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National Hockey League (NHL)

National Hockey League (NHL)

The NHL is the professional ice hockey league for North America.

A faceoff, which signals the beginning of the play in hockey.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is a professional sports organization that brings together hockey clubs in the United States and Canada. The NHL became one of the first professional hockey leagues in the world and is one of the major sports leagues in North America, along with the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball. The league's teams are divided into two conferences, the East and West conferences, and each conference is comprised of two divisions. In the Eastern Conference, the divisions are the Atlantic and Metropolitan division; in the Western Conference, the divisions are the Central and Pacific division. With the 2021 expansion team in Seattle, each division is made up of eight teams, for a total of thirty-two teams in the league.

Game structure
Example of an NHL sheet of ice, with specific zones based on lines.

The game of hockey played in the NHL is played in a standard-size rink shaped like a round-cornered rectangle that is 200 feet (61 meters) long and 85 feet (26 meters) wide. In the rink, the goal net is 4 feet (1.2 meters) high and 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide. For a shot to be considered a goal in the game, it must completely cross the goal line, a 2 inch (5 cm) wide line in the ice across the front of the net. The ice is separated into three zones. Two blue lines delineate between the offensive and defensive zones, and between the two lines is the neutral zone. The red line is used to demark the center of the ice and is where opening faceoffs are held. In front of the net is a blue semi-circle, known as the goalie crease, which cannot be entered when the goaltender is in the crease. And behind the net is a trapezoid, which is an area where a goaltender can legally handle the puck.

Example of a game official measuring a player's stick to see if it is legal.

Equipment for players, goaltenders, and officials is all enforced and regulated in shape and size, and illegal equipment has been used in some cases. The game is played at high speed and with full contact, although there are rules that dictate how and when a player can hit another player. For example, a player can only be hit when they are handling the puck; otherwise, it is considered interference. A player may handle the puck as long as they like, so long as they do not close their hand on the puck or play the puck higher than shoulder level.

Example of a player getting hit while in "possession" of the puck.

A hockey game is divided into three periods of twenty minutes playing time, with fifteen-minute intermissions between periods. During an intermission, the ice is resurfaced by a Zamboni. In the case the game ends with a tie in regulation, the teams play a five-minute, 3-on-3, sudden death overtime. If this overtime does not decide the game, it goes to a shoutout. The game is one of the only major sports that allows substitutions during gameplay. As the game is fast, players can change during the play, with the average player shift lasting forty-five to sixty seconds.

Season structure

The NHL season sees a team play eighty-two regular season games. These games are split between home games and road games, with a team playing forty-one of each. The regular season has breaks for Christmas, the NHL All-Star Game, and the Olympics (during participating years), and the league tries to avoid scheduling games during the NFL Super Bowl. Before the season, the teams play roughly six to eight exhibition games, which are intended to allow teams to evaluate players, for players to fight for roster spots, and for teams to get the rosters ready for the regular season. At the end of the regular season, the top sixteen teams by points in the league are invited to play in the playoffs.

Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Stanley Cup Playoffs, which work to determine the best team in the NHL and award them the Stanley Cup, the highest award in the NHL. The playoffs consist of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Eight teams from each conference are allowed to participate, based on their regular season points totals. The last round is known as the Stanley Cup Finals, which matches the two conference champions. The NHL named the playoffs after the trophy, because the trophy and the tournament around it was around for two decades before the founding of the NHL.

2020 awarding of the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman to the winning Tampa Bay Lightening.

The top three teams in each division earn a berth in the playoffs. The next two teams in terms of total points in the conference, regardless of division, earn wild-card spots. This provides the eight teams in each conference. The top seed in each division plays one of the wild-card teams in the conference, with the division leader with the most points playing the wild-card team with the fewest points. The second and third seeds face each other in the first round.

During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, overtime works differently than in the regular season. Rather than 3-on-3 play or shootouts, the game goes to a full, 5-on-5 sudden-death, twenty-minute period. These periods continue until a team scores. The longest this has gone is six extra periods.

