Do Original Six teams still matter in the NHL?
The phrase is invoked with such reverence, one might utter names of ancient civilizations or antiquities.
"The Original Six."
Genuflect if you will.
But as the NHL moves forward, trying with varying degrees of success to find its foothold in America and the sporting world, the question is where these historic franchises fit into the future.
Many hockey observers believe these franchises are a catalyst component of the league's long-term health and success -- as they go, so, too, does the NHL. If they fail, so, too, will the NHL. But that collective importance is underscored by the fact that, individually, members of this exclusive club have been the butt of jokes for years and likely will be for years to come.
Relevant? Irrelevant? The cornerstones of the new NHL or a musty history lesson? Do fans under a certain age, let's say 30, have any sense of what the league looked like before the 1967 expansion that ended the Original Six era?
"I really wonder," said New York Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney, who has been with the team in various capacities for more than 20 years. For the fan in his or her mid-20s, "does it mean a darn thing? You like to think you have a kind of a special standing, but honestly, I'm not sure. It was a long time ago, the Original Six."
For many fans, the Original Six concept is similar to steam engines and black-and-white television -- charming but distant. One source whose involvement in league operations spans three decades believes it's less the mystique of the Original Six than it is the markets they represent. "I don't think [the history] matters," the source said.
The Original Six isn't literally the original six teams to form the National Hockey League.
The NHL was founded in 1917 with five teams (Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs, Toronto Arenas). Over the next 10 years, more teams joined the league -- Toronto Maple Leafs in 1917, the Boston Bruins, the first American team, in 1924 and the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers in 1926.
As the Great Depression forced the Maroons, Americans, and Senators into bankruptcy and World War II took its toll, the NHL was reduced to the "Original Six" by 1942. For the next 25 years, those six teams would be the only teams in the NHL.
By the 1960s, other sports leagues, like the American Football League, were gaining a lot of popularity in the United States, and there was pressure on the NHL to expand. So, in 1967, the league added six more teams -- California Seals (later renamed the Oakland Seals), Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
With that expansion, the Original Six had officially ended, but the tag still remains with those franchises.
"You could argue that Montreal and Toronto have never been more successful as businesses than they are right now," the source added. And yet they've won just one Stanley Cup between them since 1993 and neither has appeared in the Cup finals since that time. "There are some pretty good stable franchises that aren't Original Six teams, but clearly have as much influence on the game."
Only one of the current owners, Chicago's Bill Wirtz, pre-dates the 1967 expansion. There are a handful of teams (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Los Angeles) that are approaching their 40th anniversary. So, it's not so much the longevity of the Original Six teams that defines their importance, but the health of teams in the largest markets, and the Six represent large markets.
Maloney recalls the early 1990s, when the Rangers were contending for, and finally won, a Stanley Cup. There was an incredible vibe in the community, and if there is a buzz in New York, the ripple effect is felt across the nation through television exposure, magazines or newspapers.
When the team has struggled, as it did in the years after that seminal 1994 Cup win, there has been little buzz about the team, so the league has missed out on the national glow on the game.
There are others who believe the league's historic franchises are the best barometers for the league's successes or failures.
Former netminder Glenn Healy, now a national TV analyst, played for two Original Six franchises, playing for the Rangers from 1993-97 before finishing his career in Toronto. He said it's obvious the six teams hold a different place in the hockey community than the others.
"They're an essential fabric of the league," Healy said. "The better the Original Six teams do, the better the league does. That's the reality. When we won the Cup in 1994, there were there generations of Ranger fans waiting to see a Stanley Cup. It mattered to those fans whether we won a Cup."
The same is true in Toronto, where generations of fans are bound by the team's history and the hope (however small) that some day that dream of another Stanley Cup will be realized.
"It just shows the bond that is there and the connection with the community," Healy said. "I was a kid watching the '67 Cup. My parents and me. And we're still hooked."
"There is definitely something special about them," Chiarelli said. "You can feel how deep-rooted the history is. It's quite powerful."
