The National Hockey League is ready to celebrate 100 years.
The very first two NHL games were played on Dec. 19, 1917. The match-ups were the Montreal Canadiens beating the Ottawa Senators, 7-4, and the Montreal Wanderers besting the Toronto Arenas, 10-9. The Quebec Bulldogs were the fifth team in the league.
The NHL came into existence from a National Hockey Association (NHA) owners meeting at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal in 1917. Those owners reached a breaking point with dealing with Eddie Livingstone, who oversaw the Toronto Blueshirts. The group made a decision to create an entirely new league, but one that would not include the Blueshirts.
The groundwork, which eventually led to the formation of NHL, starts in Renfrew, Ontario – a town roughly an hour outside of Ottawa. Renfrew claims to be the birthplace of the NHL and boasts that particular fact with the Birthplace NHA/NHL Museum. This past summer, Renfrew hosted the Stanley Cup for a day.
The O’Brien Family
Michael John O’Brien (who would be named to the Senate in 1918) became involved in Renfrew hockey in 1909. O’Brien financed several teams, which were run by his son, J. Ambrose O’Brien. Michael was a railway builder, industrialist, and philanthropist says the Marmora Historical Foundation. By 1916, the man had built up a wealth worth $1.6 million.
The O’Briens were determined for Renfrew to contend for the Stanley Cup because teams could issue challenges to the cup champions.
Their team, the Renfrew Creamery Kings, went looking for hockey stars and Michael was willing to pay high salaries for them to play, so the team gained the nickname the Renfrew Millionaires.
Renfrew submitted an application to the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association – which became the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) – and if they were accepted, the team would be able to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Ultimately, though, the association rejected them.
Ambrose became frustrated with the progress and set out to organize the NHA.
“My application was laughed at in Room 135 of the Windsor Hotel where the new CHA was meeting,” said Ambrose. “Out in the hall, I ran into general manager J. Gardner of the Montreal Wanderers who said, ‘Why don’t we form a new league – you own Cobalt and Haileybury and represent Renfrew, while I have the Wanderers.’”
These recollections are said to be featured in the books Les Canadiens: The Story of the Montreal Canadiens (or alternative title Fire-Wagon Hockey) by author Andy O’Brien.
“Why don’t you get together a French team here in Montreal to balance off the Wanderers with a French-English rivalry?” said Gardner.
The team was known as Les Canadiens.
“My total investment in forming the great Canadiens club was $5,000. I paid nothing for the franchise,” said Ambrose. “That amount was for expenses including guaranteeing of player salaries. The understanding was that the Canadiens’ franchise would be turned over to French sportsmen in Montreal as soon as practicable.”
The Renfrew Creamery Kings, the Cobalt Silver Kings, the Haileybury Comets and the Montreal Wanderers, who ended up sharing the Jubilee Arena with the Canadiens, were the teams that formed the NHA. The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Shamrocks joined the league at a later date.
The Canadiens first game came on Jan. 5, 1910, against the Silver Kings from Cobalt. Montreal won the game in overtime with a final score, 7-6.
Unfortunately for Michael and Ambrose, their dream of Renfrew winning the Stanley Cup would not happen. The Montreal Wanderers were the champions in 1910.
With the high costs of running the numerous teams and other business pursuits, the O’Brien family and Renfrew would leave the NHA. Ambrose only looked after the Canadiens for the 1909-10 season and sold the team to George “Kendall” Kennedy. The Canadiens were the only team to make the move to the NHL.
The Canadiens honoured Ambrose in 2006, during the launch of Bell Centre’s Builder’s Row.
“The O’Brien Trophy was donated to the National Hockey Association by its namesake Senator J. O’Brien in recognition of his son J. Ambrose O’Brien, in 1910,” says the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The NHL took over the trophy in 1917 and awarded it to the league champions. When the Prince of Wales Trophy came into the picture, the purpose of the O’Brien Trophy shifted in 1928 and was presented to the team with the most points.
Later on, the O’Brien Trophy was given to the losing Stanley Cup finalist, but it was not formally awarded between 1939 and 1943. The NHL finally decided to retire the trophy at the end of the 1949-50 season.
The Hockey Hall of Fame took notice of the influence of J. Ambrose O’Brien and he was elected in 1962. He is known as a builder of the game and without the creation of the NHA, combined with owners frustration, well, who knows if the NHL would have become the NHL.