The Original Six is the group of six teams that made up the National Hockey League (NHL) for the 25 seasons between the 1942–43 season and the 1967 NHL expansion. These six teams are the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all of which are still active franchises in the league.
Of the Original Six, only the Toronto Maple Leafs have not advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals since the expansion, while the other five have appeared in at least three Finals since 1967 and have each won a championship at least once.
The term was not used during the era, having originated after the 1967 expansion. Only Montreal and Toronto are actual original charter members of the NHL in 1917, but all six joined the NHL in the league's first decade, and are commonly considered as a traditional set.
|Team name||Location||Joined the NHL|
|Montreal Canadiens||Montreal, Quebec||1917 (founded in 1909)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||Toronto, Ontario||1917|
|Boston Bruins||Boston, Massachusetts||1924|
|Chicago Black Hawks||Chicago, Illinois||1926|
|Detroit Red Wings||Detroit, Michigan|
|New York Rangers||New York City, New York|
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The NHL consisted of ten teams during the 1920s, but the league experienced a period of retrenchment during the Great Depression, losing the Pittsburgh Pirates/Philadelphia Quakers, Ottawa Senators/St. Louis Eagles, and Montreal Maroons in succession to financial pressures. The New York/Brooklyn Americans—one of the league's original expansion franchises, along with the Bruins and Maroons—lasted longer, but played as wards of the league from 1936 onward. World War II and its own economic strains severely depleted the league's Canadian player base, since Canada entered the war in September 1939 and many players left for military service. The Americans suspended operations in the fall of 1942, leaving the NHL with just six teams.
Despite various outside efforts to initiate expansion after the war, including attempted revivals of the Maroons and Americans franchises, the league's membership would remain at six teams for the next twenty-five seasons.
The Original Six era has been criticized for having a playoff system that was too easy, since the top four teams in the regular season advanced to the playoffs. At least, the playoff system was too easy for the top three teams in the league, i.e. Montreal, Toronto, and Detroit. The standings were very static. Montreal only missed the playoffs once between 1943 and 1967 (in 1948) while Toronto missed the post-season four times and Detroit missed three times, leaving the other three teams to compete for the one remaining berth. Montreal won 10 of the 25 Stanley Cups awarded during the Original Six era; Toronto won 9, and Detroit won 5. Chicago was the only remaining team to win a Stanley Cup during this era, in 1961.
It was not a coincidence that two of the dominant teams were based in Canada, and the third was based in a U.S. city which borders Canada. The league had a rule that gave each team exclusive rights to negotiate contracts with promising local players within 50 miles of its home ice. If a player was not within the 50-mile limit, that player was free to field offers from any team. Once a player agreed to an NHL sponsorship-level contract, the NHL club could assign him to its sponsored junior squad – its "sponsorship list".
Since Toronto and Montreal's metropolitan areas contained abundant hockey prospects, this put them at a major recruiting advantage over Boston, New York, and Chicago, which had very few such prospects in their territories. Detroit had Southwestern Ontario as part of its territory; thus it did not have the major advantage of the Canadian teams but was better positioned than the other American ones.
This phenomenon had the impact of limiting player movement, and as a result the Original Six rosters were very static. Until the lengthening of careers in the 1980s, only one twenty-year player in NHL history, Larry Robinson, started his career after 1964, and it is generally accepted that the weakest Calder Trophy winners (Rookies of the Year) of all time were selected in the 1950s and 1960s.
In practice, all six teams recruited players from Canada by sponsoring minor league, junior, and amateur teams. As a result, the league was almost entirely composed of Canadians who had come up through the junior and minor pro leagues. While the league boasted a handful of good American players during the 1940s (including All-Star goalkeepers Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas, defenseman John Mariucci, and forward Cully Dahlstrom), these were mostly products of the American Hockey Association, which folded in 1942. At the beginning of the Original Six era, the Chicago Black Hawks were owned by Major Frederic McLaughlin, a fiercely patriotic man who tried to stock his roster with as many American players as possible. However, he died in 1944, and his estate sold the team to a group controlled by the Norris family, who also owned the Red Wings. After that time, the Black Hawks had only a handful of U.S.-born players, just like the other U.S.-based teams. The Canadian teams had fewer than a handful. The only American-born Maple Leaf during the entire era was Gerry Foley who was born in Ware, Massachusetts but grew up in Garson, Ontario, and played just four games for Toronto (although he played two full seasons for the New York Rangers). The Canadiens' only American-born skater was Norm Dussault, a forward who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts but grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec. An American goalie named John Aiken also played exactly half a game for the Habs on March 13, 1958: he was a Boston Bruins team employee who filled in for his team's opponent as an emergency replacement when Jacques Plante was injured during the second period of a game at the Boston Garden.
Very few all American-developed NHL players emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when Tommy Williams was the only American to play regularly. Both Williams and Mariucci complained about anti-American bias, and U.S. Olympic team stars John Mayasich and Bill Cleary turned down offers from NHL teams. Although there were several European-born players (e.g., Slovakian-born Hall of Famer Stan Mikita) who immigrated to Canada as children, the only European-born and trained player of the era was Sweden's Ulf Sterner, who briefly played for the Rangers in 1965. The league's first Black player, Willie O'Ree, came up during this era, playing for the Boston Bruins between 1958 and 1961, although he turned out to be the last Black player until the 1970s.
After World War II, all six NHL owners consistently rejected any bids for expansion, and in the eyes of many observers changed the criteria for entry every time with a bent to defeating any such bid. They also reneged on promises to allow the still-extant but dormant Maroons and Americans franchises to re-activate.
