1920s – NCAA Rules, Brand, and Western U.S. Expansion

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Representatives from Yale, Princeton, Cornell University, Penn and Dartmouth College met in November 1920 to develop a set of their own hockey rules as opposed to the ever-changing rules they used from other leagues. They also hoped to create an association to govern all of intercollegiate hockey and increase play in the western United States. The final decision was to adopt the rules of Canadian universities with slight modifications.

The National Hockey Association – the precursor to the National Hockey League – had reduced the number of players per team on the ice from seven to six in 1911. Reasons behind this included the opening of more space on the ice and the reduction of costs for fielding an extra player on the team. Ten years later at the onset of the 1921 college hockey season, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association adopted the rule change on November 13. The likely reason for this change was the response to the popularity of the rule change throughout all hockey levels. More than one hundred years later, hockey at all levels is still a six-man game (counting five players and a goalie for each team on the ice). Within the same meeting, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association also voted in favor of adding numbers to the hockey sweaters just like the jerseys on the football players of the gridiron.

Headline for an article from he November 15, 1921, issue of the Daily Princetonian
Headline from an article in the November 15, 1921 issue of the Daily Princetonian

At this point in time, the standard substitution practice during game play was to substitute on a player-by-player basis between whistles. Harvard head coach, William H. Claflin, and a player on his team, George Owen, instituted an idea during the March 3, 1923, game against Yale when they began changing an entire forward line instead of individuals during the game play. This worked to their advantage and helped them defeat Yale 2-1 in overtime. The line change was invented and adopted by other programs after that first appearance.

In 1926, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) – still in its infancy – looked to expand its influence outside of football and into the hockey world. Rather than rely on rules set up by a group of universities, the NCAA organized an ice hockey rules committee of its own that year. Within two years, the association made a deal to take over management of the Ice Hockey Guide, previously distributed by Spalding for nearly 30 years. This association could now promote its rules through a previously-set distribution base. And they did just that beginning in 1928. This guide helped promote the NCAA brand as the premier amateur hockey association in the United States while also distinguishing it from the professional brand. The NCAA wanted to promote athletic skills as opposed to a rough and unruly game that spectators may see when attending professional hockey rinks.

Professional leagues in the 1920s were beginning to allow the forward pass as long as it occurred within specific zones on the ice (defensive, center, offensive). The NCAA held fast to the rule that prohibited forward passing in order to maintain the purity of the original Montreal game. After the first set of rules were circulated in 1928 by the NCAA, it was obvious that collegiate rules began to distance themselves even further from the NHL. For instance, the NHL had no limits on where on the ice a player could be checked. In order to bring more skill to the game of hockey, the NCAA changed their rule by instituting a two-minute penalty for a player who checked outside of his own defensive zone. As for fighting within hockey, the NHL reduced the punishment for fighting two years later to only include a five-minute major penalty instead of a game disqualification. Alternatively, the NCAA kept the five-minute major fighting penalty and disqualification in its rulebook to promote sportsmanship rather than brutality. These rules defined NCAA hockey for the next four decades and the college level carved a niche of fans that grew to appreciate the game that focused on skill rather than brute force. A large drawback to this style of play is that it unfortunately reduced the chances of Americans playing in the physical NHL.

Hockey grew beyond the Ivy League schools in the 1920s and spread throughout New England and the Midwest. Small colleges created their own leagues in the Midwest. Large universities, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the University of Notre Dame did so as well. When the five East Coast universities met back in November 1920, they likely didn’t imagine their goal of pushing hockey west meant that it would reach the Pacific Ocean before the next decade. However, hockey made it to California universities by the late 1920s. In 1929, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Southern California (USC) and University of California (Cal) all fielded ice hockey teams.

Next: 1930s – West Coast Rises and the East Coast Goes International