Once the NHL formed in late November 1917, it took almost another month before the first two games were scheduled. On opening night, December 19, 1917, both Montreal teams won – one hosting Toronto and the other visiting Ottawa. According to the Ottawa Citizen, this was “a night of surprises in the National Hockey League as the supposedly dilapidated Wanderers came through with a win over the Torontos, giving both Montreal clubs splendid starts.”
In Montreal, the Wanderers defeated the Toronto Arenas 10-9. Only about 700 spectators, “one of the smallest crowds that has ever attended at an opening fixture,” witnessed Wanderers defenseman Dave Ritchie score the first NHL goal, 1:00 into the game. The Wanderers proceeded to score five goals in the first period, four in the second, and one in the third, while the Arenas scored three in each. The Montreal Gazette commented that the high scores showed “that the play was ragged and dragged tediously at times” and demonstrated the “scarcity of players.” The Arenas received twice as many penalty minutes as the Wanderers, but “the game could not be called rough, the penalties, with two exceptions, were for minor offences.”
About 200 kilometers west, the Ottawa Senators hosted the Montreal Canadiens in a 7-4 defeat. Their audience was a more respectable crowd of nearly 6,000. The Senators had struggled to get their team ready due to a misunderstanding in the players’ contract (concerning the newly scheduled 24 games instead of the 20 planned with the National Hockey Association). Then, their rink’s “ice was sticky, preventing the Ottawas from showing their usual speed and helping the heavier Canadiens, the hockey dished up was, under the circumstances, surprisingly good,” explained the Ottawa Citizen. “In the early stages, it looked as though the Canadiens would make a runaway of it, but Ottawa rallied and displayed some brilliant flashed of aggressiveness in the second and third periods.” Then the play slowed considerably “with the ice growing heavier and heavier and the players tiring rapidly.” According to the Montreal Gazette, “Canadiens were in great fettle, and they appeared to have it over the Ottawa team in every department.” Interestingly, the Ottawa Citizen agreed, stating that the Canadiens “skated out with one of the finest all round hockey machines they have ever had.” Furthermore, “They stuck to their positions more consistently, checked back faster and made nearly all their opportunities count.”
The NHL has changed greatly since these four original teams played. Currently, the NHL has 31 teams with at least one more on the horizon.
- “Wanderers Won From Toronto: Canadiens Beat Ottawa,” Montreal Gazette, 20 Dec. 1917, p. 18.
- “Champion Canadiens Won Opening Game From Ottawa in National Hockey League,” Ottawa Citizen, 20 Dec. 1917, p. 8.