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The National Hockey League was formed on November 26, 1917 as a result of a meeting held at the Windsor hotel in Montreal. Present at this meeting were team owners of the National Hockey Association. However, the troublesome and unpopular owner of the Toronto franchise in the NHA, Eddie Livingstone, was not invited to attend. Former NHA secretary Frank Calder was chosen as the NHL’s first President. Charter members included the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs and a Toronto franchise, which was given to the directors of the Arena Gardens in Toronto. Quebec elected not to operate until the 1919-20 season.

Babe Dye Babe Dye scored nine goals in the 1921-22
Stanley Cup finals

Toronto’s entry in the newly formed National Hockey League for the 1917-18 season played its first game on December 19, 1917 against the Montreal Wanderers. Toronto scored a total of nine goals but still lost the game by a count of 10-9. Ironically, it was the only win for the Montreal Wanderers in the NHL as the team folded operations when their arena burnt down after only six games. That left the new league with only two other teams - the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators - to compete with the Toronto team in the inaugural season of the league.

The first Toronto game wasn’t much of a success at the gate either as a mere 700 people attended the first home game - and many of those were soldiers in uniform that were guests of team management.

So, it wasn’t an auspicious start for the Toronto team, but that game was the beginning of a rich tradition of hockey in Toronto that we know today as the ‘Leafs Nation’.  At the end of that first year, this Toronto club, called the Arenas, managed to win the first ever Stanley Cup in the NHL.

Arenas’ goalie Hap Holmes backstopped the team to the championship in five games over the Pacific Coast Hockey League champions, the Vancouver Millionaires. The top scorer for the Arenas in the finals, which was played at the Arena Gardens in Toronto, was Alf Skinner with 10 points.

Late in the following season, the Toronto Arenas withdrew from the NHL due to financial difficulties, but the Toronto franchise reemerged in the 1919-20 season, this time with new owners and a new name - Toronto St. Pats. The name was selected in hopes of attracting the city’s large Irish population to attend the home games. Two years later, in the 1921-22 NHL finals, the St. Pats, managed by Charlie Querrie and coached by George O’Donoghue, surprised the first-place Ottawa Senators in the NHL finals, winning the two-game-total-goals series 5-4.

For the Stanley Cup, the St. Pats again faced and defeated the champions from the west, the Vancouver Millionaires in five games at the Arena Gardens. Babe Dye was the St. Pats star in the finals scoring nine goals in the five games - still a record today. Dye was also awarded the first-ever penalty shot, but failed to score as his 36-foot shot sailed over the goalie’s head.  The winning goaltender for the St. Pats was John Ross Roach who allowed just nine goals in the five games

The St. Pats failed to win a championship for the next few seasons, but continued to build a foundation for a successful team. On December 9, 1924, the St. Pats signed Clarence ‘Hap’ Day from the University of Toronto hockey team. Day would play, coach and manage in Toronto until the end of the 1956-57 season. Irvine ‘Ace’ Bailey joined the team for the 1926-27 season and led the team in points.

In February of 1927, Conn Smythe, who had built the New York Rangers franchise but was dismissed in favour of Lester Patrick, raised enough money to buy the St. Pats and prevented the team from moving to Philadelphia. Smythe, a military man, immediately had the Toronto franchise name changed from the St. Pats to Maple Leafs. He also switched the uniform colours to blue and white from green and white.

Although it is not known as to why he changed the name to Maple Leafs, here was Smythe's reasoning:

“The Maple Leaf to us, was the badge of courage, the badge that meant home. It was the badge that reminded us all of our exploits and the different difficulties we got into and the different accomplishments we made. It was a badge that meant more to us than any other badge that we could think of... so we chose it... hoping that the possession of this badge would mean something to the team that wore it and when they skated out on the ice with this badge on their chest... they would wear it with honour and pride and courage, the way it had been worn by the soldiers of the first Great War in the Canadian Army."

By the 1928-29 season, ‘Gentleman’ Joe Primeau, rough and tough Red Horner and goaltender Lorne Chabot joined the team and the Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since the 1924-25 season. In the 1929-30 campaign, Charlie ‘Big Bomber’ Conacher and Harvey ‘Busher’ Jackson began their Leaf careers.  But despite the debut of the soon-to-be-famous ‘Kid Line’ of Primeau, Jackson and Conacher, the Leafs failed to make the playoffs again.

The team that Smythe was building had a good nucleus now but still seemed to be missing a ’spark’ - and some offence from the blue line. So Smythe targeted King Clancy of the Ottawa Senators as the missing link in his vision for a championship team. Clancy had just come off a 17-goal season in 1929-30, a total unheard of for defencemen of that era. Clancy was undersized, even at that time, at 5-7 and 155 lbs, but he was a scrappy player with over 80 penalty minutes in each of the previous two seasons. He was just the type of player Smythe admired and needed.

The Senators played hardball with Smythe and demanded two players and $35,000 in return for the colourful Clancy - a lot of money in those days and funds that Smythe didn’t have. But Smythe used the winnings of a horseracing bet at Woodbine on his own filly ‘Rare Jewel’ - a real long shot - to help come up with the funds. He then traded Eric Pettinger and Art Smith to Ottawa along with the cash for Clancy. It was a record price paid for any hockey player at the time.
Smythe felt that he now had the true nucleus of a winner - Chabot in goal, Clancy, Day, and Horner on defence and the powerful ‘Kid Line’ up front to go along with leading scorer Ace Bailey.

The team was exciting and along with the influence of Foster Hewitt’s pioneering hockey radio broadcasts, hockey in Toronto was gaining immense popularity. The old Arena Gardens on Mutual Street was beginning to fill to capacity.