL started as an attempt to force out one of the NHA team owners, Eddie Livingstone. He had been in disagreements with the league and other owners, so they formed the NHL as a way to lock his teams out from the competition.
Although it started as a temporary league, the NHL continued to play and eventually became the top-tier league for hockey in North America. It started as a purely Canadian endeavor. The “National” in NHL refers to Canada.
Who Were the Original NHL Teams?
Four teams started the 1917 inaugural season of the NHL, all based out of Canada. They included the Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, and the Ottawa Senators.
Bad luck struck one of the NHL teams that season as the stadium for the Montreal Wanderers and Montreal Canadians burned down. The Canadiens found a new home, but the Wanderers had nowhere to base their operations and couldn’t find a new venue so they had to cease operations.
Thus, a three-team NHL finished out the first year of its existence. While the Montreal Arena caused one team to shut down, the aptly-named Toronto Arenas won the first NHL championship.
They went on to play for the Stanley Cup against the PCHA champions. Usually a competition against the NHA and PCHA, the NHL had now taken the NHA’s spot in the Stanley Cup battle.
The Arenas won the Stanley Cup, although some critics called out their home-ice advantage, which didn’t provide a level playing field.
Nonetheless, if you wanted to know who were the original NHL teams, the four teams were it!
The Montreal Wanderers
Established in 1903, the Montreal Wanderers were no stranger to high-competition hockey when the NHL started in 1917. They had played in two different amateur leagues before joining the NHA in 1910.
Unfortunately, the NHL was at the end of the team’s road when the Montreal Arena burned down in 1917. While the NHL might have been a stroke of good luck for many, it was not the case for the Wanderers.
The Montreal Canadiens
On the other side of the spectrum, the Montreal Canadians have done well since the founding of the NHL. While they started in 1909 with the NHA, their transition to the NHL in 1917 was seamless. They are now the only original-named NHL team to still exist.
The Montreal Canadians have been playing under the same name in the NHL for every year of their existence. They are the only team with that bragging right. They have won the Stanley Cup championship title 24 times since then, with their last title in the 1992 to 1993 season.
The Toronto Arenas
The Toronto Arenas have also done well since the founding of the NHL. Their start coincided with the founding of the NHL in 1917, and they won the first NHL championship.
This team has gone through two different name changes. In 1919 they changed to the Toronto St. Patricks, and in 1927, they became the current Toronto Maple Leafs.
They hold a close second to the team with the longest-running streak in the NHL. However, that depends on whether you count their name changes or not.
The Ottawa Senators
The fourth team in the answer to “Who were the original NHL teams?” is the Ottawa Senators. Their history goes back to 1883, longer than any of the other three NHL teams.
They won four Stanley Cup titles, but only four of those came after the NHL was established. In 1934, the Senators split up. One team became the St. Louis Eagles for one year, and the other joined amateur leagues and played for two decades before disbanding.
Circumstances Surrounding the NHL’s Beginnings
The beginning of the NHL coincided with quite a few historical events. World War I was still going on during the first years, which made for a rough start. Not only was attention diverted, but many talented players would go on to risk their lives in battle instead of playing hockey.
On top of that, the division of leagues across Canada and the United States made for a rough start. Some teams argued that the NHL was poaching players from established leagues, while others pointed to the war for difficulties in staffing a team.
Regardless, the second-year NHL went forward, and the Montreal Canadians took the NHL championship. The Stanley Cup, however, was not played that year. This was due to the Spanish Flu epidemic.
As the epidemic passed, the 1920s went on and the NHL began expanding. Boston’s team was the first team from the United States to join the NHL in 1924, followed by the New York Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925. Then, the New York Rangers joined in 1926.
The sport was growing across both borders between Canada and the United States. The NHL was even able to buy out the assets from the struggling Western Canada Hockey League in 1926.
But then, other historical events would disrupt not only the NHL but practically every aspect of life for people across the globe. It started with the Great Depression, which most agree lasted from around 1929 to 1939, followed by World War II, lasting from 1939 to 1945.
The NHL continued forward. Some teams disbanded, including the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1931, which had been renamed the Pittsburgh Quakers the previous year. In 1942, the New York Americans couldn’t find enough players and ceased operations.
