The NHL has survived for 95 years. That is, if I may say so, a very long time for a professional sports league to survive. So long, in fact, that we here in North America are apt to occasionally confuse the NHL with hockey itself. It’s been so dominant for so long that its product often seems like the only meaningful version of the game on the landscape. It seems terribly, inevitably, depressingly permanent.
But the NHL does not represent the whole of hockey in North America. Not now, and not in the past either. Other leagues have been, and are still. Many of these alternative leagues have been somehow less than the NHL- minor leagues, junior leagues- but others have occasionally challenged the NHL and its direct forbears for control of elite level men’s hockey. And, in fact, often these other Leagues have done more to push the development of hockey than the NHL ever would. Anything so big, so wealthy, and so solid tends towards the conservative. Sometimes it needs to be threatened from outside in order to change.
In this time of instability, when the NHL cannot seem to make peace with its players or among its owners, when it feels so secure in its dominance that it can threaten not to play the game at all and still be assured of keeping it’s audience, I thought it might be nice for us all to spend some time contemplating some of these other leagues. We don’t have one now, and we might never again, but, you know, it would be a grand thing to try. Even if it failed, even if the NHL crushed it like a bug after two seasons under its immense cloven hooves, it would still, just for a minute, scare them. Nothing forces a business to get its shit together like the spectre of a little competition.
In the early years of hockey, there were a number of alternate leagues that competed with the NHL, the NHA, and its earlier forbears. One of the most awesome of these was the IHL.
I fucking love the IHL. If hockey in North America can largely be understood as the competition of two different traditions, the staid and the wild, the IHL was the first wild hockey league. It was a league with both its middle fingers raised at the hockey establishment of its day, a place for the rebels and outcasts of the game. In a time when hockey was overwhelmingly conservative and conventional, the IHL was experimental and entrepreneurial. It was populist. It was fun.
Once upon a time, say, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Canadian organized hockey was an extremely stuffy, upper class pursuit. We know that there were various kinds of feral shinny being played on ponds and rivers across the land, but as far the formal game goes- that is, hockey with rules and scores and spectators- it was played almost exclusively by rich Anglophile dudes in rich Anglophile gentlemen’s sporting clubs. These clubs were extremely elitist and extremely idealistic, and one of their most dearly held ideals was that of the amateur sportsman.
You know that famous saying about how it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game? That’s the essence of the amateur sporting ideal. Sports, in this view, should be undertaken purely for reasons of physical and mental health, in a generous spirit of friendship and fair play. Oh, sure, there might be a little bit of local rivalry involved, maybe a bit of manly competition, but nothing too intense, nothing rude or unseemly. The 19th century code of amateurism frowned upon intense antagonism and condemned any sort of rough play, but the one thing it absolutely forbade was money. Money- specifically money paid to players for playing- was seen as a form of unspeakable corruption that would destroy everything that was honest and good in the game.
Around this time, hockey was starting to become a spectator sport in Canada. The best senior men’s teams were charging for admission to their games. New rinks were being built with comfortable seating areas and concession stands. It was becoming evident that there was profit to be made in this sport, quite possibly a lot of profit. Accordingly, some senior men’s hockey teams cut themselves free of their clubs- which also ran hockey teams for younger and lower level players, as well as teams in other sports- so as to be able to keep the profits of their games to themselves. They formed a league, the CAHL, composed exclusively of top-tier hockey. This League is the direct ancestor of the NHL.
However, at this point, the teams were still officially amateur. The profits from the games went to the rink and the club, but the individual players were not paid. Of course, as more money came into the game, the competition for the best players got more intense, so under-the-table payments and other incitements- i.e. getting your team’s wealthy fans to give expensive gifts or jobs to good players- became common. This turned ‘amateur’ hockey into a complicated game of cat-and-mouse, with teams attempting to find ever more clandestine ways to pay players, and their opponents trying to discover those ways in order to get said players banned from the League for turning pro.
