Photos: The National Hockey League Turns 95

Though the league is currently in another lockout, the Smithsonian collections have plenty of memorabilia from the sport’s history in the United States

A 1930 photograph depicts two players from Chicago’s NHL team. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

The National Hockey League, founded on November 26, 1917, is just shy of 100 years old and will celebrate its 95th anniversary today. But for hockey fans, it’s a bit of a bitter sweet birthday.

The league announced over the long holiday weekend that in addition to canceling the season’s scheduled games through December 14, it will also cancel the All-Star Weekend planned for January 26-27 in Columbus, Ohio. The news comes courtesy of a lockout, meaning further cancellations may be looming. Not the first labor dispute for the league, indeed the entire season was canceled in 2004, fans are used to waiting.

While we can’t get your favorite players back on the ice, or recoop the estimated $12 million hit Columbus is facing, we can provide a few fond memories from the collections of the sport’s history in the United States. In its 95 years, the NHL has grown from a handful of teams; the Montreal CanadiensMontreal WanderersOttawa SenatorsQuebec Bulldogs, and Toronto Arenas, to a total of 30 teams. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic team has become a regular challenger to other international superpowers.

Acrylic on masonite, 1968 by LeRoy Neiman. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Nicknamed the “Golden Jet,” Bobby Hull from Chicago helped popularize the NHL in the 1960s with his powerful slapshot and speed. In 1958, he led his Chicago team to the Stanley Cup, its first in 20 years.

From the American History Museum’s collection, these skates belonged to Phil Verchota (number 27) from the 1980 Olympic dream-team. Courtesy of the museum.

Even though the U.S. Olympic team actually beat the Finns to claim gold at the 1980 Games, it was their semifinal victory over the Soviet team that earned the nickname “Miracle on Ice.” Now a member of the so-called Big Six, which includes Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, the United States was considered the underdog at the time of the 1980 matchup. NHL players were not allowed to compete in the Olympics until 1998.

To commemorate the 1980 Olympic team, this stamp was created. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Over time, the league has fielded more American and European players as the popularity of the sport expands beyond Canada, which dominated the NHL for decades. Since 1994, the league has had three lockouts, hurting its viewership. When it cancelled the entire 2004-2005 season due to a lockout, it was the first league ever to do so. Fans hoped the Olympics might strengthen the league at home.

In 1984, the Olympic team finished in seventh place and earned another stamp commemorating its performance. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Finishing fourth, the 1992 Olympic team got this artistic tribute. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Two years later, the team fell to 8th place. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

Just short of gold medal glory, the 2002 team took home the silver. Courtesy of the National Postal Museum

In 2010, the team again finished in second place, reviving hopes that a strong international showing might peak interest back home. After the finish, Peter Lomuscio wrote about the league’s prospects saying, “The NHL has altered numerous rules over the years to try to add more skill and excitement to the game to attract more fans. They have changed the rules to promote more power-plays, exciting overtimes, and, of course, the famous shootouts.” Lomuscio hoped that the overlap of NHL players and Olympic team members might draw new viewers, but the league now seems to be in danger of alienating fans yet again with a lockout.

Here’s hoping for a speedy return to the ice!


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