There’s a lot of confusion here about the origins of the National Hockey League, perhaps because of the term ‘Original Six’. But the league did not originate with six teams. Here’s how the NHL actually started:
The predecessor to the NHL was the National Hockey Association, which started operations in the 1908-09 season. By 1916-17, there were 6 teams: Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Blueshirts, and the 228th Infantry Battalion Northern Fusiliers (which was based out of Toronto). But the season did not go entirely smoothly. On January 21, 1917, the 228th Infantry got their orders to leave for overseas to fight in World War I. The teams were three games into the second half of a split season, and the directors fought over what to do with the schedule: incorporate the results to date or start the second half over again. The other contentious issue was whether to continue as a five team league, or drop down to four teams.
The owner of the Toronto Blueshirts, Eddy Livingstone, had made enemies in his three years as an owner. He has been described as having “the gentle demeanour of a pastor but the fastidious personality of a tax collector or a customs inspector.”He’d fought over players rights with the 228th Battalion, more than once had almost come to blows with Wanderers owner Sam Lichtenhein, and had had vehement disagreements with the Canadiens’ managing director George Kennedy. While Livingstone argued for a five team league, Lichtenhein and Kennedy wanted to get rid of the thorn in their side that was Livingstone, and persuaded the other two teams’ directors to go along with them and suspend the Toronto Blueshirts franchise. Livingstone sued the league and the four teams to get his team reinstated and to compensate him for lost revenue for the two home games his team wasn’t able to play, and unspecified damages for what he claimed were “unlawful, unconstitutional and illegal acts”. He also wanted an injunction stopping teams from hiring players who were under contract to him.
On November 22, 1917, representatives of the other four teams responded by withdrawing from the NHA and forming their own league, called the National Hockey League. Four days later, they met again to work out the details for the inaugural season. The Quebec Bulldogs decided to suspend operations for a year as they were short of players. The owners of the Toronto Arena Company—mostly Montrealers—wanted a franchise to play out of the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto, so they could make some money from their arena. And so the National Hockey League started with five original teams, but only four of which played in the inaugural season: Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Arenas, and sitting out the season, the Quebec Bulldogs. These were the NHL’s original five teams.
So what’s all this about the ‘Original Six’ then? In the years after the NHL was formed, teams came and went. The Ottawa Senators folded. The Wanderers died after their arena burned down. The Boston Bruins became the first American franchise in 1924, and were followed soon thereafter by the Detroit Cougars (which had moved from Victoria, British Columbia), the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers and the New York Americans. The Quebec Bulldogs moved to Hamilton to become the Tigers, then were suspended from the league when the players went on strike. The team ended up being sold to New York. Montreal had another team known as the Maroons. And a few other cities had teams briefly (St. Louis Eagles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Quakers). But by 1942, the NHL was down to six teams: Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs (renamed from the Arenas, to the St. Pats, to the Maple Leafs), Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings (the Cougars became the Falcons, then the Red Wings). The NHL continued with these six teams until it doubled in size through expansion in 1967. In order to indicate which teams were the established ones, the term ‘Original Six’ started to be used. But it doesn’t mean that these six teams are all originals from the first season of the NHL, nor that there were six teams when the league started. So, as John U. Bacon noted, the Original Six is Neither. Or, to quote Keith Olbermann, “There is No ‘Original Six’.
*This quote is taken from the excellent book The NHL: A Centennial History by D’Arcy Jenish.