These six teams are the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all of which are still active franchises in the league.
Of the Original Six, only the Toronto Maple Leafs have not advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals since the expansion.
All of the other original six teams have appeared in at least three Finals since 1967 and have each won the cup at least once during the most recent 25 seasons (Toronto last won the Stanley Cup during the 1966–67 season when a team only had to win two rounds to claim the cup).
The term, not contemporaneous to the era, originated no earlier than 1967.
While only Montreal and Toronto were charter members of the NHL in 1917, all six existing teams going into the 1967–68 expansion to twelve teams date to the league's first decade, and were commonly considered as a traditional set.
|Team name||Location||Joined the NHL|
|Montreal Canadiens||Montreal, Quebec||1917 (founded in 1909)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||Toronto, Ontario||1917|
|Boston Bruins||Boston, Massachusetts||1924|
|Chicago Black Hawks||Chicago, Illinois||1926|
|Detroit Red Wings||Detroit, Michigan||1926|
|New York Rangers||New York City, New York||1926|
The NHL consisted of ten teams during the 1920s, but the league experienced a period of retrenchment during the Great Depression, losing the Pittsburgh Pirates\Philadelphia Quakers, Ottawa Senators\St. Louis Eagles and the Montreal Maroons in succession to financial pressures.
The New York/Brooklyn Americans (which was one of the league's original expansion franchises along with the Bruins and Maroons) lasted longer, but World War II provided its own economic strains and also severely depleted the league's Canadian player base, since Canada entered the war in September 1939 and many players left for military service.
The Americans suspended operations in the fall of 1942, leaving the NHL with just six teams.
Despite various outside efforts to initiate expansion after the war (including attempted revivals of the Maroons and Americans franchises), the league's membership would remain at six teams for the next twenty-five seasons.
The Original Six era has been criticized for having a playoff system that was too easy (the top four teams in the regular season advanced to the playoffs) and for featuring too many dominant teams. (Montreal never missed the playoffs between 1949 and 1967 and Detroit and Toronto only missed three times each, leaving the other three teams to compete for the one remaining berth).
The league also had a rule that gave each team exclusive rights to negotiate contracts with promising local players within 50 miles of its home ice.
Since Toronto and Montreal's metropolitan areas contained abundant hockey prospects, this put them at a major recruiting advantage over Boston, New York, and Chicago which had very few such prospects in their territories (Detroit had Southwestern Ontario as part of its territory; it thus did not have the major advantage of the Canadian teams but were better positioned than the other American ones).
If a player was not within the 50-mile limit, that player was free to field offers from any team. Once that player agreed to a sponsorship-level contract, the NHL club could assign him to its sponsored junior squad: its "sponsorship list".
In practice, all six teams recruited players from Canada by sponsoring minor league, junior and amateur teams.
This phenomenon had the impact of limiting player movement, and as a result the Original Six rosters were very static.
Until the lengthening of careers in the 1980s, only one twenty-year player in NHL history, Larry Robinson started his career after 1964, and it is generally accepted that the weakest Calder Trophy winners (Rookies of the Year) of all time were selected in the 1950s and 1960s.
In partial consequence, the league was almost entirely composed of Canadians who had come up through the junior and minor pro leagues.
While the league boasted a handful of good American players during the 1940s (including All-Star goalkeepers Frank Brimsek & Mike Karakas, defenseman John Mariucci and forward Cully Dahlstrom), these were mostly products of the American Hockey Association which folded in 1942 and almost all played for the Chicago Black Hawks, whose owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin was a fiercely patriotic man who tried to stock his roster with as many American players as possible.
Very few all American-developed NHL players emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when Tommy Williams was the only American to play regularly.
Both Williams and Mariucci complained about anti-American bias, and U.S. Olympic team stars John Mayasich and Bill Cleary turned down offers from NHL teams.
The only European-born and trained player of the era was Sweden's Ulf Sterner, who briefly played for the Rangers in 1965.
After World War II, all six NHL owners consistently rejected any bids for expansion and in the eyes of many observers changed the criteria for entry every time with a bent to defeating any such bid.
They also reneged on promises to allow the still-extant, but dormant Maroons and Americans franchises to re-activate.
The league tolerated monopolistic practices by the owners.
At one point, for instance, Red Wings owner James E. Norris effectively owned the Black Hawks as well, and was also the largest stockholder in the Rangers.
He also had significant influence over the Bruins by way of mortgages extended to the team to help keep it afloat during the Depression. This led some critics to joke that NHL stood for "Norris House League."
The control of owners over their teams was absolute.
Players who got on the wrong side of their team owner were often harshly punished, either by being traded out of town or sent to the minors.