Then the next round of the NHL’s history came to fruition, one that some say could be considered the real start of the NHL.
The Original Six
The 1942 to 1943 season consisted of just six NHL teams. These were the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and Chicago Black Hawks. Because they were six teams, people still call them the Original Six.
The Original Six era is an especially important one for the founding of the NHL because it led to an unparalleled level of stability for not just the NHL but practically any major hockey league on the continent.
One step forward happened in 1947 when the NHL petitioned the Stanley Cup administrators to take control of the league. No longer would NHL teams have to compete against other leagues. If you won in the NHL, you got to fight and win the Stanley Cup.
But that isn’t the only thing that the Original Six did. Another incredible accomplishment was that they were the only teams to play in the NHL for 25 years straight. For two and a half decades, six teams battled one another for the top title.
The Original Six’s level of consistency allowed the league to grow tremendously. They weren’t adding teams, but the level of play and talent was able to skyrocket thanks to the well-established clubs who could afford to pay top talent without fail.
The Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins were founded in 1924 by grocery-store owner Charles Adams, well before the Original Six came to be. They are still an active team in the NHL and have a deep history with the league.
The Bruins have won the Stanley Cup championship six times since their founding, with the most recent win during the 2010-2011 season.
The Chicago Blackhawks
Businessman Frederic McLaughlin founded the Chicago Black Hawks in 1926. They played for six decades before undergoing a slight name change to the Blackhawks (one word) in 1986.
The Blackhawks have won six Stanley Cup championships. Their most recent win was during the 2014-2015 season when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning for the title.
The Detroit Red Wings
Also starting in 1926 were the Detroit Cougars. They played four years under that name, then changed to the Detroit Falcons from 1930 to 1932, and eventually became the Detroit Red Wings we know as the NHL team today.
The Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cup championships, many during Gordie Howe’s era in the 1950s and early 1960s. They then had a rough streak from the late 60s to early 80s, before rebounding with all-star Steve Yzerman in the mid-1980s.
They won back-to-back championships in the mid-1990s and most recently took home the Stanley Cup in the 2007-2008 season.
The Montreal Canadiens
As mentioned in the “Who were the original NHL teams?” section above, the Canadiens were founded in 1909, played in the NHL with the original four teams, and are still active in today’s NHL, having won 24 titles.
The New York Rangers
The New York Rangers started in 1926, founded by boxing promoter Tex Rickard. While they have a long history in the NHL, they have only won the Stanley Cup title four times throughout their history.
The most recent time the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup was in the 1993 to 1994 season. That roster was packed with talent, including Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, and Mike Richter.
The Toronto Maple Leafs
The last of the Original Six NHL teams are the Toronto Maple Leafs. As a reminder from the section above, they were also part of the true original NHL lineup in 1917, but under a different name, the Toronto Arenas.
The Expansion Era
The Original Six teams played from 1942 to 1967 without interruption. The NHL didn’t add teams, and none dropped out of the league. That was about to change when the 1967 to 1968 season came around.
With the snap of a finger, the NHL doubled the number of teams in the league. The 1967 season started with twelve teams instead of the Original Six.
The league added the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, California Seals, and St. Louis Blues. The majority of these teams are still around today.
As years went by, the NHL continued to add teams. The most recent addition was the Seattle Kraken which joined the league as an expansion team in 2021, to make the current thirty-two team NHL.
Who Were the Original NHL Teams? A Wrap-Up
There might be some debate on what is the more important era. But there is no doubt the four teams from the start of the NHL in 1917 are the first teams in the league. They are the Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, and the Ottawa Senators.
But other people claim that the Original Six is the more important stage of the NHL. These six teams played without interruption for 25 years, from 1942 to 1967. The Original Six included the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Today’s thirty-two-team lineup might look different than the four or six-team start of the NHL, but it’s still the same league and there is still only one goal—winning the Stanley Cup!
James is a big time NBA Golden State follower, who makes sure to catch games when he's in the area. He likes to follow International Soccer, with an interest in small town soccer club, Blackburn Rovers located in the North on the UK.