Looking Back on The Forward Pass

Vancouver Millionaires 1914-15
This week I’m looking back at the invention of the forward pass in hockey. Way back when hockey first started out, players were not allowed to pass the puck forward. Hockey was played in a similar fashion to modern day rugby, where players would line up and pass back and forth to each other trying to spring a player who could skate the puck up the ice past the defense and create scoring opportunities.

As you can imagine, without the ability to pass the puck forward the flow of the game was considerably slower than today’s game. This meant that players didn’t tire as quickly as they do today. There wasn’t the frantic pace to the game that we see today, and most good players at the turn of the 20th century would play 50-60 minutes a game with only a couple substitutions per team. The longer a game would go the more important fit and fast players became. Players able to speed past defends and generate scoring opportunities were essential to good teams.

In 1913 Frank Patrick, and his brother Lester, were running the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). A league they had started in 1911 which they hoped would rival the National Hockey Association (NHA); the precursor to the NHL. Always looking to innovate the game, the Patricks decided to allow forward passing within the center third of the ice. What we now call the neutral zone.

Forward passing did not sit well with many hockey purists of the day. Many felt that this would lead to more loafing. Loafing was a penalty at the time, as it was considered unsportsmanlike to stand around while your team is battling for the puck or trying to make plays. Purists felt that forward passing would allow players to loaf at center ice while waiting for a pass. Basically, they didn’t want cherrypickers. Also, it was felt that forward passing would ruin the strategy of the game and somehow make it less pure. Advocates for the forward pass made comparisons to lacrosse and American football as sports where forward passing didn’t hurt the overall game. (American football had just allowed forward passing in 1906 after 18 people across the country died due to mass scrums)

After the end of the 1913-14 season, the PCHA champion Victoria Aristocrats traveled to Toronto to take on the Toronto Blueshirts(now called the Maple Leafs) of the NHA for the World Champion and the Stanley Cup. Because the two leagues played with different rules, the series would be played with alternating rules per game depending on who was considered the home team. Not over did this mean that there would be no forward passing in Toronto home games, but at the time the NHA also played with a 7th skater, the Rover. Toronto would go on to win the series 3-0, but Victoria felt that goaltending was the difference and it wasn’t due to their style of play.

The following year, Frank Patrick would assemble a fantastic Vancouver Millionaires team which he both played for and coached. The star of the team was Cyclone Taylor, who had formerly played in the NHA and had once stated that he was opposed to the forward pass. However, it was clear that with his skill the forward pass would only help his game.

Vancouver would win the PCHA championship and would play Ottawa of the NHA for the Stanley Cup in 1915. Ottawa was the club Cyclone Taylor has played on when he first won the Stanley Cup in 1909. Ottawa was so sure they would win the Stanley Cup that the NHA didn’t even bring it with them to Vancouver.

At this point, NHA teams has been practicing the forward pass in anticipation of playing PCHA teams at the end of the year. However, since Vancouver was accustomed to it, they were able to come out flying. After taking game one of the series, playing with the forward pass, game two would be played without forward passing. However, because Vancouver had been used to playing a faster paced game all year long they were able to eventually wear down Ottawa. By the third period Ottawa was gassed and would go on to lose 8-3. The third game was even worse, as Vancouver won 12-3 playing with the forward pass, legitimising the strategy and rule change.

The NHA would fold after one more season, and it would take until 1918-19 for the NHL to adopt its own forward passing rule, but the PCHA changed the way hockey was played forever in 1913. Proving that the west coast is the best coast.

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