Lester Patrick is an important guy in the history of the NHL. As a young man, he was one of the first professional players to openly defy the amateur code. He sold his services at a premium to teams from Brandon to Montreal, and is said to have been the first defenseman ever to score a goal. As an old man, he was the first manager and coach of the New York Rangers, building the American expansion team from a boxing promoter’s plaything in 1925 to a Cup-winning team by 1927. If you’re going to make a list of guys who invented modern hockey, Lester Patrick is like top three. Maybe, by some standards, top one.
But although Patrick was born in Montreal and played several years in the NHA, although he would go down in history as the architect of a venerable Original Six team, his greatest contributions to the game weren’t made within the confines of the NHL. Unlike other early NHL figures, your Conn Smythes and Art Rosses, Patrick wasn’t just a manager and a coach. He didn’t just shape the tactics of the game. He shaped the structure of it, developing many of the rules we now take for granted as essential to hockey. Lester Patrick honestly, literally, directly, for reals, no hyperbole, revolutionized hockey. But in order to do it, he had to found a rebel league.
On the surface, it seems a little odd that Lester Patrick and his brother Frank would grow up to be the founders of hockey in British Columbia. Not only were the Patricks not Westerners, they were completely raised within the aristocratic ideals of the Eastern hockey establishment. Born to a wealthy family in the Westmount neighborhood of Montreal, they grew up playing the game under the gentlemanly ethics of amateur sportsmen. Both brothers first had their gifts noticed while playing the college game at McGill. Many of the early hockey innovators became so out of necessity, because they came from the margins of Canadian society at the time, places poor or rural, religiously or culturally excluded from the power centers of the game. The Patricks, though, were born in the corridors of power. They just decided to use it more creatively than anyone else.
Frank did pretty well in university and pretty well in business, a big-ideas guy with a nose for opportunity, but Lester’s only genius was hockey. As the cliché goes, he was a cerebral defenseman, one of those players who makes his mark not with great strength or great speed by with sharp eyes and quick thinking. Frank had a gift for reading the cultural and financial trajectory of hockey, Lester for observing the tactics and structure of the game, and their dad, Joe, was absolutely filthy rich.
In 1910, this was a fortunate combination of gifts. The IHL had folded in 1907, releasing a flood of professional players onto the market to tear down the regionalism of the amateur circuit. Hockey players were becoming mercenaries who would follow the money. In 1909, the Montreal Wanderers club, beset by debts, became the first hockey club to be sold to a private individual owner, and a year later, the NHA would be founded with two franchises entirely created by the wealthy O’Brien family. Hockey, which had traditionally been controlled by non-professional, member-owned clubs was very rapidly transforming into an entertainment business run by plutocrats. When Ambrose O’Brien started offering massive salaries to lure star players to his Refrew Creamery Kings, one of the guys he pursued was Lester Patrick. Lester insisted his brother come to, and the pair played a season in Renfrew observing the workings of hockey-as-a-business.
The following year, Joe Patrick sold his lumber concern in BC for $440,000 and was looking for a new enterprise in which to invest his money. His sons persuaded him that that enterprise should be ice hockey. In Vancouver.
At the time, the notion of ice hockey in Vancouver was a little bit insane. Vancouver, then as now, didn’t have natural ice, and as such it had no local tradition of hockey. Although artificial ice-making technology had existed for dozens of years, it was expensive and tricky to operate in a mild climate, and there were no more than five artificial rinks on the continent. And although many people in Vancouver had heard of the game and some had played it before emigrating West, there were almost no experienced local players and almost no knowledgeable local fan base. Founding a professional hockey league on the Pacific coast was an immense gamble, the kind of thing you’d have to be young and arrogant and rich as fuck to even contemplate doing.
Frank Patrick was 26 when he announced the foundation of the PCHA in 1911, with himself as president of the Association and general manager of the Vancouver team. Lester, who would design most of the league’s rules and manage the Victoria team, was 28. To play their games, they would build two immense arenas, the larger of which would be the biggest hockey rink on the planet, holding the most spectators (10,500), featuring the broadest ice surface (90 x 220), and kept cool by the largest ice-making plant yet built. It sounds like a child’s dream, as if they’d sketched it out in the margins of their notebooks during a particularly dull 4th-grade long division class. But it worked.
Ironically, the success of the PCHA was built on exactly the things that made it seem like a terrible idea. The first of these was its centralization. Most hockey leagues before and since have been loose confederations of independently powerful clubs or franchises. The PCHA, however, was created entirely by the Patricks and run directly out of the central office. There was no messy process of getting all of the three or four franchises’ owners to agree about rule changes or scheduling or revenue sharing. All those decisions were made in the head office and imposed, non-negotiably, on the teams. Essentially, the entire Association was one large business.
In a place with a deep established hockey tradition, such a league might have had a lot of trouble connecting with the fan base. Fans would already have established ideas about the game and set local loyalties, and PCHA-style franchises would have seemed artificial and even slightly dishonest (how can you have real competition when you’re all working for the same boss?). But in BC, there were no established amateur clubs to challenge for fan loyalty, and there were no existing fan bases to complain about deviations from their expected conventions of play. The lack of pre-existing knowledge about and stakeholders in hockey made it possible for the Patricks to redraw the game on a mostly blank slate.
