professional league was established in 1904 in northern Michigan.
Because the four-team league included one club from Canada, it
was named the International Hockey League. Several leagues
followed, including the first significant Canadian professional
league, the National Hockey Association (NHA), which began play
in 1909. The Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) was founded
in 1911. The NHA folded following the 1916-17 season, but its
strongest teams then formed the NHL and competed in the 1917-18
season. The NHL remained a four-team Canadian league until the
1924-25 season, when a team from Boston (a popular supporter of
amateur hockey) became the first U.S. club admitted. By 1926
there were six U.S. teams in a ten-team NHL.
During this early
period, players such as forward Howie Morenz of the Montréal
Canadiens, defenseman Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and
forward King Clancy of the Toronto Maple Leafs drew crowds as the
NHL’s first great stars. Several organizers were instrumental in
building the NHL in its early days. The most prominent included
Frank Calder, the first NHL president; Conn Smythe, who helped
build and guide Toronto's franchise; and Jack Adams, a coach and
general manager in Detroit from 1927 through 1962.
World War II (1939-1945) drained the league of players, and by
1942 the NHL consisted of only six teams—the Bruins, the Detroit
Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canadiens, the New York
Rangers, and the Maple Leafs. After the war the six-team NHL era
saw the rise of several dynasties. Forward Gordie Howe and
goaltender Terry Sawchuk were stars on the Red Wings, who won
four Stanley Cup championships between 1950 and 1955. The
Canadiens, spearheaded by forward Maurice Richard, played in the
Stanley Cup Finals each year from 1951 through 1960, winning in
1953 and from 1956 to 1960.
Hockey gained popularity in the 1960s, and late in the decade the
NHL began to expand. The league added ten teams from 1967 to
1972. Hockey’s strength as a spectator sport was also shown by
the creation in 1971 of the World Hockey Association (WHA), a
rival professional league to the NHL. In the summer of 1972 the
sport’s popularity received another boost with an eight-game
competition between Canada’s best professionals and the top
players from the USSR’s Red Army team. The heavily favored
Canadians, stunned by the Soviets' prowess, barely edged the Red
Army team, 4 games to 3 (with 1 tie). The series came down to the
last game, which the Canadians won on a last-minute goal scored
by Paul Henderson, who remains a national hero. A fierce rivalry
was born, and a subsequent series took place in 1974.
The merger of the WHA and the NHL in 1979 and the entry of
18-year-old center Wayne Gretzky into professional play the same
year marked the beginning of unprecedented popularity for ice
hockey. Gretzky, who came to be called “The Great One,” dominated
the league over the next 15 years with a streak of unprecedented
scoring accomplishments. Other powerful scorers such as centers
Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, left wing Brett Hull, and
defenseman Paul Coffey were regarded as the best hockey players
of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, also helped
spark the boom in ice hockey, at least in the United States.
During the Games the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, a collection
of college and minor-league players, defeated the powerful USSR
en route to the gold medal. The victory sparked the formation of
several new minor leagues and teams in the United States, plus
expansion by the NHL into new American markets.