Many of the game's first pros were players who were given jobs working for companies that sponsored the local "amateur" teams for which they played on. Most of these teams were located in Canadian mining, lumbering, and farming towns. But by the turn of the century, even so-called "amateur hockey" had become so popular that it wasn't unusual for the players, who were much in demand, to earn more money playing hockey then they did from their regular jobs. The league that they played in was called the National Hockey Association (NHA).
Top players from the NHA soon became local heroes, and some were even known nationally. By 1909, teams in the NHA, and the short-lived Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) employed professional players.
In December of 1911, two Vancouver natives, brothers Lester and Frank Patrick, already superstars in the NHA, shocked the eastern hockey establishment by announcing the formation of yet another professional league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA).
With World War 1 consuming most of Europe, a lot of the players joined the service. But the game had become so very much a part of Canada that several army units devoted themselves as much to hockey as to military matter.
The National Hockey League (NHL) was formed on a chilly November day in 1917. Although most historians say that November 22nd, 1917 was the birth date of the NHL, it wasn't until four days later, on November 26th, that five clubs officially joined the new league. The Ottawa Senators, the Quebec Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, and the Toronto Arenas made up the league.
Frank Calder, who was the secretary/treasurer of the NHA, was elected president and secretary of the NHL, and he agreed to serve for the sum of $800 per season.
The Quebec Bulldogs decided not to put a team into the league during the NHL season due to the fact that most of their players had joined the service, and they no longer had enough players for a team. The remaining Quebec players were evenly distributed among the remaining four teams.
The opening game of the NHL must have caused Frank Calder to wonder how long the league would last. On December 19th, 1917, only 700 fans turned out for the Wanderers' opening game against Toronto, despite the fact that the soldiers who were in uniforms were invited to attend free of charge. The Wanderers' upset Toronto 10-9. On the same night, the Ottawa Senators visited the Montreal Canadiens, and the Canadiens' Joe Malone, who was formerly a member of the Quebec Bulldogs, stole the show with five goals in the game to lead Montreal to a 7-4 victory.
On January 2nd, 1918, the NHL almost came to an end when a fire destroyed the Montreal Arena. The Wanderers' owner, Sam Lichtenhein, who was struggling financially, used the arena fire as an excuse to get out of hockey. The Wanderers', without a coach and an arena, were forced to drop out of the league. The Canadiens, who had been sharing the arena with the Wanderers', moved into a smaller arena, the Jubilee rink, which had a seating capacity of about 3000. For the rest of the year, the NHL struggled with just three teams -- the Canadiens, Senators, and Arenas.
Another league, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), had been formed in 1886. A team from this organization was awarded the first Stanley Cup championship in 1893. The Cup, which had been donated to the league in 1892 by Canada's Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston, was a trophy to be awarded to the top amateur team in Canada. By 1910, however, the Cup was being challenged by professional teams.
In the fall of 1918, the NHL initiated a split schedule for its three teams. The first section, consisting of ten games, would run from December to late January, and the other, also ten games long, would run from late January to mid-March. The winners of each segment would then go into a play-off to determine a champion. But the Toronto Arenas ran into difficulties, and withdrew late in the season, reducing the NHL to just two clubs -- the Canadiens, and the Senators -- who played a best-of-seven final, which was won by the Canadiens.
After the war, life settled down and interest in professional hockey increased again. In 1919, the Quebec Bulldogs rejoined the NHL and reclaimed the players who had been distributed around the league. Joe Malone, who had been playing with the Canadiens, returned to the Bulldogs, and, on January 31st, 1920, scored seven goals in a game against Toronto. This mark still stands as the most goals scored in an NHL game.
In 1920-1921, the Quebec Bulldogs, who were being plagued with financial difficulties, relocated to Hamilton, Ontario, and were renamed the Hamilton Tigers.
Now that the NHL had four teams again, the league did away with the split schedule for the 1921-1922 season. It was also decided that the goal tenders would now be able to pass the puck up to the blue line, which added to the defending team's ability to move the puck out of its zone.
By 1924, the NHL had made expansion plans. Montreal was granted another franchise, named the Maroons, and Boston was granted a franchise, known as the Bruins. Expansion created yet another scramble for players. The regular season schedule was expanded from 24 games to 30 games, and a new NHL trophy was introduced.
The Lady Byng Award, which was named after the wife of Canada's Governor General. This award would be given to the one player of the year who exhibited the best type of sportsmanship, and gentlemanly conduct, combined with a high standard of play.
NHL in the 1920's was brutal. Padding was so poor that injuries were almost constant. Goalies didn't wear masks, resulting in many stitches, and facial scars. And players would stick-swing constantly, leading to major suspensions.
In 1926, the league adopted a rule that prohibited NHL teams from selling, optioning or exchanging any of its players to any other league without first offering such players to NHL clubs at a price no more than $2500.
After the 1920's, the NHL adopted set rules, and as the years went on, added more and more expansion teams, such as the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Nowadays, the NHL has become a very popular sport, especially among Canadians. Back in 1917, when the league started, the average amount a player would earn a year would usually be no more than $1000 dollars. Now, the average amount a player would earn a year is around $6-10 million dollars.