An example of this is the case of bruising Red Wings forward Ted Lindsay who (after agitating for a players' union) was sent to the last-place Black Hawks. Norris' conglomerate did not invest in Boston, Chicago, and New York; these teams mostly just filled dates for the Norris arenas.
A measure of the dominance of Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto in the era can be seen in that between the Bruins' Stanley Cup wins in 1941 and 1970, every single Cup (save for Chicago in 1961) was won by the Red Wings, the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs and those three teams failed to make the playoffs only eight times combined in the era.
Labor conditions for the players were also poor. Players' medical bills were paid for only two months after an injury.
Moreover, whenever players were sent to the minors, they not only had their salaries cut, but their relocation costs were not covered. The players were also not paid for off-season promotions, and did not share in the funds of promotions such as trading cards as was done in baseball.
In the earlier era, players were allowed to play other sports, such as lacrosse, for money in the off-season, but this was disallowed in the standard Original Six-era contract.
The pension plan, formed in 1946 while ostensibly for the players' benefit, was kept secret, hiding large amounts of money under the control of the owners.
The pension plan was only exposed in 1989 when it was found that a $25 million surplus existed.
The stark labor conditions led to several players' disputes, including a 1957 anti-trust action and attempted union formation, and subsequent actions in the early 1960s by Toronto players Bob Baun and Carl Brewer, leading to the 1967 formation of the NHL Players Association.
End of the Original Six Era
As more conservative owners left the NHL, a younger guard that was more receptive to expansion came into the league.
By 1963, when Rangers governor William M. Jennings first introduced to his peers the idea of expanding the NHL, other major sports leagues were growing: Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) were adding teams while the American Football League (AFL) was becoming an attractive alternative to the NFL.
Jennings proposed that the NHL add two new teams on the American West Coast for the 1964-65 season, basing his argument on concerns that the Western Hockey League intended to operate as a major league in the near future and possibly compete against the NHL for talent; he also hoped that a West Coast presence would make the NHL truly national and improve the league's chances of returning to national television in the United States (its broadcast deal with CBS expired in 1960). While the governors did not agree to Jennings' proposal, the topic of expansion came up every time the owners met from then on out.
In 1965, it was decided to expand by six teams, doubling the size of the NHL.
In February 1966, expansion franchises were awarded to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and the San Francisco-Oakland area; those six new franchises would begin play in the 1967-68 NHL season, a year after Toronto's six-game defeat of Montreal in the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals drew the Original Six era to a close.
The first dozen seasons (1967–68 through 1978–79) of the Expansion Era saw domination by Original Six teams, including the Bobby Orr-led Bruins of the early 1970s and the Canadiens dynasty at the end of that decade.
Expansion teams, by comparison, were not as dominant during that same time period which can be partly attributed to expansion teams in general being weaker than existing clubs when first starting out.
During those dozen seasons, only one expansion team hoisted the Cup (the Broad Street Bullies of the Philadelphia Flyers, in 1974 and 1975), and only one Stanley Cup Final featured two expansion teams (the Flyers' 1975 win over Buffalo).
By the early 1980s (after further expansion, a merger with the WHA, and changes in conference/division alignment and playoff structure), expansion teams began reaching clear parity with the Original Six; indeed, the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals between the Canadiens and Rangers would be the last Final featuring any Original Six team until 1986 (when the Canadiens claimed the Cup) as well as the last all-Original Six Final until Chicago's win over Boston in 2013, the same year that all Original Six teams made the playoffs, the first time that had happened since 1996.
Since the dawn of the Expansion Era, every Original Six team has won the Cup at least once except for Toronto, which has the longest active Cup drought in the NHL.
Since the Expansion, the Montreal Canadiens twice won the Cup beating only fellow Original Six teams, in 1978 (Detroit, Toronto and Boston), and 1979 (Toronto, Boston and New York), and the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only ones to also win the Cup after beating three of the Six (New York and Boston in the Eastern playoffs, Chicago in the finals).
Twice the Eastern champion beat two Original Six teams before being defeated by one in the Western Conference, the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes (beat Montreal and Toronto, lost to Detroit) and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers (beat Boston and Montreal, lost to Chicago).
In 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team to face only Original Six franchises in the four-round playoff era, beating Detroit, Montreal and New York in the Eastern playoffs before the finals against Chicago which Tampa Bay wound up losing.
The last active player from the Original Six era was Wayne Cashman who retired with the Boston Bruins in 1983.
According to Forbes in 2015, five of the Original Six teams are the top five most valuable NHL clubs: the Rangers at approximately $1.2 billion, the Canadiens at $1.18 billion, the Maple Leafs at $1.15 billion, the Blackhawks at $925 million, and the Bruins at $750 million. The Red Wings rank eighth at $600 million.