‘Ottawa’ If You Think the First NHL Game was Played in Ottawa, Think Again
Sorry, Ottawa. Evidence unearthed by a local journalism professor and hockey history sleuth has concluded the first NHL game started about half an hour earlier in Montreal on Dec. 19, 1917, clinching bragging rights for Montreal.
There were two games that night, one between the Ottawa Hockey Club and the Montreal Canadiens in Ottawa and the second between the Montreal Wanderers and the Toronto Hockey Club in Montreal.
The game in Ottawa was slated to start at 8:30 p.m., but it didn’t get underway until 15 minutes later after last-minute contract negotiations were hammered out in the dressing room over games that had been added to the schedule without additional pay. All duly reported by the Ottawa Journal, says Randy Boswell, a journalism professor at Carleton University, who started mining newspaper archives to find the missing pieces of historical puzzles as a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen.
But when, exactly, the puck dropped that fateful night in Montreal has been lost to history.
The Montreal Gazette didn’t record the start time, says Boswell, whose interest in the which-game-was-first question was piqued last month after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced plans to celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary with an outdoor game in Ottawa between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens. In his statement, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called the Dec. 16 game a “celebration of the 100th anniversary of the very first NHL game, which took place in the nation’s capital in 1917.”
The start time of the game wasn’t necessarily interesting to reporters covering the games back in 1917, says Boswell. “What’s interesting today wasn’t necessarily interesting 100 years ago. With hockey history, the only thing that’s interesting is that the NHL is making a big deal out of it. Microscopic detail can suddenly become interesting.”
Combing through newspaper archives has become a task that has become much easier as newspaper archives have been digitized. Boswell was sitting on his couch and not digging through paper files or hunched over a microfilm reader when he found a key bit of information in an advertisement in the defunct French-language newspaper, Le Canada. The ad stated 8:15 p.m. as the start time for the Montreal game, at least half an hour before the puck dropped in Ottawa.
“Old (newspaper) hacks seem to capture incidental facts that elude historians. It gets recorded, then it gets ignored for many decades,” he says. “In a sense, it wasn’t difficult to find. It was something that was sitting there the whole time. ”
Boswell’s critical tidbit of information was corroborated by hockey historian Jean-Patrice Martel, president of the Society for International Hockey Research, who found a similar ad in another defunct French-language paper, La Patrie, which also specified the 8:15 p.m. start time.
“By the time the game got started in Ottawa, there’s a good chance that the first period was finished, or about to be finished in Montreal,” says Martel. “It’s a small piece of trivia. But it gives us the final word on the beginning of the NHL. Now we know exactly when it started. For historians like me, it’s wonderful.”
Boswell’s discovery also clears up any dispute about other NHL firsts. Wanderers defenceman Dave Ritchie scored the first NHL goal in Montreal about a minute and a half into the game. In Ottawa, Canadiens star Joe Malone opened the scoring six and a half minutes into the Ottawa game. The credit goes to Ritchie. The distinction of scoring the NHL’s first “natural hat trick” — three consecutive goals— goes to Malone.
At a press conference at the Fairmont Château Laurier last month, Bettman referred to Dec. 19, 1917 as “a night that launched 100 years of NHL hockey.”
“We believe that (at) 100 years old, our game has never been faster, stronger, more skilled or better. We also believe the first 100 years are only the beginning,” he said. “So, to launch our next 100 years, we believe it’s only right to bring the Senators and the Canadiens back together.”
Does the new information suggest that perhaps the NHL should consider a rematch between Toronto and Montreal instead of a game in Ottawa? Both Boswell and Martel say no.
“The first game involved a team that no longer exists. Of course, one might argue that that Senators are not the team they were then,” says Martel.
“The Canadiens existed, and they were in Ottawa. It’s the closest you can come to celebrating the first evening of NHL hockey.”
Randy Boswell’s discovery confirms these NHL firsts:
First NHL game: Toronto vs. Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Arena, Dec. 19, 1917, 8:15 p.m.
First NHL goal: Dave Ritchie, Montreal Wanderers, 1:32 of first period (according to Le Canada game report)
First NHL puck-drop: Either Jack Marshall or Tom Melville (referees of game between Toronto and Wanderers)
First NHL hat trick: Harry Hyland, Montreal Wanderers
First NHL goalie to record a win: Bert Lindsay (father of NHL legend Ted Lindsay), Montreal Wanderers
First NHL “natural” hat trick: Joe Malone, Montreal Canadiens (vs. Ottawa, Dec. 19, 1917)
Firs NHL penalty: Art Ross, Montreal Wanderers (infraction unknown)