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"Original Six" Hockey

Dave Keon
1963-64 Parkhurst card of Dave Keon (Canadian Public Domain)

I remember the tail end of those iconic years very well. I was 15 when the National Hockey League expanded to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season.  I was a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan in the early-to-mid 1960’s, in the days that they actually won Stanley Cups: three in a row and four in six years. Little did I know that when I watched the last game of the 1967 playoffs between the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens--won by Toronto--on my friend’s blurry black-and-white TV, the Leafs would still be without a championship so many years later.

Original Six Hockey is a term depicting the six-team NHL during a 25-year period beginning in 1942-43. The teams were Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers.

The tag Original Six still pops up every hockey season, especially when two of these teams meet in the regular schedule or--better yet--in a playoff series. There was something mystique about the six-team hockey: a little over 100 players combined on the rosters at any given time, with only one goalie per team for most seasons, until the rules allow for two dressed in 1965-66. As a kid, I had the pleasure of collecting the era’s classic hockey cards put out by Parkhurst and Topps, as well as the Bee Hive Corn Syrup pictures that you had to mail away for. During art classes in grade school, my friends and I would bring our bent hockey cards and draw our favorite Leaf players. I liked Dave Keon and goaltender Johnny Bower, since I was a goalie myself. One of my friends absolutely worshipped Frank “The Big M” Mahovlich.

The period produced many great stars. Some had iconic nicknames. Besides the players already mentioned, we saw Detroit’s Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and “Terrible Ted” Lindsay; Montreal’s Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, and Jacques “Jake the Snake” Plante; Chicago’s Bobby Hull; and Boston’s Bobby Orr as an 18-year-old rookie who stunned the league with his talents in the fall of 1966. Classic coaches Hector “Toe” Blake and George “Punch” Imlach battled each other for league dominance. Between them, they won 12 Stanley Cups, eight of those going to Blake.

Gordie Howe
1963-64 Parkhurst card of Gordie Howe (Canadian Public Domain)

We also saw the introduction of the slapshot beginning with Geoffrion, followed by Toronto’s Tim Horton and New York’s Andy Bathgate before Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita took over with their banana-curved sticks in the Sixties. Jacques Plante was the first goalie to use a mask on a permanent basis in 1959, after taking a Bathgate slapshot off his noggin. However, by the last year of the six-team league, most goalies still weren’t wearing face protection, for some strange reason.

Off-ice, two incidents occurred that spotlighted the sports world…

In the spring of 1957, Detroit’s Ted Lindsay announced the formation of the first NHL Players’ Association, in which he and player reps from the five other teams had secretly signed every NHL player except one: Ted Kennedy of the Leafs. It all began the year in late-1956 with the Player Pension Fund, which the players had to contribute a whopping one-third of their salaries, being the biggest issue. The players wanted to know how much money was in the fund, and the amount they would receive upon retirement. The whole thing appeared to be a huge secret. The league eventually broke the union by not recognizing it, but did settle up (sort of) in 1958, after Lindsay (having been traded to the lowly Black Hawks out of spite) filed a $3 million anti-trust suit against the NHL. The league agreed to a $7000 minimum salary and would pay for a player’s moving expenses when traded, among other minor details. Nothing on the secretive pension fund, though. That didn’t come up again until 30 years later, a story in itself that I had mentioned in my 2013 article about Ted Lindsay and the first NHL Players’ Association.

In 1962, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, crazy news hit the sports pages, quite possibly engineered to render baseball’s Fall Classic secondary. Chicago Black Hawk owners James Norris Jr and Arthur Wirtz--after a few rounds of stiff drinks--offered to take star Frank Mahovlich off the Toronto Maple Leafs hands for an unbelievable $1 million. We Leaf fans were in shock. My friend, in particular, wanted to jump ship and follow the Black Hawks. At his peak in 1962, the 24-year-old Mahovlich had been Rookie of the Year in the 1957-58 season and had scored 48 goals in 1960-61. Alas, cooler heads prevailed, and nothing came of the deal.

Almost all the players came from Canada’s Junior A hockey leagues across the country. American- or European-born players were rare or not at all in some years. The NHL depended on the Junior A Sponsorship system. No Entry Draft. According to the CAHA-NHL agreement, each of the six teams could sponsor two Junior A teams. I remember that because in my hometown of Regina, the Junior A Regina Pats had the Habs logo on the sleeves of their uniforms. Here’s some ex-Pats who made it to the six-team NHL: Terry Harper, Bob Turner, Red Berenson, Bill Hicke, Eddie Litzenberger, and Bill Hay.

When one looks back on it now, Original Six Hockey was a very unfair system in favor of three teams. Territorial privileges demanded that each NHL team also had the rights to every player within a 50-mile radius of its NHL home arena. That was great if you were the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs more so, and to a lesser extent the Detroit Red Wings. All three could draw off a lot of Canadian talent in their circle. But what did that do for the Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers? For many years during that 25-year stretch, the latter three teams were the doormats of the league. In fact from 1942-1967, Montreal won the Stanley Cup 10 times, Toronto nine, Detroit five, and Chicago once, while Boston and New York not at all. During the five-year period from 1955-1960, the Canadiens won five straight Stanley Cups with 12 future Hall of Famers (including coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke), finishing the decade in which they went to the Stanley Cup finals ten straight years.

Jacques Plante
1957-58 Parkhurst card of Jacques Plante (Canadian Public Domain)

Montreal also had the distinct advantage--thanks to NHL legislation--of getting first crack at all Quebec French-Canadian players, which is how they snapped up Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, and Jacques Plante. Another aspect that made the system unfair (which could have been partly due to the Reserve Clause, where a player was forced to stay with a team unless released or traded) was that it kept some very exceptional hockey players from developing. If there were one or two more NHL teams, minor league legends such as Guyle Fielder, Gordie Fashoway, Fred Glover, and Willie Marshall perhaps could have become NHL stars.

Also, if you didn’t tow-the-line, so to speak, during the Original Six era, you could find yourself in the minors for the rest of your career. Western Hockey League star center Guyle Fielder, for example, who had several short tryouts with NHL teams, refused to step over center ice and fire the puck in the corner, the way NHL coaches wanted him to play. Fielder preferred his own way: carry the puck in.  NHL coaches couldn’t get Fielder to change. But with Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League, where he played a good portion of his pro hockey, he was adored by the local fans and much appreciated for his stickhandling abilities and scoring prowess.

A few years ago, I watched the third game of the 1959 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Canadiens and the Leafs, one of those classic games on cable TV. I was amazed at how slow the game was in the Fifties. And we thought it was so fast then. Back then they skated like “their skates were stuck in the mud,” as Toronto sports personality, Bob McCown, once remarked on his Fan 590 radio program. I had to agree. Equipment was heavier in the Original Six, especially the skates, and the shifts were two minutes long, forcing players to pace themselves, until the right moment came along for a burst of energy.  Not like the intense 40-second shifts we witness today.

I remember Montreal great Henri Richard saying on a TV program about ten years ago: “If I had the lighter skates in my time, I’d be flying.” This coming from a player already thought to be one of the fastest in his day.

I’m a Baby Boomer raised on Original Six Hockey. In my opinion, the hockey today is played much better, as long as they don’t trap too much. It’s faster and just as easy to follow. But if I was an NHL coach, I’d still have a Guyle Fielder on my team, just to keep the opposition honest.


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