The first step was building the rinks. The second step was getting the players, and for this, they looked to the East. Over time PCHA would draw in Western players from Alberta and Saskatchewan to fill out their rosters, but in the beginning Lester realized that in order to attract fans he had to attract some of the star players they had already heard of. He began offering major contracts to the star players of the NHA teams. With high salaries, an exciting style of play, and a comparative lack of bullshit, the Coast Association was immediately attractive to some East Coast players, and when Cyclone Taylor came to Vancouver a year after the foundation of the league, it gave the Patrick brothers’ enterprise a whole new level of credibility. For the dozen years of its existence, the PCHA never entered into a stable transfer agreement with the NHL, and was forever seducing discontented players away from their Eastern teams, sometimes in the middle of the season. Even for players who never defected, the plausible threat of going west was the kind of check on owner greed that the modern NHLPA wishes it had.
But the final triumph, and the thing that really proved the PCHA’s legitimacy, was the only thing that’s ever been able to legitimize hockey in North America: the Stanley Cup. Back in the 1910s, the Cup didn’t belong to any one league. Although it defaulted to the champion of the NHA, it was officially kept in the custody of trustees who had the power to vet challenges from all over Canada- hence the famous Dawson City challenge of 1904 and the Kenora challenge of 1907. For the PCHA to get the right to play for Stanley, they had to demonstrate to the trustees that their League was of sufficient quality to win it. They did this by challenging the the 1913 Stanley Cup winners, the Quebec Bulldogs, to come west for an exhibition series against the PCHA champions. The Victoria Aristocrats won the three game series 2-1, outscoring the Bulldogs by 16-12. The trustees were impressed, and for the next eleven years, the Stanley Cup would be awarded not to the NHA/NHL champion, but to the winner of a playoff series between the NHA/NHL and the PCHA. In 1915, the Vancouver Millionaires became the first team west of Winnipeg to win the Stanley Cup. Two years later, the PCHA franchise in Seattle, the Metropolitans, became the first American team to do so.
With few teams, no local player base, and no natural ice, the PCHA should have been significantly weaker than the NHL. But between a combination of cutthroat competitive practices and constant innovation, the PCHA came out every bit as good and, in many seasons, better than its Eastern Rival. The lack of local hockey traditions and the autocratic nature of the organization made the PCHA an ideal laboratory in which to experiment with new hockey ideas. The Patricks could make it up as they went along. And, as it turns out, as they went along, they made up about half of modern hockey.
In 1912, the PCHA was the first league to number player jerseys, in order to aid their novice fans with player identification. They allowed goalies to fall down to make saves that same year, six years before the NHL. In 1913, experimenting with ways to make the game faster, they introduced the blue lines and the forward pass, which the NHL didn’t add until 1918 and 1927 respectively. In one of the early Stanley Cup series, in order to counter the superior skill of the Eastern team, Lester came up with the idea of switching in his substitute line every couple of minutes throughout the game- the first use of shifts in hockey. The PCHA had goal creases and penalty shots over a decade before the NHL did. And, in 1918, the PCHA was the first hockey league to feature postseason playoffs to decide the championship, while the NHL was still giving its trophy to the team with the best regular season record.
All of these expansive rule changes made the inter-league Cup games strange affairs, often with games played according to alternating rules throughout the series- game one in the Eastern style, game two in the Western, etc. This gave fans in Montreal and Ottawa opportunities to see the Patricks’ new rules in action, and the Eastern response was uniformly opposed. Fans in Toronto called the PCHA style “lacrosse on ice” and opined that it wasn’t even hockey. Although the NHL eventually adopted nearly every one of the original ideas the PCHA developed, it took them ten years longer to do it, because they had to face down the ensconced traditionalism of both their owners and their fans.
Frustration is a good reason for founding an alternate league, but innovation is another. The hybrid structure of the NHL, then and now, makes changing its policies painfully slow. As both the franchises and the central administration of the League struggle for power and influence, every shift in the game requires a long process of debate, testing, negotiation, and consensus-building. Sometimes a change happens fast, usually in response to a PR debacle, but often transformations are a decade coming, or never come at all. If Lester Patrick had had to work within the structure of the NHL, he would have had to spend years pleading, persuading, and swapping favors with other owners and managers to get each idea tested, one by plodding one. Some- numbers, playoffs- would have doubtless come in from other sports in time, but many never would have been considered at all. If it weren’t for the PCHA, it is very possible that hockey today still wouldn’t have zones or forward passing, because no one in the established league had any problem with the rugby-style puck-carrying game- until they saw something different win the Stanley Cup.
Hockey needs other leagues, not just to break the monopolistic policies of any cartel, but for the growth of the game itself. The PCHA shows us how much energy and creativity can be injected into hockey by bringing in new ideas and new fans who support them, by providing a space for radical thinkers to be radical. Without opposition, the NHL doesn’t just get progressively more arrogant and greedy. It also gets progressively more conservative, and therefore, more boring.
Research for this post was based on Lords of the Rinks, by John Chi-Kit Wong, Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley, and The Annotated Rules of Hockey, by James Duplacey.