The code of amateurism eventually developed into a set of oppressively draconian rules. One 1902 definition defined an amateur as:
“a person who has not competed in any competition for a staked bet, monies, private or public or gate receipts, or competed with or against a professional for a prize; who has never taught or assisted in the pursuit of any athletic exercise as sport as a means of livelihood; who has never, directly or indirectly, received any bonus or a payment in lieu of loss of time while playing a a member of any club, or any money consideration for any services as an athlete except his actual travelling and hotel expenses, or who has never entered into any competition under a name other than his own, or who has never been guilty of selling or pledging his prizes.” (Wong, Lords of the Rinks, p. 22)
A violation of any of these rules could result in a loss of amateur status, which meant effectively losing one’s ability to play competitive hockey in Canada. It wasn’t just getting paid yourself. If you played against a guy who was getting paid, you’re no longer amateur. If you coached your daughter’s Sunday croquet society and got paid, you could no longer play for your men’s hockey team. If you missed work and your club covered your lost wages, you’re out. If you win a really nice silver punch bowl and then later decide to pawn it, you’re banned.
The goal of these strict rules was to keep any kind of professionalism from coming into the game, but the practical consequences were twofold: one, it made it much more difficult for working-class players to advance in hockey, and two, it meant guys were getting kicked out over relatively trivial violations. And, in the hands of more unscrupulous league officials, the threat of being ‘found out’ as a professional because a coercive tool used to force players to play for certain teams. The Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) was famously rigid in it’s application of the rules, and its officials were famous for using them like baseball bats with which to beat players into doing their will.
Meanwhile, down in the northern parts of the United States, hockey was growing in popularity. American cities were starting to build rinks and experiment with small regional leagues. Now, the Americans had one major disadvantage vis-a-vis the Canadian leagues: they didn’t have very good players, as the States lacked the on-the-ground culture of pond shinny that’s necessary to develop elite adult male hockeyists. However, they also had one major advantage: they didn’t give a crap about British aristocratic ideals of amateur sportsmanship.
You can see where this is going, right?
It starts with a dentist.
In 1898, John Gibson- then only 18 years old- played on a men’s amateur team from Berlin (now Kitchener) Ontario who defeated their arch-rivals from Waterloo 3-0 in a challenge match. The mayor of Berlin presented each player on the team with a single gold piece, as a prize. The OHA then banned the entire team from hockey for one year, as a punishment. Gibson, now tagged with the stigma of having gone pro, left for Michigan, where he went to dental school and plotted revenge on the Ontario amateur hockey establishment.
In 1901, Gibson moved to the copper mining town of Houghton, Michigan. Houghton was a small town and the Upper Penninsula was an isolated area, but the mining boom had made it a fairly wealthy isolated area and the climate was perfectly suited for hockey. A year after arriving in town, Gibson organized the region’s first hockey club, and, in 1904, he expanded to create the first professional hockey league in North America. Because it was also the first league to have teams on both sides of the border, they called it the International Hockey League.
Three teams were in the UP: Houghton, Calumet, and the American Soo. The Canadian Soo, having been banned from the OHA for playing an exhibition match against Gibson’s club, joined as well, but the big triumph for the IHL was the fifth and most exotic team: the Pittsburgh Pro Hockey Club. Hockey was hugely popular in Western Pennsylvania and the region had experimented with pro leagues before, but had never been able to attract top-tier talent out of Canada. The Duquesne Gardens, the Pros home ice, was one of only two artificial ice surfaces on the continent and could hold more than 5000 spectators. Because the IHL had a revenue sharing plan that granted the visiting team 40% of gate receipts for every game, Pittsburgh’s large, luxe rink more than justified the extra travel costs necessary to get there. It was a brilliant solution for both sides: Pittsburgh finally got the quality of hockey it had always wanted to see, the Michigan teams got the extra revenue needed to keep the enterprise afloat.
Curiously, none of the owners of the IHL teams seem to have been interested in anything more than survival. Although they paid their players handsomely by the standard of the day, the owners and managers never seem to have viewed the League as a for-profit enterprise. With the exception of the Canadian Soo, all the teams managed to make some money in each year of their existence, but the profits were never large. The owners made their money elsewhere, in mining, logging, or industry, and seem to have viewed their teams as a matter of civic pride, a way of enriching the community through entertainment and achievements. Ironically, while the ostensibly ‘amateur’ Canadian clubs often explicitly sought to be money-making ventures, the IHL, despite being a professional league, was never profit-driven.
