On the day he was traded from Shawshank (hockeyspeak for Hartford) to Hockeytown (Detroit) in 1996, Brendan Shanahan arrived at Joe Louis Arena a few minutes into the Red Wings' scheduled warmup. Shanahan guessed his new teammates would already be on the ice, but the players were still at their stalls waiting for him, a gesture of hospitality that mildly disappointed rather than warmed the ex-Whaler. Shanahan had hoped to tug on his winged-wheel sweater in private and take a good long look in the mirror, but he had no time to pose or preen. "So during warmups," recalls Shanahan, now with the Devils, "I kept trying to get a glance at myself in the [rink-board] glass." He insists this was more a case of classicism than narcissism. "That jersey, that logo," he says. "I'd never played for an Original Six team before."
With NHL franchises sprouting like Florida condo developments in the 1990s—in 10 years the league went from 21 teams to 30—the Original Six are a touchstone in a league that seems to have overextended itself geographically. "In the big picture, what hockey person doesn't want the Blackhawks or the Maple Leafs to do well?" Predators general manager David Poile says. "The Canadiens [who lost 10 unrestricted free agents] ... we're nervous about whether they'll be good this year. Such feelings don't transpose to newer markets."
"The first day on the job I put on Maple Leafs workout gear, and I told [assistant coach] Tim Hunter, 'This is different than putting on stuff from Vancouver, Anaheim, Hartford,'" says Brian Burke, who took over as Toronto's G.M. last November. "I've enjoyed every team I've worked for, but there's something magical about the Original Six. Ask a young G.M. what he wants to accomplish, and he'll say he wants to win a championship and he'd like to work for an Original Six team before he's done. It's the ghosts. It's the history. It's the numbers hanging in the rafters. It's cool."
As the 2009--10 NHL season begins, the Original Six have rarely been cooler. While the NHL weathers the bankruptcy and the uncertain ownership of the Coyotes, faces additional ownership issues surrounding the Lightning and the Panthers and frets over the too-often-empty arenas that dot its landscape from Long Island to L.A., the teams in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto remain the bedrock of the league. These clubs skate in jerseys that not only many players but also nearly half of NHL fans want to wear. They lure transplanted faithful to venues throughout the league. And now they are also good. For the second straight season, five Original Six teams should make the playoffs (sorry again, Toronto), a confluence of success not seen since the springs of 1995 and '96. Original Six teams could well meet in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 30 seasons, with Boston, led by Vezina Trophy goalie Tim Thomas and Norris Trophy defenseman Zdeno Chara, facing Detroit or Chicago. The Blackhawks—"perhaps the most talented team in the league" in the words of Red Wings general manager Ken Holland—may end the NHL's longest streak of Cup futility, dating to 1961.
Chicago has emerged as a contender after a Gong Show off-season. To recap the madcap: 1) a paperwork error involving qualifying offers nearly enabled eight players to become unrestricted free agents; 2) popular G.M. Dale Tallon, who built the team that last season earned the Hawks' first playoff berth in seven years, was "reassigned" for botching the offers and mismanaging the salary cap; 3) free-agent forward Marian Hossa signed a 12-year, $62.8 million contract even though he needed rotator cuff surgery that will likely keep him out until late November; and 4) 20-year-old star winger Patrick Kane was arrested at 4 a.m. after he was involved in an altercation with a Buffalo taxi driver over 20 cents of change. Kane pleaded guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and was ordered to write an apology to the cabbie, an episode that wiped off the smirk apparent in the mug shot taken by Buffalo police.
Normally this carnival of cock-ups would barely have registered in the City of Broad Shoulders and Narrow Focus, dwarfed by a Cubs lineup change or a Jay Cutler comment, but the Blackhawks again sit at the adults' table in Chicago sports. "Before, you'd leave a game there and guys would be saying, 'That's not right. There shouldn't be just 6,000 people in the United Center,'" Rangers captain Chris Drury says. "Now they're back." In the wake of a 104-point season and their first trip to the conference finals since 1995, the Hawks sold more than 14,000 season-ticket packages for 2009--10. The resurgence has been mirrored in Boston, the confessed Hub of Hockey, where the suddenly contending Bruins have increased their season-ticket base by more than 5,000, to 13,000-plus. Neither Montreal nor Toronto has had an empty seat in the four years since the lockout, and in 2008--09 the Rangers filled Madison Square Garden to 102.3% of official capacity. The Red Wings are the league's top road attraction, and even in the face of its hometown's backbreaking economic struggles the team distributed 99% of its tickets last season.
"There were years when these weren't prime teams, but players were still excited to [join one of them]," says Shanahan of Original Six clubs. "'The bad news is, I get to play for a last-place team. The good news is, at least I'm putting on the sweater.' But [now] these organizations are getting closer to their glory days, and when the Original Six are going [well], people feel better."
Just as in Voltaire's famous remark—the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire—the NHL's Original Six is hardly original. When the NHL was formed in 1917, only one of the six, the Canadiens, was in the four-team league. (The Toronto Arenas became the St. Patricks before morphing into the Maple Leafs in 1926; the two other original franchises were the short-lived Montreal Wanderers and the original Ottawa Senators.) There was no U.S. team until the Bruins joined in 1924. Two years later came the Rangers, the Blackhawks (then the Black Hawks) and Detroit, which was then nicknamed the Cougars and later the Falcons. After some years of franchise roulette—we hardly knew ye, St. Louis Eagles—the NHL finally compressed itself into the six familiar franchises in 1942--43. The league stayed that way until expansion in 1967 doubled its size: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Oakland formed the West Division. The "Original Six" teams were in the East.
When some notable NHL players were quizzed this summer on how long they thought the league had consisted of just the Original Six, guesses ranged from 12 years (Nashville's Shea Weber) to 15 (Calgary's Jarome Iginla) to "no clue, maybe 30" (Minnesota's Brent Burns) to 40 or 50 years (Philadelphia's Chris Pronger). The fog of history covers the Original Six days, from which only towering figures and teams and moments emerge. There was splendor in the nonpareil play of Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard and even Bobby Orr, who debuted with the Bruins one season before expansion. There were iconic clubs such as the five straight Cup-winning Canadiens of 1955--56 through 1959--60. There were indelible moments such as defenseman Bob Baun's helping Toronto win the 1964 Cup while playing on a broken foot, the kind of tribal story retold through generations in Leafs Nation.
While that was the Original Six, so was this: A corner-store league that was the fiefdom of James Norris Sr., who owned the Red Wings and held a considerable stake in both the Blackhawks and the Rangers. Two miserable clubs, Boston and New York, finished either fifth or sixth in all but two of the Original Six's final eight seasons. Teams played 14 games a year against each other between 1949--50 and '66--67, the tedium a counterweight to the rivalries. The league was also a distinctly closed shop; U.S. players were barely tolerated and Europeans might as well have been from another galaxy. (As an NHL referee who worked in the Original Six and the expansion eras says, "Part of the appeal was everybody knew all the players—and their names were Smith and Johnson.") And despite early attempts to form a union, players were mere chattel. Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says the Blackhawks sent his father, Larry, to Buffalo of the AHL in 1955--56 for what he was told would be two weeks. Two weeks turned into 13 years.