Founding of the National Hockey League

The National Hockey League was founded, or organized, on November 26 in Montreal, following suspension of operations by the National Hockey Association of Canada Limited (NHA). The Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, and Quebec Bulldogs attended the founding meeting, with the Toronto Arenas (eventually called the St. Patricks) later admitted as the fifth team. In the first season, Quebec decided not to operate, and the new NHL was down to four teams who played a twenty-two-game split schedule. At the time, the NHL was one of the professional leagues that competed for the Stanley Cup.

The four teams which founded the NHL.

In that first year, Frank Calder was elected president and financial secretary of the new league. With the Quebec Bulldogs deciding not to participate, their players were dispersed among other teams. In January 1918, the Montreal Wanderers departed the league with the Westmount Arena, home to the Wanderers and Canadiens, destroyed in a fire. The Montreal Wanderers dissolved, leaving the league down to three teams. The Toronto team was the first NHL winner of the Stanley Cup, but with disputes around the team into the 1920s, it, was sold and ultimately renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Ottawa Senators of 1924. The franchise would dissolve in 1934.

In 1919-1920, the Quebec Bulldogs returned. A year later, the franchise moved to Hamilton, Ontario. The clubs at this time were playing twenty-four-game split schedules. The first broadcast NHL game came in February of 1923, when it was broadcast on the radio, and the game was called by Foster Hewitt. Over the next few years, Boston would be granted a franchise to be the first American team in the league, while Montreal would receive another franchise, now named the Maroons. The Hamilton franchise would be moved to New York, as the New York Americans, after the Hamilton players went on strike, and the league cancelled the franchise. During these early years, the Ottawa Senators dominated the league, with six league titles and four Stanley Cup victories, before the team folded in 1934.

The Detroit Cougars, later renamed the Red Wings.

During this period, NHL teams competed against other leagues for the Stanley Cup, with the NHL teams being more successful than other leagues. In 1926, the NHL increased the league pay to a level that could not be matched by other leagues, and the NHL was alone in Stanley Cup competition. Following this, the league began its expansion into the United States, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Americans (later Rangers), the Detroit Cougars (later Red Wings), and the Chicago Blackhawks. During this expansion, the Stanley Cup came under control of the NHL.

Following this, there were competitor leagues that competed with the NHL in the United States, such as the American Hockey Association, which would become the current American Hockey League, the NHL's farm-team league. At the same time, the NHL developed partnerships with the Can-Am Pro League and International Hockey League, which allowed the NHL to draft players from these leagues.

The Original Six
Montreal Canadiens winning a Stanley Cup, often considered the most successful team of the Original Six era.

The years 1942 to 1967 in the NHL are known as the Original Six era. This is often thought of as the founding of the modern NHL. This era was named after the six teams in the league, which included the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, and the New York Rangers. During this period, The Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Detroit Red Wings were powerhouse teams, with the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup six times in the 1940s, the Red Wings winning in the early 1950s led by Gordie Howe, before the Canadiens built a powerhouse team led by Maurice "Rocket" Richard, winning the Stanley Cup six times, including a record five straight from 1955-56 to 1959-60). It would take until 1960-61 before the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup.

1967 expansion

The first expansion in NHL history came in 1967. The NHL had been stable up to this point, with the teams in the league generating loyal fans and good revenues for ownership. This ownership resisted expansion, but there were factors that led the league to decide to expand. One of these was the pressure from television networks that wanted to give the NHL a new TV contract, but also wanted to have more teams for more viewing opportunities. As well, the rival league WHL, which had a strong lineup of western United States teams, would get a similar contract from the television broadcasters.

Logos of the NHL expansion franchises from 1967.

The expansion teams included the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues. To join the league, each team had to pay an Original Six team $2 million. The league then had the first expansion draft, in which each Original Six team could protect eleven skaters, and the expansion teams could pick one of their players. This expansion draft was considered very important for the league to compete with the WHL.

During this period, the league played a seventy-six-game schedule, and the amateur draft was expanded to cover any amateur player of qualifying age throughout the world.

