A renegade Toronto hockey team owner, and the contentious path to the creation of the National Hockey League.
The outbreak of the First World War only made Livingstone’s task of recruiting and signing players to improve his roster that much harder. Thousands of amateur and pro athletes volunteered for overseas service—particularly in Ontario, and to a lesser degree in Quebec. The clubs in the NHA and the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association competed fiercely for the dwindling number of available players. The situation was such, Wong reports, that NHA officials seriously contemplated suspending league play for the duration of the war.
To ease the level of competition for players in the Toronto area—and thus the wages they could command—Livingstone purchased the cross-town club prior to the 1915-1916 season. The Blueshirts had fallen from the championship to an 8 and 12 record.
But when the Blueshirt roster was raided by the PCHA, Livingstone only had enough players for one team and he transferred the Shamrocks to the Blueshirts. Concerned over the propriety of a single owner managing two teams, NHA officials demanded Livingstone sell one of his clubs. And when he missed their November 20, 1915, deadline for doing so, the league seized the Shamrocks and remove the team from the schedule.
That season, the NHA operated with only five franchises, irritating owners who now had to spend the same amount of money for the long trip to Toronto to only play one game. Having one team idle each week further cut into the owners’ profits. By season’s end, the Blueshirts were in last place with a 9-14-1 record, and Livingstone had alienated many of his fellow owners.
For the 1916-1917 season, the NHA replaced the dormant Shamrocks with a team composed of members of the 228th Battalion. Stationed near Toronto, the 228th took to the ice at the Arena Gardens dressed in the khakis of the infantry. Almost immediately, Livingstone feuded with the 228th Battalion, arguing over the legitimacy of players who had volunteered for service and joined their hockey team. He also bickered with the Toronto Arena Company, operators of the Arena Gardens, on an almost ongoing basis.
Livingstone couldn’t seem to help himself. He even occasionally feuded with players, like his star, Cy Denneny, who had scored nearly half of the team’s goals the previous season. Denneny had found a government job in Ottawa and, on threat of sitting out the season, demanded a trade to the Senators. Livingstone, in turn, demanded the impossible compensation of either Frank Nighbor or Clint Benedict, two of Ottawa’s best players, or $1,800 in cash. The Blueshirt owner eventually capitulated and settled for a combination of a lesser player and $750. But he had succeeded in solidifying the enmity of the Senators management.
In another instance, when Livingstone couldn’t sign amateur superstar Lionel Conacher, he publicly questioned the player’s amateur status, as well as his integrity and character. Conacher retaliated with a libel suit, resulting in an out-of-court settlement that required Livingstone to publish a full apology in the daily papers.
When the 228th Battalion was ordered overseas on February 8, 1917, the club advised the NHA that it was withdrawing from the league midway through the season. At a league meeting shortly afterward—which Livingstone couldn’t attend—the other owners also voted to suspend the Blueshirts franchise on a vague charge of “transgressions of the rule.” The owners had no desire to again operate with an odd number of teams—and had likewise grown tired of dealing with their Toronto compatriot. To add insult to injury, the officials also ruled to temporarily disperse the Blueshirts players to the other teams until such time as Toronto was reinstated. The league hoped that Livingstone would understand this as a less-than-subtle hint for him to sell his franchise.
Livingstone was furious and lashed back with accusations of irregularities in league matches and complained that other owners had tampered with his players or turned them against him. Indeed, a couple had complained to league officials that Livingstone hadn’t paid them all he owed.
On March 9, 1917, Livingstone launched a lawsuit against the NHA and its member clubs for damages at having his team suspended and he filed for an injunction, attempting to block the club owners from forming another league. Although Livingstone was not successful in receiving damages or an injunction, which were dismissed in February 1918, this was the first salvo in an interminable series of lawsuits, counter-suits, and appeals that would keep Livingstone in court for more than a decade.
By the fall of 1917, NHA owners had openly issued an ultimatum to Livingstone: sever his relationship with the Blueshirts or have his club remain dormant for another season. At a meeting in mid-November—which Livingstone did not attend—NHA officials announced that the league was suspending operations. The owners provided two reasons, quoted by Wong: “1. it was unfeasible to operate a 5-team league and 2. The scarcity of talents due to the war.”
Not long after, however, all the NHA owners but Livingstone met at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal and emerged to announce the formation of a new league, the National Hockey League. The new league adopted the NHA rules and constitution, and the owners transferred their players from their NHA clubs to their new NHL rosters.
As Holzman and Nieforth correctly argue, this was a blatant scheme by a faction of owners and the de facto league president, Frank Calder, to squeeze out Livingstone, and secure his players for their own teams without properly compensating him for their release.
“Don’t get us wrong, Elmer,” Lichtenhein told one reporter after the meeting. “We didn’t throw Livingstone out. He’s still got his franchise in the old National Hockey Association. He has his team, and we wish him well. The only problem is he’s playing in a one-team league.” Another owner explained their motivation: “Livingstone was always arguing. Without him we can get down to the business of making money.” Scuttling one league and starting another to be rid of an annoyance was, Wong suggests, an established practice of sports leagues at the time.