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Hockey History: The First NHL Strike

How a Stanley Cup run was ended by one of the first labor wars in hockey history

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"Professional hockey is a money-making affair. The promoters are in the game for what they can make out of it and the players wouldn't be in the game if they didn't look at matters in the same light."

Another NHL millionaire defending his fat paycheque? The latest missive from the NHL Players' Association? Not quite. Those are the words of Shorty Green, who played for the Hamilton Tigers in 1925. Green and Billy Burch led the first strike in NHL history, and it cost them a shot at the Stanley Cup.

After several seasons in last place, the team soared to the top of the NHL in 1924-25. Burch, who would one day land in the Hockey Hall of Fame, scored 20 goals in 27 games to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. His wingers were brothers Red and Shorty Green, giving Hamilton a forward line that was almost unstoppable. The team was a clear Stanley Cup favorite.

But on the day the regular season ended, the Hamilton players met with their general manager, Percy Thompson. They told him they would not dress for the playoffs unless each man received a cash bonus of $200.

Burch and Shorty Green made several arguments. The NHL regular season increased from 24 to 30 games in 1924-25, and the playoff format also expanded. Other teams reportedly acknowledged the extra workload by offering raises or bonuses. But not the Tigers, even though the team turned a record profit that season. As well, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Maroons joined the NHL in 1924, paying $15,000 each in expansion fees to be divided among existing teams.

When management said no, the players met and agreed to follow through on their threat.

"Billy and I warned them there could be no drawing back," Green recalled years later. "We told them it was a case of all going into the playoffs together or all going out together... (NHL president Frank) Calder threatened us with fines, suspensions and a suit for damages."

The two sides had several days to negotiate before Hamilton's first playoff game. But the NHL and the team refused to compromise, telling the players to go to work or face suspension. The players held fast, and on March 13, 1925, the NHL suspended the entire Tigers' roster. The Montreal Canadiens, who defeated Toronto in the semifinals, were declared NHL champions, but lost the Stanley Cup Final to Victoria of the Western Canada Hockey League.

Many Tigers' players swore they would never again play for the Hamilton ownership. That's one reason why the franchise was sold in the summer of 1925. A New York mobster named Bill Dwyer paid $75,000 to turn the Tigers into the New York Americans. With a fortune made in Prohibition bootlegging, Dwyer handed out lucrative contracts, including a three-year deal to Billy Burch rumoured to be worth $25,000. Shorty Green also received a huge raise, his salary going from $3,000 to $5,000. This was a time when most NHL players were said to make about $1,500 or $2,000.

The suspended Tigers were not allowed back on the ice until they fully capitulated. Calder demanded, and eventually received, written apologies from each player involved in the strike.

Neither Billy Burch nor Shorty Green ever came close to another Stanley Cup. For whatever reason, the new Americans were a shadow of the Tigers, and missed the playoffs in 1925-26. A year later, Green retired.

Burch, meanwhile, became something of an American hockey hero. Born in Yonkers, New York, handsome in his stars-and-stripes Americans' sweater, Burch was the marquee attraction at Madison Square Garden. Dwyer promoted "Yonkers" Billy Burch as "The Babe Ruth of Hockey." A credulous local media quickly picked up the tag. He was named team captain and led the Americans in scoring with 22 goals in its first year.

But the ludicrous "Babe Ruth" nickname proved too much to live up to. Novice hockey fans would howl in protest whenever Burch passed the puck or took anything other than a direct route to the net. In subsequent seasons his productivity declined, although he remained among the top scorers on a poor team. The Americans, one of the least successful franchises in NHL history, made one brief playoff appearance during the Burch years. In 1933 he was sold to Boston, then traded to Chicago. He retired after breaking a leg near the end of that season.

When he died in 1950, the Montreal Gazette noted that Burch was one of the few players to win both the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and the Lady Byng Trophy as the league's "most gentlemanly and effective player." It was a remarkable achievement in what the Gazette called "a rough and tumble era in which the happy warriors mixed butt-ends, knees and elbows with their puckchasing with reckless abandon, and in which many of them played just as hard off the ice as on it."

Burch was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970. The New York Americans folded in 1942. In their 16 year existence they never made it to the Stanley Cup final.

Sources: "Total Hockey" (Total Sports); 1998
Toronto Star files

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