1970s expansion
The new Vancouver Canucks in 1970.

In 1970, the NHL expanded again. This time, the league expanded to Vancouver for the Vancouver Canucks, and to Buffalo for the Buffalo Sabers. The new teams were placed in the East Division with the Chicago Blackhawks placed in the West Division. The clubs in the league during this period played a seventy-eight-game schedule. And in 1971-72, the playoff format was amended with the team finishing first in the division to play the fourth place team, and second to play third. This began the league's pattern of two-year expansion, which continued for the next decade or so.

Expansion team Kansas City Scouts would eventually become the New Jersey Devils.

In 1972, the league expanded to include the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames. The latter team moved to Calgary in 1980 to become the current Calgary Flames. The league expanded in 1974 to include the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts. The Scouts played two seasons in Kansas City before moving to Denver to be renamed the Colorado Rockies. In 1982, the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey to become the current New Jersey Devils. Four years after this expansion, in 1978, the California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland, where they were renamed the Barons, until they merged with the North Stars. This represented the first contraction of the NHL since the Original Six era.

Quebec Nordiques as part of the NHL following the WHA merger.
NHL and WHA merger

In 1979, the NHL emerged with its biggest competitor, the WHA. The WHA, or World Hockey Association, had begun playing in 1972, which was established to challenge the NHL. The merger would cause major changes in the NHL. Some of these changes includes player salaries skyrocketing, as the WHA had been buying NHL players away from the league and diluting the talent pool, such as Derek Sanderson leaving the Boston Bruins to sign with the WHA's Philadelphia Blazers for an unheard of $2.65 million.

Hartford Whalers as part of the NHL, following WHA merger.

This merger introduced free agency into the league. Previous to this, an NHL team kept the rights to a player in perpetuity. This made players free to sell their services to the team willing to pay the most for them for the first time. The game also entered new markets, with teams in Edmonton (Oilers) and Winnipeg (Jets). These teams had previously been ignored by the NHL. Along with these teams came the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques, while WHA teams Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls were paid $1.5 million each to disappear.

The merger was treated as an expansion, with each new team charged a $6 million expansion fee. And each WHA team was allowed to keep only two skaters and two goalies, with NHL teams allowed to reclaim their players who had jumped to the WHA, with the new teams then allowed to restock their teams via expansion draft. Despite these near punishing terms, Hartford and Edmonton made the playoffs in the first season.

Changes through the 1990s
1991 San Jose Sharks logo, the first expansion team of the 1990s.

In many ways, the 1990s shaped the modern NHL game. Through this period of time, the league expanded to thirty teams (now at thirty-two), the roles of enforcers and fighting slowly left the game, with the NHL beginning to focus on increased speed and skill. In the 1991-92 season, the league expanded to San Jose, with the San Jose Sharks, who paid USD $45 million to expand, up from the USD $7.5 million paid by the franchises from the WHA. In the 1992-93 season, the league further expanded to twenty-four teams, including the Ottawa Senators, a modern version of the franchise that dominated the 1920s, and the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the next season, the league expanded again to twenty-six teams, with new franchises in Florida (Panthers) and in Anaheim (Ducks). This was part of the league's attempts at the time to expand to new markets and grow the NHL.

During this period, many of the WHA franchises were relocated due to ownership and market pressures. The Nordiques were moved from Quebec City to Denver, where they became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix, now Arizona, were they were renamed the Coyotes in 1996. And the Hartford Whalers were moved to Carolina, where they were renamed the Hurricanes in 1997.

From 1998 to 2000, the league expanded to thirty teams. This was through the inclusion of the Nashville Predators, who joined the league in the 1998-99 season; the Atlanta Thrashers, who joined the league in the 1999-2000 season (in 2011, the Thrashers would be relocated to Winnipeg and named the Jets); and the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the league in the 2000-01 season. These franchises each paid an USD $80 million franchise fee, up from the USD $50 million paid by the Florida and Anaheim expansion teams.

