Sports

Throwback Thursday: Boston Bruins Host NHL's First Game in United States

Dec. 1, 1924 marked the first time an NHL game was played in the United States, when the Montreal Maroons visited the Bruins at Boston Arena.
December 1, 2016, 8:30pm
Hockey Hall of Fame / Library and Archives Canada, circa 1925

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

When the first National Hockey League game was played in the United States, it did not begin with screeching bald eagles dropping apple pies from the rafters or a pyrotechnics display that would have rivalled 4th of July celebrations. Rather, NHL hockey got off to an inauspicious start in America when the puck dropped at Boston Arena for a game between the Montreal Maroons and Bruins on Dec. 1, 1924.

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Both clubs were newly minted expansion teams, but the buzz was unquestionably around the Bruins, who were America's sole representative in the NHL at the time. Hockey did not quite have the same notoriety in the United States in 1924 as it does now. Despite being the hottest new ticket in Beantown, the Bruins' first game was hardly a sellout.

The fans in attendance got to see a close game against the Maroons. Although the Bruins trailed 1-0 after the first period, they rallied back in the second frame, scoring two goals en route to defeating their fellow expansionists 2-1. While the results may have looked good on paper, it was anything but on the ice. The team was not yet in high-performance condition and as the season unfolded, things only got worse.

READ MORE: The Last Time an NHLer Scored on His Brother

Unfortunately for the Boston faithful, that first win over the Maroons was just one of a handful the Bruins won that season. The club didn't pick up another victory until the following year. Well, to be fair, 1925 was only a month away, but still. Following that first game, the Bruins dropped 11 straight contests. Over the course of that losing streak, Boston played more like teddy bears than bruins, posting a goal differential of -41, before it picked up a second win on Jan. 10, 1925 against the Canadiens.

Boston finished the season with an abysmal record of 6-24-0 and, unsurprisingly, did not make the postseason. It was forced to watch the St. Patricks take on the Canadiens in the league championship from the stands.

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As it turns out, the Toronto and Montreal clubs were actually supposed to play a two-game series to determine who would go on to play the Hamilton Tigers, winners of the regular season, in the final, but that never came to pass. For the 1924-25 season, the league increased the number of regular-season games from 24 to 30, but the Hamilton players became disgruntled when they failed to receive a bump in pay for the extended schedule. As a result, they threatened to sit out for the playoffs if they were not duly compensated for the additional six games. Management passed the buck to the NHL, which took a hardline approach and declawed the Tigers, suspending the team indefinitely.

When that two-game series between the St. Patricks and Canadiens wrapped up, league president Frank Calder declared Montreal the champions and the club went on to face the Victoria Cougars of the Western Canada Hockey League for the Stanley Cup. The Cougars ended up winning Lord Stanley's silverware, the first and only time an NHL team lost the trophy to a rival league.

But back to hockey in the United States. While the Bruins failed to qualify for the playoffs in that first season, America was no stranger to hockey's ultimate prize. Seven years earlier, the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association took on the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association in an interleague showdown. All the games were played in Seattle, which marked the first time that the Stanley Cup was competed for south of the border. The Metropolitans trounced their opponents in the best-of-five series, handily beating them 9-1 in the final and deciding game, and in the process, became the first US-based team to win the Stanley Cup.

The Seattle Metropolitans during the 1920s. Photo via Wiki Commons

By 1926-27, the NHL had expanded to 10 teams, with more than half of those clubs hailing from the United States. In fact, the league maintained an exclusive American division for more than a decade, with clubs from Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York serving as the mainstays.

With the influx of USA hockey into the league, it was only a matter of time before an American franchise won the Cup in the NHL era. That watershed moment came in 1928 when the New York Rangers bested the Maroons in a best-of-five final. The Rangers were actually forced to play all the games on the road as Madison Square Garden had already been booked up for the circus. While the elephants stole the show on Broadway, the Blueshirts hoisted the Stanley Cup before a crowd of 14,000 at the Montreal Forum on April 14, 1928.

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Although most Rangers fans didn't get to see the crowning achievement in person, the excitement certainly would've been captured in the broadsheets the next day, right? Well… in covering the conclusion of the series, the New York Times opened with, "The Stanley Cup, that old and battered piece of silverware…"

While the enthusiasm may have been lacking in that initial writeup, it was anything but doldrums moving forward. But while the popularity of the game steadily increased in the United States, it was a much slower process for American players to join the NHL's ranks. For the most part, the league was dominated by Canadians. Perhaps that's why the New York Times referred to it as the "National League of Canada," when it covered the Bruins' first game.

Although there were certainly a number of American players who had cracked NHL rosters since the league's inception in 1917, there were very few who enjoyed the sort of regularity or prominence that led to bona fide stardom. That was until goaltender Frank Brimsek made his debut for, yeah, you guessed it, the Bruins in 1938-39. The Minnesota native had been playing for Providence, Boston's AHL affiliate, when he was called up to replace Cecil Ralph "Tiny" Thompson after the latter had suffered an eye injury.

Tiny Thompson in net for the Bruins, circa 1930. Credit: Hockey Hall of Fame / Library and Archives Canada

Brimsek made good on the opportunity and then some. Simply put, he was sensational. He picked up six shutouts in his first eight games, earning the nickname Mr. Zero. Brimsek was so lights out that when Thompson returned, Bruins coach and GM Art Ross was faced with a quandary. Thompson was coming off his fourth Vezina-winning season and was a fan favourite in Boston, but Ross saw the future with Brimsek and rolled the dice. It paid off for Ross and the Bruins as Brimsek went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Mr. Zero paved the way for other American-born players to carve out a place in the league. According to the Society for International Hockey Research, when he made his Bruins debut, there were only 10 US players in the NHL, accounting for 6.5 percent of the total league. By 1980, it had increased to 12.5 percent, and since then it has steadily climbed. For the 2015-16 season, nearly a quarter of the league's 1,003 players were from United States.

Looking back on that first NHL game in the United States in 1924, you can't help but be in awe of the incredible growth and development of the sport in that country. When we revisit the 93rd anniversary of that first Bruins game next season, we'll have a team in Las Vegas. It's safe to say that is something no one would've predicted 92 years ago, and that's pretty cool.