(Photo: Detroit Cougars hockey club [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Detroit was awarded its NHL franchise at the same time as Chicago, so it was only natural that they had their first games on back-to-back nights. Detroit’s first game, on November 18, 1926, came at the end of a three-day streak of first games for new NHL franchises.
Since Detroit actually had multiple applicants for a franchise, they grouped together. John Townsend, Charles Hughes, and Wesley Seybourn led the group that founded the team on May 15. They paid $100,000 to acquire players from the Victoria Cougars. This team already had a history going back to the 1912 founding of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). The team was founded as the New Westminster (B.C.) Royals, but when they could not find enough audience to pay their debts, they moved to Portland, Oregon in 1914. They became the first iteration of the Portland Rosebuds (the second being the one to man the Chicago squad). In 1919, the Rosebuds moved back over the border to become the Victoria Aristocrats. Two years after changing their name to the Victoria Cougars in 1923, they became the last non-NHL team to win the Stanley Cup. At that point, they played in the Western Hockey League (WHL), which folded, allowing the NHL to buy up every player contract for $258,000. Although the team home and name had changed so many times, Detroit decided to honor the legacy by keeping the name Cougars.
For their first coach, Detroit chose Art Duncan, a captain in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. He had played eight seasons with two Vancouver teams (the Millionaires and the Maroons) before serving as player-manager with the WHL’s Calgary Tigers. His contract was purchased by Chicago, so it cost Detroit two players to obtain him as captain and coach. Duncan struggled in Detroit and was fired as coach before being traded to Toronto as a player. He did not even make it until Olympia Arena was completed in Detroit.
Since Olympia Arena still had not been finished, the Cougars played their first season across the border at Border Cities Arena in Windsor, Ontario. The arena had a capacity for 6,000, and despite grumblings over high ticket prices and having to pay taxes in both countries, it was “packed to the doors” on November 18, 1926, for the Cougars’ first game. Right before the start, their goalie, Hap Holmes, admitted he was too ill to play, so Herb Stuart replaced him in net. Their opponent, the Boston Bruins, already had two seasons under their belt. The extra time to gel helped the Bruins score two goals within the first three minutes of the game. Duke Keats scored the first at the 1:45 mark and assisted Archie Briden on the second. Ironically, Keats would be traded to the Cougars in January and serve as their player-coach for the end of the season. For the rest of this game, the Cougars played catchup. The Border Cities Star reported, “Almost as speedy as their opponents, the Detroiters did not show the same smart teamwork” by missing passes and getting out of position frequently. In the end, the Cougars could not score, giving Bruins goalie Doc Stewart the shutout with 21 saves. Still, between the two teams and the referee, the game featured eight future Hockey Hall of Famers.
The Cougars’ Harold Halderson potted the franchise’s first goal two nights later (during a 4-1 loss), and the Cougars finally won their third game (defeating the Chicago Black Hawks 1-0). Although that launched a four-game winning streak (including three shutouts), multiple losing streaks followed. Even after Coach Duncan was replaced, Detroit finished last in the NHL with 28 points (12-28-4). In 44 games, they had scored 76 goals, the second-fewest in the league. The team finally moved into Olympia Arena in Detroit for their second season, but it would take a two-year stint as the Falcons before, in 1932, they became known as the Detroit Red Wings. They won their first Stanley Cup championship in 1936, at the end of their tenth season, and they followed that with another the next year.
- Stephen Laroche, Changing the Game: A History of NHL Expansion (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014), 43-49.
- Kevin Allen, 100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (Triumph Books, 2014), 38-40.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018), 362.