The Salary Cap Era

With the new franchises, the league tried the first outdoor NHL game, which saw a successful attendance of 57 thousand spectators in the 2003-04 season. However, the following season saw a lockout and cancellation of the seasons.

During the lockout, the concept of a salary cap was introduced and negotiated during the CBA discussions. Through the salary cap, introduced in the 2005-06 season, each team had a hard cap amount they could pay their players, and it introduced a salary floor, or the least amount a team could pay for their collection of players. The salary cap brought with it much of the general revenue structure the league, including rules around players being put on injured reserve lists, the mandatory payment of players in US dollars, and the rules around contracts and related negotiations. This brought in a lot of structure to the way players were paid and was intended to level the playing field amongst franchises for a more competitive overall league. In the first season, the salary cap was USD $39 million. This grew to USD $81.5 million in the 2020-2021 season.

In the 2013-14 season, following the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, or the players' union, agreed to realign the league's franchises. This came at a time when the Eastern Conference had sixteen teams and the Western Conference had fourteen teams. Under the realignment, the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were moved into the Eastern Conference, while the Winnipeg Jets were moved into the Western Conference. The Dallas Stars were also moved into the Central Division of the Western Conference. Part of this realignment also ensured that all teams played all other teams and in each arena at least once per season. This change also introduced a new playoff wildcard format, discussed above.

Las Vegas and Seattle
Las Vegas Golden Knights

In 2016, the league announced the plan to expand to thirty-one teams, introducing a franchise to Las Vegas, another move by the NHL to introduce the product into new and emerging markets. This made the NHL the first of the four major North American professional sports leagues to have a team in Las Vegas. It was also the team's first expansion since 2001, or around fifteen years prior, with the period of stability for the franchises seen as crucial to the growth of the league. The fee for the franchise was USD $500 million, a significant growth in the expansion fee from the $80 million of fifteen years prior.

Image from the theatrical opening ceremony for Las Vegas' first NHL game.

The news brought some disappointment, as there was a bid at the same time to bring a team back to Quebec City from Quebecor Inc. However, for Vegas, the franchise toyed with the name Black Knights, for owner Bill Foley's ties to U.S. Military Academy at West Point. This was rumored to be the Knights, with Vegas attempting to get the rights to the name from the London Knights of the OHL, before the franchise settled on the Las Vegas Golden Knights, with the team shortening to the nickname Knights.

Seattle Kraken
The Seattle Kraken's color and logo scheme.

In 2018, only two years after the announcement that Las Vegas would be added to the NHL, the NHL Board of Governors unanimously approved Seattle's expansion application to become the 32nd NHL franchise. The team was set to compete for its inaugural season in 2021-2022. Part of the delay, compared with Las Vegas' announcement and playing the year following, was because the franchise in Seattle needed to build an NHL ready rink. In 2020, Seattle revealed the team's nickname and color scheme, naming the team the Seattle Kraken for the city's proximity to water and the mythical beast, and using a two-tone blue color scheme with red accents.



Further Resources


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NHL Network's Ice Time Episode 17


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Top 10 Saves from Week 17 of the 2021-22 NHL Season


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In coordination with ESL Gaming, the National Hockey League (NHL) announced the first-ever NHL Player Gaming ChallengeTM presented by Honda - the NHL's Official Automotive Partner - featuring NHL players representing all 31 Clubs. In addition, the NHL's newest franchise, NHL Seattle, will take part in the League's latest #HockeyAtHome initiative. Over the course of four weeks, beginning April 30, each Club will be represented by one or two current players and featured in a one-time ma...
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Kruger Products L.P. ("Kruger Products" or "KPLP") and the National Hockey League ("NHL"® ) announced a multi-year Canadian partnership naming Kruger Products its official tissue partner in both consumer and away-from-home markets across the nation. As part of the partnership, Kruger Products will create innovative and fully-integrated programs and promotions to celebrate Canada's favourite sport. Kruger Products' made-in-Canada leading brands include: SpongeTowels®, Scotties®, Purex® an...


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