“But you let in Eddie Shore!”
“It says no Eddies. We’re allowed to have one.”
One of the common historiographic sayings is that, “History is written by the winners.” Now, this is often used as a bit of an analog to ‘might makes right’, as though it represents conquerors rushing into cities and inscribing their version of events in the blood of slaughtered children. Of course, sometimes it works exactly like that, but other times it’s a little more complicated. Sometimes what is being glossed over in the history the winners write is not the brutality or evil that brought the powerful to power, but rather the random, contingent, frankly silly accidents that underlie the foundations of venerable old institutions. For example, the NHL version of history doesn’t talk a lot about its origin story. This is not, as some say, because that origin is especially sordid or unscrupulous, but because it’s rather embarrassingly childish. Here it is.
The NHL was not the first professional hockey league in North America. That distinction belongs to the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association, which in 1908 kicked out its amateur teams, dropped the term from its name, and for one glorious season functioned as the all-pro Eastern Canada Hockey Association. A year later, in the course of a rather elaborate dispute which is not the subject of the present article, the ECHA disbanded and reformed, some four teams richer, as the National Hockey Association.
For the eight years the NHA survived, the core of the Association was comprised of four teams: the Ottawa Senators, the Montreal Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs (all survivors of the ECHA) and the newly-minted Montreal Canadiens. Now, the thing one must remember about the NHA was that this whole professional hockey thing was more or less completely new at the time. There had been professional players kicking around for years, but throughout the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, the hockey ideal was the amateur sportsman, who played hockey only for the pure-hearted love of the game and earned his wages elsewhere. The pros who existed before the NHA were considered slightly shady characters, often taking their money under the table and frequently getting kicked off teams when the payments came to light. The NHA, along with its western counterpart the PCHA (Pacific Coast Hockey Association), were the first sustained attempts to make and market professional hockey as a spectator sport. It was an experiment. They were, in large part, making it up as they went along.
In any situation where everything is new and parties are competing with each other for tactical and financial edges, there are invariably conflicts. Lots of conflicts. The men of the NHA were bickering with each other constantly over every imaginable issue: salaries, contracts, gate receipts, travel schedules, playoff formats, player rights transfers, penalties, everything. Every facet of the game was up for debate at any time, and the debates were often heated.
What made the NHA work- the only thing that made it work, to the extent that it did- is the same thing that makes every nascent sports league work: the delicate balance between the all-out pursuit of personal advantage and self-interested cooperation. Everyone wants to win, everyone wants to make money, but no one can win or make money without the functional structure needed to put on a season. So there develops a kind of push-and-pull rhythm, each owner pushing for advantages when they think they can get them, but pulling their punches before becoming too destructive. They’ll fight on one issue, then compromise on another. They pick their battles, and although it’s always chaotic, it creates a tenuous balance of selfish behavior that serves to keep the league functional.
The owner/operators of the Senators, Wanderers, Bulldogs, and Canadiens had this balance. They were the best of frenemies, jovially poaching each other players and returning them, refusing to pay fines and then paying them, demanding rule changes and then conceding them. Every year was a new negotiation, but for three years, from 1910 to 1913, they were able to work things out more or less smoothly.
Then, in 1914, they decided to bring in Toronto, and everything went to hell.
It wasn’t a bad idea. It made a lot of sense, in theory. Toronto was Canada’s ‘Second City’ and had just recently constructed its first proper indoor rink. Initially, the NHA members were uniformly and justifiably enthusiastic about opening up this new market. To help mitigate the travel expenses and foment local rivalries, they started up two Toronto franchises at once: the Toronto Hockey Club, run by Frank Robinson, and the Toronto Ontarios, run by a one Eddie Livingstone.
The authors of the primary source I used for this piece, a 2002 tome called Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey, takes such a hagiographic view of old Eddie that they might as well canonize him. It portrays him as a beacon of honesty and moral principle in a dark age, the one man fighting for what was Right against the corruption and venality of the other NHA owners. But despite the authors’ best efforts to make him look like a hero, it becomes pretty obvious that Eddie Livingstone was nothing more or less than a gigantic pain in the ass.
