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Historicist: Arch Enemy of the NHL

A renegade Toronto hockey team owner, and the contentious path to the creation of the National Hockey League.

Photo of a typical Ontario Hockey team, 1915, by George Irwin, from Provincial Archives of Ontario (C 119-1-0-0-42).

Dysfunction has a long history in Toronto hockey. A hockey impresario in the amateur ranks, Edward J. Livingstone’s graduation to the professional game quickly devolved into bickering, power struggles, and lawsuits. As owner and manager of the Toronto Shamrocks—and later, the Toronto Blueshirts—of the National Hockey Association, Livingstone clashed repeatedly with his fellow owners. The feuds were so virulent that they formed the National Hockey League in late 1917 for the singular purpose of excluding him.

Livingstone was a constant thorn in the NHL’s side during the league’s early years. One reporter, quoted in Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth’s Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey (Dundurn, 2002) likened him to “a game little tyke battling against a horde of grim-faced bulldogs.” For his sustained antagonism, John Chi-Kit Wong concludes in Lords of the Rinks: The Emergence of the National Hockey League 1875-1936 (University of Toronto Press, 2005), that “Livingstone was arguably the most important person in the establishment of the NHL.”

Photo of professional hockey players at Christie Pits, 1912, from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 476.

In an era when professional sports were looked down upon as ungentlemanly compared to amateur sport, small, regional professional hockey leagues emerged across the country. One such league was the National Hockey Association, established in 1909 by Montreal-based interests who saw professional hockey as a promising business opportunity.

League officials recognized the desirability of having a member club in Toronto, the country’s second biggest city—or rather two teams, so the other owners could save on travel costs. But the league had to wait until a suitable venue was constructed. Although plenty of natural ice-hockey surfaces existed in Toronto—like High Park—the professional game required a modern, covered arena with plenty of seats for paying customers.

The Tecumseh Hockey Club and the Toronto Hockey Club were slated to join the NHA for the 1911-1912 season. But construction delays on the Arena Gardens, a new facility on Mutual Street near Shuter, postponed their debut until the following season.

The Toronto Hockey Club—soon known as the Blueshirts for their plain blue sweaters emblazoned with a large white T—played their first game at the Arena Gardens on Christmas Day in 1912, before 4,000 fans. With a roster that included Harry Cameron, Frank Nighbor, and Hap Holmes, the Blueshirts fared well in their inaugural season, winning the NHA championship and the Stanley Cup.

The Tecumsehs didn’t fare so well, starting with a 7-4 loss to the Montreal Wanderers in their debut on December 28, 1912. From there, they staggered to a dismal record of 7 wins and 13 losses. The following season, the club—now renamed the Toronto Ontarios—was even worse, with a 4 and 16 record, and finished in last place for a consecutive season.

Both teams played at the Arena Gardens. Although the most modern rink in Eastern Canada at the time, it lacked comfort and adornment, and has been likened to a barn. “The box seats were [unpadded] planks,” a long-time employee told historian Russell Field. “The construction of the players’ benches was just tongue and groove.” The two NHA teams had to split practice and game time on Toronto’s first artificial ice surface with at least eight junior and senior hockey clubs, as well as regular public skating times.

Although the Toronto Arena Company was interested in profit—hosting car and horse shows in the off-season—its directors did not directly involve themselves in the operation of an NHA club. Early professional leagues were unstable, forming and folding with regularity. So from season to season, rink operators across the country just wanted a team on the ice that would lure paying spectators. Box office revenues were usually shared between team and venue.

Photo of the Torontos (aka Blueshirts), Stanley Cup Champions of 1913-1914, from {a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Torontos.jpg"}WikiMedia Commons{/a}.

On December 8, 1914, a new owner, Edward J. Livingstone, purchased the struggling Tecumsehs/Ontarios franchise. The Toronto-born entrepreneur and sportsman had found success in amateur sports and sought to do the same at the professional level.

Livingstone was the youngest child of David and Rita Livingstone. His father owned a successful printing company, allowing a comfortable life for the family in a spacious house on Delaware Avenue. Growing up, Eddie Livingstone—nicknamed “Livvy”—played a variety of sports, including rugby, cricket, and hockey. Then, he turned to coaching and managing football and hockey teams for the Toronto Amateur Athletic Club, and later the Toronto Rugby and Athletic Association. He had a keen eye for identifying undiscovered talent, and his TR&AA team won the Ontario Hockey Association senior championship in 1913 and 1914. Throughout this period, Livingstone was an assistant sports editor at the Mail and Empire, and worked as a referee.

Livingstone overhauled the Ontarios’ roster, adding Corb Denneny and Alf Skinner—both rookies—and goalie Percy LaSueur, as well as the McNamara brothers, George and Howard.

It did not take long for the pugnacious Livingstone—who, Holzman and Nieforth note, was once dubbed a “stormy petrel”—to begin feuding with fellow owners. Livingstone had asked for a postponement of a February 1915 game while the McNamara brothers tended to their ailing father. Sam Lichtenhein, owner of the Montreal Wanderers, stubbornly refused and the game was ruled a forfeit. In an apparent fit of conscience, Lichtenhein then offered to play a make-up game. But he reneged a month later, when the Wanderers were in a tight race for the championship.

In a war of words, Livingstone publicly denounced Lichtenhein, and the Montreal owner threatened to pressure the other clubs into having the newcomer owner tossed out of the league. It was the beginning of a years-long feud that culminated, at one point, in Lichtenhein offering $3,000 for Livingstone’s franchise just to be rid of him. The Torontonian retorted by counter-offering $5,000 if Lichtenhein would shutter his club.

On the ice, Livingstone’s transition to the pro game didn’t go any smoother; the Shamrocks improved but still finished in second-to-last place with a 7-13 record in his first season.

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