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Toronto’s First NHL Game and the Maple Leafs’ Unexpected Beginnings

This is how Toronto’s original “nameless” NHL team won the Stanley Cup and brought the sport to Hogtown.

A small game in 1917 with a nameless team kicked off what would become over a century of NHL hockey history in Toronto and the country as a whole. It was a 10-9 game in Montreal and our team didn’t even have a name, perhaps things could only go up from there.

In 1917, Toronto’s local team saw it’s first National Hockey League game—a battle between the Montreal Wanderers and the Toronto Arenas. Technically, the Toronto team was nameless at the time and were haphazardly given a title because they played in Arena Gardens (a venue on Mutual Street located near St. Michael’s Cathedral at Church Street and Shuter Street).

According to the official Maple Leafs website, only 700 people attended the match and Toronto lost the game 10-9.

(image source: City of Toronto Archives)

Following the match, the Montreal Wanderers had to quit the league because their home arena burned down, meaning only three Canadian teams – the Arenas, the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators – competed in the full season.

The game, though, would prove to be just the beginning of one of the NHL’s highest-value hockey franchises — the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the 1917 season, the Toronto Arenas would go on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating a second Montreal team (the better known Montreal Canadiens) and then eventually the west-coast’s Vancouver Millionaires, who played in the Pacific Coast Hockey League. 

For all the jubilation, the triumph was short-lived, as the team folded under financial pressures the following year. Only with the team’s revival as the Toronto Saint Pats in 1919 did the club become a favourite among Toronto’s large working class population. As Toronto continued to struggle to host a profitable franchise, the owners of Arena Gardens had to open the space to host political rallies, large-scale funerals, and even a pro-prohibition demonstration during the 1920s.

The Arenas produced some of the earliest Toronto hockey legends, including Corbett Denneny and Harry Cameron. Cameron became the first defenceman to score four goals in one game, and Denneny became the first to score six goals in one game, a feat matched by only a handful of other players.

In 1927, Conn Smythe, businessman and war veteran, raised funds to prevent the team from moving, and in doing so, named the franchise after the Maple Leaf regiment in the Canadian forces. Today, the Conn Smythe trophy is awarded annually to the NHL’s most valuable player.

Corbett Denneny and Harry Cameron (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

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