For the overall health of the league, "I think it's important," Chiarelli said. "Those teams are the first building blocks and it's important to have those initial blocks stable and sturdy and steady."
But imagine the Original Six represents the footings of the NHL, as many suggest. What happens when two or more of those footings are decayed and rotting?
It's impossible to discuss problems of attendance and financial instability in small, non-traditional markets like Nashville and Florida, "when you have bumbling situations like you have in Boston and Chicago," said long-time Maple Leafs executive Bill Watters, who is now a radio and television analyst.
As much as the Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings represent the shining examples of Original Six -- teams who enjoy exalted status not just in hockey but in all of pro sports because of their vibrant relationship with their fans -- their brethren in Chicago and Boston are constant reminders of squandered opportunity.
"Take Boston. They were an awful team for 40 years before Bobby Orr," a league source said. "Boston and Chicago have always been the ugly sisters of the league."
You can't have one without the other. You cannot believe in the Original Six as a special entity if you do not likewise accept that, when those franchises stumble, it reflects badly on their markets and the league.
"I believe it is important for them to do well and it is a concern when they don't," said Mike Gartner, a Hall of Famer who played in 1,432 regular-season games, including stints with the Rangers and Leafs, and is now the director of hockey affairs for the NHLPA.
"All of them carry something the other teams can never get -- and that's tradition," he added. "That can be both a positive thing for their franchise to build on and it can be an anchor around their neck when things don't go well, like in Chicago."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently spoke in Atlanta about the generational elements of sport. And part of the beauty of sport is that it is something that can be passed on from generation to generation. The love of a game or a team or a city passed from parents to children and grandchildren.
But these things don't happen by accident. The relationship is a sacred trust and teams carry the responsibility to care for and nurture that relationship.
• In Montreal, the Canadiens have managed to evolve and embrace a younger fan base, even though they haven't won a Cup since 1993. They have sold out every game at the Bell Centre since the lockout and remain the NHL's attendance leader every season, all without sacrificing any of the traditions that are so much a part of the team's identity.
"There's a new generation of fans in Montreal. But the Montreal Canadiens are still the Montreal Canadiens," said former coach Jacques Demers, who was behind the bench for that last Cup win.
• In New York, the Rangers have sold out 60 consecutive regular-season games through mid-February. Their last regular-season non-sellout was Oct. 31, 2005 versus Montreal (17,697 of 18,200), and between October 1996 and October 2001, the Blueshirts sold out 204 straight games. It's amazing given this was a team that was in the early stages of a post-Cup decline that would last a decade.
• Toronto? The Leafs are the biggest moneymaker in the game. In many ways, the team continues to be the standard bearer in terms of revenues and fan support.
"There's only one hockey town, there's only one great fan; that's the Toronto Maple Leaf fan," Watters said. "Forty years [since their last Cup win]. Forty years. And you still need a search warrant to find an empty seat. They are an aberration in sport."
• The Red Wings have endured more historic ups and downs than their Canadian Original Six cousins, but they've have ruled the sports scene in Detroit for over two decades, winning three Stanley Cups between 1997-2002 and regularly finishing at or near the top of the NHL standings.
• In places like Chicago and Boston, not only has that all-important link between generations of fans been snapped, but there is little to show it is being repaired as attendance is among the league's worst in both cities.
"Part of the problem is in treating it like a birthright to have fans [in Chicago] and not an honor," Healy said. "Boston's in the same boat. You have to earn the respect of the fans."
Bettman was optimistic that things would get better.
"If you look back at the history of the NHL, you've got to go to the mid-60s before you see more than the Original Six in the modern era. And I think because this is a game that is so steeped in history and tradition and has such a strong culture, there is always this special status, star quality, that those teams have throughout the league among hockey fans no matter how well they're playing.
"When they struggle on the ice, over time, they tend to struggle more at home than on the road because they have that star appeal when they're on the road," Bettman said. "Fans, no matter what market it is, no matter how old or how new, they always want to see an Original Six team."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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