Friday, 25 May 2018

16 Days Of Membership

The team pictured to the left is the Montreal Wanderers. The Wanderers had been a very successful amateur team in terms of their success prior to joining the NHL, but they officially hold one record in the NHL that has yet to be broken: shortest existence. December 3, 1903 was their official founding, but the Wanderers would only last 16 days in the NHL after a series of mishaps caused their demise. Today, we look at these 16 days as we await the start of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

The four-time Stanley Cup champions in the NHA were one of the founding teams of the NHL in 1917 along with the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Hockey Club. As some may be quick to point out, the Toronto team was originally called the Arenas, but the NHL didn't recognize them as such in the first season due to a "temporary arrangement" in which the league owned the team, but the Arena Gardens managed the Toronto franchise. As such, the four-team circuit which was created out of infighting with Toronto NHA franchise owner Eddie Livingstone.

The Quebec Bulldogs had been invited to join the league in its initial stages, but the Bulldogs were unable to ice a team in 1917-18, prompting the league to found the Toronto Hockey Club as stated above. With the Bulldogs unable to ice a team, the players from the Bulldogs were entered into a dispersal draft where the Wanderers selected four players, most notably Odie and Sprague Cleghorn, but opted not to pick Joe Malone who went to the Canadiens. With the dispersal draft out of the way, the first season of play in the NHL was set and ready to begin!

And this is when things for the Wanderers took a serious turn for the worst. First, Sprague Cleghorn was lost for the season with a leg injury after falling on an icy sidewalk. Following that, Odie Cleghorn was removed from the roster to fulfill a condition that exempted him from serving in the military only if he didn't play hockey. Needless to say, losing the two biggest acquisitions made by the Wanderers before the season even began was a blow that most teams in that day and age would be one from most they would not recover. The Wanderers were no different.

On December 19, 1917 at Westmount Arena on Rue St. Catherine, the Wanderers hosted the Toronto Hockey Club in the opening game for the NHL. In what was a spirited event, the Wanderers won the game 10-9 over Toronto with Wanderers defenceman Dave Ritchie scoring the NHL's first goal early in the game! Harry Hyland had four goals for the Wanderers, recording the league's first official hat trick, and while the legendary Art Ross picked up the league's first penalty as a member of the Wanderers!

However, it was estimated that only 700 fans attended the game as Montreal's French-speaking population had thrown their support behind the Montreal Canadiens. This attendance figure was bewildering to owner Sam Lichtenhein considering he had granted free admission to military personnel and family for the game. Nevertheless, the Wanderers continued to try to appeal to Montreal's English-speaking population as they looked for support.

Westmount Arena, shared by the Wanderers and Canadiens, was fairly unique in that it was one of the first arenas ever built specifically for hockey. It featured four-foot high boards around the perimeter of the rink with rounded corners - unheard of at the time it was built in 1898 - and it featured seating for 10,000 fans - another rarity for a single-use arena setup - with 4300 seated and 5700 standing. In 1915, the first artificial ice-making plant in Montreal was installed at Westmount Arena. This was seen as revolutionary in terms of maintaining ice, but this is the Wanderers' season so this won't be the last time we speak of it.

Two days after the win, the Wanderers hosted the Montreal Canadiens, and this was the worst defeat in NHL history to that point - all two games of the league's existence - as the Canadiens trounced the Wanderers 11-2. Five days later on December 26, the Ottawa Senators came to Montreal for a Boxing Day match and they skated to a 6-3 victory over the Wanderers. Through one week and three home games, the Montreal Wanderers were 1-2-0 with 15 goals-for and 26 goals-against.

The team went out on the road for the final game in December. On the 29th, they met the Senators in Ottawa, and things didn't get any better in a 9-2 loss as they closed out 1917 with a 1-3-0 record to sit in fourth-place, trailing the 3-1-0 Canadiens, the 2-2-0 Toronto Hockey Club, and the 2-2-0 Ottawa Senators.

There was hope that the Wanderers would turn their three-game slide around with their January 2, 1918 game against the Montreal Canadiens approaching, but neither team would take the ice on that night as a fire that started in the ice-making plant in the afternoon quickly spread to the dressing room areas of the Westmount Arena before roaring throughout the arena. Despite fire crews making it to the scene fairly quickly, the arena's roof collapsed in the fire and all that remained when the fire was finally extinguished was rubble.

With attendance not breaking 1000 fans in any game, losses mounting, carrying debt from previous seasons, and an insurance policy that only covered one-third of the $150,000 in losses suffered by the team including all the equipment and sweaters for the Wanderers, owner Sam Lichtenhein met with NHL President Frank Calder on January 4 and informed the league that he was ceasing operations of the Wanderers. 16 days into the NHL season, and the league had lost one of its founding member franchises.

Officially, the game against the Canadiens, in which the Wanderers were the visitors, was listed as a forfeit in favour of the Caandiens. The January 5 game in which the Toronto Hockey Club was scheduled to host the Wanderers was also ruled as a forfeit in favour of Toronto. As a result of Lichtenhein's announcement, the league drew up a new schedule for the three remaining teams with the first game scheduled for January 9.

The Wanderers would not be revived, but Lichtenhein retained his voting rights in the NHL executive roe the remainder of the season as Toronto was without owners with the NHL owning its rights. Three owners meant anything that went to a vote could be resolved quickly, so it was important for him to remain as part of the league until the conclusion of the season. Lichtenhein's vote would be replaced the following season when the Toronto Arenas officially began play under ownership of the Arena Company where the GM of the Toronto Arenas, Charles Querrie, voted as his team's representative.

Officially, the Wanderers existed as an NHL team from December 19, 2017 until January 4, 2018 - some 16 days after having been one of the most successful amateur teams in Canadian hockey history. While their existence is a mere blink of an eye in a century of NHL history, they do have several important records held. That will always belong to them and their 16 days of being an NHL team!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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