The author of histories of the Montreal Canadiens and the St. Lawrence Seaway, D’Arcy Jenish clearly enjoys comprehensive retrospectives, and this trait is evident in his new book on the NHL’s first century. If you’re interested in the hard-case behaviour of old-time, cigar-chomping team owners, there’s plenty to like here.
Covering well-documented set pieces such as the 1955 Richard Riot, the end of the Original Six era, and the rise and fall of super-agent/fraudster Alan Eagleson and the NHL Players’ Association, Jenish argues that, for most of its 96 years of operation, the NHL has been “a licence to lose money rather than to print it.” He’s got a point. Long before modern arrivals like the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild began coughing up $80 million expansion fees, early NHL squads were often living day to day, hoping they could make payroll and wouldn’t break too many sticks.
Relying heavily on newspaper accounts, Jenish traces the beginnings of the world’s premier pro hockey league, in 1917, from the remnants of the old National Hockey Association to today’s gleaming, 30-team corporate behemoth. Although few remember, there were actually 10 teams before the much-ballyhooed Original Six era (1942 through ’67), until the likes of the Montreal Maroons, Philadelphia Quakers, and New York Americans folded. Even Hamilton had an NHL franchise from 1920 to ’25.
The NHL has had just five presidents and one commissioner in its almost 100 years of existence. Jenish focuses on the personalities – Frank Calder, Mervyn “Red” Dutton, Clarence Campbell, John Ziegler, and Gary Bettman (the seven-month Gil Stein interregnum does not warrant much more than a footnote) – who shaped the league and tried, not always successfully, to keep hard-headed owners in line.
With previously unpublished transcripts of NHL board meetings from the Original Six era, along with regular-season and playoff gate receipt numbers from 1946 to ’66, this book is a robust primer on the business of hockey, while also adding valuable nuggets of information to existing hockey scholarship.