At first, it succeeded brilliantly. Gibson, himself having been wronged by the amateur establishment, had a gift for picking up athletes on the fringes of the Canadian game, guys who were talented but unlikely to succeed under the amateur ethic. These came in four varieties: players who, like Gibson, had been kicked out amateur hockey (Cyclone Taylor and Hod Stuart), French-Canadian players who were excluded from the gentlemen’s club ethos by class and cultural bias (Didier Pitre and Jean Baptiste Laviolette), young players from poor backgrounds who saw professional hockey as the best way out of poverty (Newsy Lalonde), and contrary-ass motherfuckers (Joe Hall). The resulting mix of ages, languages, and regional backgrounds found on IHL teams may seem unremarkable by modern standards, but in the time before professionalization, when most players played all their careers for the team closest to their hometown, it was unprecedented.
Hockey in the IHL was different from the elite Canadian game. The regional difference was also a cultural difference. Most high-level hockey in Canada was concentrated in the urban centers of Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec City. The players were upper class and so were the spectators- hockey was the sort of game that the Governor General’s sons would play. Even players who were not of the social elite were expected to conduct themselves in accordance with those values. But in the towns of the Upper Penninsula, IHL games were played for an audience of miners. The game on the ice was distinctly rougher- Hod Stuart would eventually quit the League over what he saw as an unnecessary level of violence- and the lifestyle off the ice was rougher too. Wealthy stars in small towns, the young players could do as they wished, and, like wealthy young men of any generation, what they wished was mostly to get roaring drunk and wreak havoc. Joe Hall, who would later earn the simple, expressive nickname ‘Bad’, was particularly wild. On one occasion in Pittsburgh he made the papers by drunkenly commandeering a horse-drawn carriage and nearly crashing himself, Stuart, Taylor, and goaltender Riley Hern directly into their hotel.
While the young pros were living the high life in the Michigan wilderness, they were also causing a crisis in Canadian amateur hockey. By then, most of the ‘amateur’ clubs were already finding ways of secretly compensating their players and everybody knew it, but the hefty punishments for being outed as a professional meant that many players lived in constant anxiety about having their payments proven. The Quebec-based sports associations had been pushing for a relaxation of the amateur code, but the Ontarians, fearful of losing players to the much wealthier clubs to the East, demanded that national bodies continue to adhere to the strictest standards. However, after the IHL began operations, Canadians began to express open frustration with the facade of amateur hockey. Journalists were increasingly willing to question what was so wrong with the idea of getting paid to play such an obviously profitable game, and fans supported them with letters lamenting the loss of talent to the IHL and decrying the hypocrisy of the false amateurs in the elite Montreal clubs. Eventually, even some officials in the amateur bodies began to suggest that there was nothing really morally wrong with professionalism.
But the simple fact was the Canadian clubs were at a disadvantage. When an IHL team wanted a player, they could bid for his services openly, whereas his local club would be forced to try to hide their offer. It made the bidding dangerous for the club- rivals would obviously be watching closely for obvious violations of the amateur code- and the outcome uncertain. Competition among clubs had become too intense and gate receipts too high for the elite to risk losing talent to this upstart league. Two years after the foundation of the IHL, in 1906, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association ditched Ontario and reformed itself into the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association, including in its bylaws a provision that teams could employ both amateur and professional players as they saw fit.
By 1908, all the players in the Association were professionals.
Once the major teams in Eastern Canada started paying players openly, the IHL was doomed. The city clubs were much wealthier, and many of the Canadian players liked the idea of going home. A mass exodus ensued. Denuded of talent and facing a minor depression in copper prices, the IHL folded. But it left it’s stamp on the NHA, and eventually the NHL, in other ways. Because they had no prior club affiliation and it was difficult to break into the prestigious rosters of the Wanderers and Senators, many of the ex-IHL boys ended up playing on newly-formed franchises, including, notably, the early Montreal Canadiens.
The IHL was a small league in a remote area that survived for only three seasons, but nevertheless, it completely revolutionized North American ice hockey. It introduced players to the pleasures of open, unabashed professionalism. It defanged the OHA’s threats by providing an alternative source of high-level hockey for banned players. It pressed the contradictions between the avowed ideals of Canadian amateur hockey and the actual practices of ‘amateur’ clubs. It opened up the game to players who could never have flourished under the aristocratic sensibilities of gentlemen’s hockey. And it made space for a version of the game that was a little bit wilder, a little bit rougher, and a little bit more populist.
Information for this article was taken from Lords of the Rinks by John Chi-Kit Wong, Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley, and this excellent article on the IHL by Daniel S. Mason.