The National Hockey League (NHL; French: Ligue nationale de hockey—LNH) is a professional ice hockey league in North America, currently comprising 31 teams: 24 in the United States and 7 in Canada. The NHL is considered to be the premier professional ice hockey league in the world, and one of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. The Stanley Cup, the oldest professional sports trophy in North America, is awarded annually to the league playoff champion at the end of each season.
The National Hockey League was organized on November 26, 1917, at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal after the suspension of operations of its predecessor organization, the National Hockey Association (NHA), which had been founded in 1909 in Renfrew, Ontario. The NHL immediately took the NHA’s place as one of the leagues that contested for the Stanley Cup in an annual interleague competition before a series of league mergers and folds left the NHL as the only league left competing for the Stanley Cup in 1926.
At its inception, the NHL had four teams—all in Canada, thus the adjective “National” in the league’s name. The league expanded to the United States in 1924, when the Boston Bruins joined, and has since consisted of American and Canadian teams. From 1942 to 1967, the league had only six teams, collectively (if not contemporaneously) nicknamed the “Original Six”. The NHL added six new teams to double its size at the 1967 NHL expansion. The league then increased to 18 teams in 1974 and 21 teams in 1979. In the 1990s, the NHL further expanded to 30 teams, and added its 31st team in 2017.
The league’s headquarters have been in New York City since 1989 when the head office moved there from Montreal.
After a labour-management dispute that led to the cancellation of the entire 2004–05 season, the league resumed play in 2005–06 under a new collective agreement that included a salary cap. In 2009, the NHL enjoyed record highs in terms of sponsorships, attendance, and television audiences.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) considers the Stanley Cup to be one of the “most important championships available to the sport”. The NHL draws many highly skilled players from all over the world and currently has players from approximately 20 countries. Canadians have historically constituted the majority of the players in the league, with an increasing percentage of American and European players in recent seasons.
The current NHL Champions are the Washington Capitals, who defeated the Vegas Golden Knights four games to one in the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals.
The National Hockey League was established in 1917 as the successor to the National Hockey Association (NHA). Founded in 1909, the NHA began play one year later with seven teams in Ontario and Quebec, and was one of the first major leagues in professional ice hockey. But by the NHA’s eighth season, a series of disputes with Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone led team owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, and Quebec Bulldogs to hold a meeting to discuss the league’s future. Realizing the NHA constitution left them unable to force Livingstone out, the four teams voted instead to suspend the NHA, and on November 26, 1917, formed the National Hockey League. Frank Calder was chosen as its first president, serving until his death in 1943.
The Bulldogs were unable to play, and the remaining owners created a new team in Toronto, the Arenas, to compete with the Canadiens, Wanderers and Senators. The first games were played on December 19, 1917. The Montreal Arena burned down in January 1918, causing the Wanderers to cease operations, and the NHL continued on as a three-team league until the Bulldogs returned in 1919.
The NHL replaced the NHA as one of the leagues that competed for the Stanley Cup, which was an interleague competition back then. Toronto won the first NHL title, and then defeated the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) for the 1918 Stanley Cup. The Canadiens won the league title in 1919; however their Stanley Cup Final against the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans was abandoned as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Montreal in 1924 won their first Stanley Cup as a member of the NHL. The Hamilton Tigers, won the regular season title in 1924–25 but refused to play in the championship series unless they were given a C$200 bonus.The league refused and declared the Canadiens the league champion after they defeated the Toronto St. Patricks (formerly the Arenas) in the semi-final. Montreal was then defeated by the Victoria Cougars of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) for the 1925 Stanley Cup. It was the last time a non-NHL team won the trophy, as the Stanley Cup became the de facto NHL championship in 1926 after the WCHL ceased operation.
The National Hockey League embarked on rapid expansion in the 1920s, adding the Montreal Maroons and Boston Bruins in 1924. The Bruins were the first American team in the league. The New York Americans began play in 1925 after purchasing the assets of the Hamilton Tigers, and were joined by the Pittsburgh Pirates.The New York Rangers were added in 1926. The Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Cougars (later Red Wings) were also added after the league purchased the assets of the defunct WCHL. A group purchased the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927 and immediately renamed them the Maple Leafs.
The Original Six
The first NHL All-Star Game was held in 1934 to benefit Ace Bailey, whose career ended on a vicious hit by Eddie Shore. The second was held in 1937 in support of Howie Morenz’s family when he died of a coronary embolism after breaking his leg during a game.
The Great Depression and the onset of World War II took a toll on the league. The Pirates became the Philadelphia Quakers in 1930, then folded one year later. The Senators likewise became the St. Louis Eagles in 1934, also lasting only one year. The Maroons did not survive, as they suspended operations in 1938. The Americans were suspended in 1942 due to a lack of players, and never revived.
The league was reduced to six teams for the 1942–43 NHL season: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. These six teams remained constant for 25 years, a period known as the Original Six. The league reached an agreement with the Stanley Cup trustees in 1947 to take full control of the trophy, allowing the NHL to reject challenges from other leagues that wished to play for the Cup.