The thing about Eddie is that his commitment to his ‘principles’- which often aligned rather neatly with his own self-interest- was so intense, so noisy, and so vindictive as to make the man impossible to work with. A week after joining the NHA, he tried to steal a player the PCHA already controlled the rights to, thereby jeopardizing the transfer agreement between the two leagues and inspiring the Patrick brothers to threaten an all-out raid on Eastern talent. Mid-season, he abruptly changed the name of his team from the Ontarios to the Shamrocks and correspondingly redesigned their uniforms from orange to green. When the NHA arranged some exhibition games in New York and Boston to test the American hockey market, he demanded that his team be sent despite their last-place record; when the Association refused, he set up his own competing exhibition series in Cleveland. When the Toronto Hockey Club was going to fold and its players redistributed to other teams, Eddie abruptly came out and said that he had sold the Shamrocks to another unnamed buyer and bought the THC, then set about quietly transferring all his talent. When the NHA finally pressed him to finalize the sale, it turned out that there was no buyer for the Shamrocks and Eddie couldn’t afford to either run or staff both teams, and at the last minute the Association was forced to dissolve the team, eat the cost, and shorten the schedule to accommodate a five-team season rather than a six-team one. He fought with the owner of the only arena in Toronto over gate receipts, got his team locked out, and petitioned the NHA to relocate his franchise to Boston, forcing the Association president to intervene in order to keep the game in Toronto. He bribed players from the PCHA to transfer to his team just before the playoffs, despite the fact that he didn’t own their rights. Thinking that the attrition of players due to injury made whole-season records an ‘unfair’ evaluation of a team, he demanded a playoff format wherein the winner of the first half of the season plays the winner of the second half. And when World War I came around and the Canadian military allowed all the hockey players who had joined up to play half a season in the NHA as military team, Eddie was the only owner who insisted that nobody who he owned the rights to could play with the 228th Battalion squad. In short, if there was any way at all a given situation might be twisted so as to piss everyone off, Eddie would find it.
But there is one particular incident that shows, more clearly than any other, what a tremendous, exhausting headache it was to share a hockey league with Eddie Livingstone. In 1916, Eddie’s Shamrocks employed three brothers on the team, the McNamaras of Sault Ste. Marie. Their father fell ill, and the boys, being dutiful sons, put aside hockey and made their way up north to be on hand for the family should the worst happen. Now, despite the fact that Livingstone apparently had multiple weeks notice that his players would not be able to make one of their games, he petitioned the NHA that the game be cancelled and the schedule rewritten accordingly. The NHA refused, as there was no such provision in their rules, and insisted the game go ahead as planned. Eddie whined that he would have only six of his nine players, and it wasn’t fair to expect him to play with a reduced squad. The Association helpfully pointed out that the rules allowed him to find replacements, but Eddie refused, on the grounds that he didn’t have enough time to find anyone good enough. Instead, he went to the papers and called the NHA ‘absurd and inhuman’ for failing to rearrange the schedule to accommodate the McNamara family crisis. The Association held firm and said he can either play the game with the players he can find or it’s a forfeit. Fine, said Eddie, I’ll forfeit, I’ll forfeit this game and ALL MY GAMES FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON. So they held an emergency meeting, and Eddie demanded a make-up game at the end of the season, to count in the standings in addition to the forfeited game, and also that he shouldn’t have to pay the standard $300 forfeiture fee to the opposing team.
It is said if you go to the hotel where this meeting was held, and you go to the exact same room on the exact same hour of the exact same day, you can still here Frank Calder’s exasperated sighs. In the end, the Association ended up paying Eddie $300 just to shut him up.
You see the problem? Eddie does not pick his battles. Eddie does not fight on this hill and cede that one. Eddie fights about everything. With everyone. He fights with his players, he fights with the other owners, he fights with the Association officials, he fights with other leagues, he fights with his arena. This is a man who would start a fight with the Canadian military during WWI. When he doesn’t get his way, he lies; when his lies are found out, the threatens to quit. When they try to accommodate him, he makes insane demands; when they don’t accommodate him, he sues. The problem with Eddie is not really that he’s wrong, it’s that he can’t keep the balance. He’s always pushing and never pulling, and it’s forcing the League from crisis into crisis.
By 1917, a mere three years after they brought Eddie into the NHA, the association is trying everything they can to get him out. They try to bribe him, and he refuses. They try to eject him, and he sues. They bring him back, he demands that they expel the Wanderers and furthermore that each team involved in the attempted expulsion pay him $5000. The NHA, unable to resolve the troubles, is forced to suspend the season.
Now the owners have a problem. According to their own rules, they cannot forcibly eject a member team, but Eddie is so committed to his vendettas that he’s willing to scuttle whole seasons because of it. There’s no legal way to have the NHA without him, and no practical way to have it with him. And so, in November of 1917, the four owners of Senators, Wanderers, Bulldogs and Canadiens meet very quietly in Montreal, in another hotel room, and very quietly decide that they are all going to withdraw their teams from the National Hockey Association, and enter them into an entirely new and separate entity, the National Hockey League.
Or, as I like to think of it, the No-Eddies Hockey League.
Sources: As mentioned in the post, the material in this article was taken largely from Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey, by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.