It was on November 26, 1917 that the National Hockey League was founded in Montreal. Teams included the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Arenas, and Quebec Bulldogs. And the first NHL games were played on December 19, 1917. The Montreal Wanderers defeated the Toronto Arenas, 10-9, and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators, 7-4.
Six teams played from 1917 to 1967 and this period is the pre-expansion era or the original six era. Those six teams in 1967 formed the East Division while six more teams were added the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Oakland Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues—and they formed the West Division.
Clint Benedict was the first goalie to ever wear a mask, after a shot by Howie Mornez knocked him unconscious back in 1927. The mask was made out of leather, but when wearing it he could not see low shots, so it didn't last.
It wasn't until November 1, 1959, when Jaques Plante of the Montreal Canadians became the second goalie to put on a mask. Plante had been using his self-made creations during practice but knew it wasn't an accepted idea to use one in a real game. However, when Andy Bathgate's shot clipped him in the head, Plante refused to go back on the ice without a mask. After a long fight Toe Blake, the Canadians' coach, let him wear it and the rest is history.
Today the NHL is composed of 30 teams, 24 based in the United States and six based in Canada. In Canada, the sport remains as popular as ever with most Canadians tuning in to telecasts in wide numbers. It is their most popular major team sport and fan loyalty is intense.
After losing a season to a labor dispute in 2005, attendance figures for League teams have returned to a firm footing; but the League's TV audience has not because of ESPN's decision to drop the sport from its schedule at that time. That is when Versus Network stepped in and offered a two-year 130 million dollar deal to Commissioner Gary Bettman. In 2007 the NHL signed an extension to the Verus deal to air games on the network through the 2010-2011 season. 2007–08 NHL audiences on Versus in the United States remain small, but have increased over the previous two seasons. Versus is averaging 246,154 viewers a game, up 24 percent from last year at this time.
The NHL also has a current agreement with NBC gives the sport a share of revenue from each game's advertising sales, rather than the usual lump sum paid up front for game rights. NBC frequently select Northeastern teams for telecast based on the popularity in markets such as Buffalo, Detroit and Pittsburgh and usually not on the team’s record.
Although hockey in the United States will most likely never surpass the NFL, the sport remains healthy and seemingly on the rise once again. According to the Sporting News NHL set an attendance record for the month of October 2008 with an average crowd of 17,348. And the league is reporting that they were at 94.1 percent capacity for all games in October.