The league tolerated monopolistic practices by the owners. At one point, for instance, Red Wings owner James E. Norris effectively owned the Black Hawks as well and was also the largest stockholder in the Rangers. He also had significant influence over the Bruins by way of mortgages extended to the team to help keep it afloat during the Depression. This led some critics to joke that NHL stood for "Norris House League."
The control of owners over their teams was absolute. Players who got on the wrong side of their team owner were often harshly punished, either by being traded out of town or sent to the minors. An example of this is the case of bruising Red Wings forward Ted Lindsay who, after agitating for a players' union, was sent to the last-place Black Hawks. Norris' conglomerate did not invest in Boston, Chicago, and New York; these teams mostly just filled dates for the Norris arenas. A measure of the dominance of Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto in the era can be seen in that between the Bruins' Stanley Cup wins in 1941 and 1970, every single Cup (save for Chicago in 1961) was won by the Red Wings, the Canadiens, or the Maple Leafs, and those three teams failed to make the playoffs only eight times combined in the era.
Labour conditions for the players were also poor. Players' medical bills were paid for only two months after an injury. Moreover, whenever players were sent to the minors, they not only had their salaries cut, but their relocation costs were not covered. The players were also not paid for off-season promotions, and did not share in the funds of promotions such as trading cards as was done in baseball. In the earlier era, players were allowed to play other sports, such as lacrosse, for money in the off-season, but this was disallowed in the standard Original Six-era contract. Players were signed as early as 16, binding them to one of the teams, who then directed their development.
The pension plan, formed in 1946, while ostensibly for the players' benefit, was kept secret, hiding large amounts of money under the control of the owners. The pension plan was only exposed in 1989 when it was found that a $25 million surplus existed. The stark labor conditions led to several players' disputes, including a 1957 anti-trust action and attempted union formation, and subsequent actions in the early 1960s by Toronto players Bob Baun and Carl Brewer, leading to the 1967 formation of the NHL Players Association.
As more conservative owners left the NHL, a younger guard that was more receptive to expansion came into the league. By 1963, when Rangers governor William M. Jennings first introduced to his peers the idea of expanding the NHL, Major League Baseball and the National Football League were adding teams, while the American Football League was becoming an attractive alternative to the NFL. Jennings proposed that the NHL add two new teams on the American West Coast for the 1964-65 season, basing his argument on concerns that the Western Hockey League intended to operate as a major league in the near future and possibly compete against the NHL for talent; he also hoped that a West Coast presence would make the NHL truly national and improve the league's chances of returning to national television in the United States (its broadcast deal with CBS expired in 1960). While the governors did not agree to Jennings' proposal, the topic of expansion arose every time the owners met from then on out. In 1965, the league decided to double in size by adding six teams, and in February 1966, expansion franchises were awarded to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and the San Francisco-Oakland area. The six new clubs would begin play in the 1967–68 season. Thus, with Toronto's six-game victory over Montreal in the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals, the Original Six era came to a close.
The first dozen seasons (1967–68 through 1978–79) of the Expansion Era saw continued dominance by Original Six teams, including the Bobby Orr-led Bruins of the early 1970s and the Canadiens dynasty at the end of that decade. Expansion teams, by comparison, were not as dominant during that same time period, which can be partly attributed to expansion teams in general being weaker than existing clubs when first starting out. During those dozen seasons, only one expansion team hoisted the Cup (the Philadelphia Flyers, in 1974 and 1975), and only one Stanley Cup Finals series featured two expansion teams (the Flyers' 1975 win over the Buffalo Sabres). By the early 1980s – after further expansion, a merger with the WHA, and changes in conference/division alignment and playoff structure – expansion teams began reaching clear parity with the Original Six. Indeed, the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals between the Canadiens and Rangers would be the last Final featuring any Original Six team until 1986 (when the Canadiens claimed the Cup) as well as the last all-Original Six Final until Chicago's win over Boston in 2013. That same year, all six Original Six teams made the playoffs for the first time since 1996. Since the dawn of the Expansion Era, every Original Six team has won the Cup at least once except for Toronto, which has the longest active Cup drought in the NHL.
Since the Expansion, the Montreal Canadiens have twice won the Cup by defeating other Original Six clubs in the playoffs, in 1978 (beating Detroit, Toronto, and Boston) and 1979 (besting Toronto, Boston, and New York). Also, the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team to also win the Cup after beating three of the Original Six (New York and Boston in the Wales Conference playoffs, and Chicago in the finals). Twice, the Eastern Conference champion beat two Original Six teams before being defeated by another in the Stanley Cup Final – the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes (beat Montreal and Toronto, lost to Detroit) and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers (beat Boston and Montreal, lost to Chicago). In 2013, the League moved the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference, leaving Chicago as the only Original Six team in the West. In 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team to face only Original Six franchises in the four-round playoff era, beating Detroit, Montreal, and New York in the Eastern playoffs before falling in the finals to Chicago.
The last active player from the Original Six era was Wayne Cashman who retired with the Boston Bruins in 1983.
According to Forbes in 2015, five of the Original Six teams are the top five most valuable NHL clubs: the Rangers at approximately $1.2 billion, the Canadiens at $1.18 billion, the Maple Leafs at $1.15 billion, the Blackhawks at $925 million, and the Bruins at $750 million. The Red Wings rank eighth at $600 million.
Records current as of April 16, 2016[update].
|Toronto Maple Leafs||3,301||1,411||1,385||470||35||9,718||9,650||3,327|||
|Detroit Red Wings||3,144||1,372||1,274||471||27||9,165||9,045||3,242|||
|New York Rangers||3,034||1,131||1,398||487||18||8,477||9,494||2,767|||
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