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January 3, 2011
Pucks From The Past
The Birth of Line Changes, Part 1

by Iain Fyffe

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When we last looked at the rising use of substitutes in major league hockey, we saw that heading into the 1920's, although more and more substitutes were being used, their role was not yet changing. Substitutes existed to give the starters a breather now and again, playing only a few minutes per game. Contrast this with the modern game, where four lines are rotated with great regularity. The purpose of this two-part series is to look at when one started to become the other.

Odie Cleghorn is generally credited with introducing the concept of rotating set forward lines in the NHL, specifically when he was player-coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925-26. As the story goes, Cleghorn was a substitute forward for the Montreal Canadiens in 1925 when the Habs took on the Victoria Cougars in the Stanley Cup Finals. Montreal had a forward line of Howie Morenz, Aurel Joliat and Billy Boucher, a unit renowned for its speed and skill. To counter this line, Victoria's Lester Patrick devised a scheme of rapid line changes among his forwards, to keep their legs fresh to match the pace put up by the Canadiens. This strategy was clearly successful, since the Cougars took the Cup three games to one. Cleghorn adapted the idea when he coached the Pirates starting in the Fall of 1925, setting three forwards lines and rotating them regularly.

That's the story, anyway. But as you might know, some things in the mythology of hockey's history are just that: mythology. The story of Cyclone Taylor scoring a goal while skating backwards is another example. Friend and colleague (and hockey history's resident mythbuster) Eric Zweig proved that story was merely a story. So we can't just accept the Cleghorn tale above, we need to examine it to determine its accuracy, as best we can.

There are several parts to this myth, which bear examination individually:

1. Odie Cleghorn introduced set forward lines to the NHL in 1925-26.
2. He rotated three forward lines at that time.
3. The Victoria Cougars used a tactic of rapid line changes to counter the Canadiens' great forward line in the 1925 Stanley Cup series.
4. Cleghorn got the idea for set forward lines from the Cougars, who defeated his Canadiens in 1925.

Did Odie Cleghorn Introduce Set Forward Lines to the NHL?

The Pittsburgh Pirates joined the NHL for the 1925-26 season, posting a surprisingly good record of 19-16-1 to finish third in the standings. The team is typically noted as the first in the NHL to rotate two set forward lines, rather than playing a starting forward unit and substitutes who played occasionally. We can determine whether this is the case by looking at the numbers for the Pirates' forwards, compared to other teams.

As a baseline for comparison, we can look at the Montreal Canadiens, who used their substitute forwards more than a typical team that season. The Habs' starting forwards were Hall of Famers Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat, along with Billy Boucher at right wing. They also had regular substitute forwards in Pit Lepine, Hec Lepine and Wildor Larochelle. By looking at the relative offensive contributions of each players, we get an idea of their relative playing time.

1925-26 Monteal Canadiens Forwards, Points

Left Wing   GP   Pts	Center	    GP   Pts	Right Wing    GP   Pts
A. Joliat   35   26	H. Morenz   31   26	B. Boucher    34   13
H. Lepine   33   7	P. Lepine   27   10	W. Larochelle 33   3

The relative points-per-game of the starters versus the substitutes imply that the subs might have been playing about one-quarter of the time that the starters were. However, if we look at the PIM totals as well, we see that Hec Lepine and Larochelle were likely barely playing:

1925-26 Monteal Canadiens Forwards, Penalty Minutes

Left Wing   GP   PIM	Center	    GP  PIM	Right Wing    GP   PIM
A. Joliat   35   52	H. Morenz   31	39	B. Boucher    34   112
H. Lepine   33   2	P. Lepine   27	18	W. Larochelle 33   10

The reason that the scoring totals for the subs are relatively high is probably Pit Lepine. He would likely have been a starter for most any other NHL team, but with the Canadiens, he was stuck behind Howie Morenz, which was no way to get significant playing time. The disparity between point totals among the subs implies they probably didn't play as a single unit; Pit Lepine would have played more than either his brother or Larochelle. The Habs were clearly not rotating two lines, although they did use their substitutes more than most other teams. For example, the Ottawa Senators forwards for 1925-26 are shown below; note the distinct lack of points from the substitutes:

1925-26 Ottawa Senators Forwards, Points

Left Wing   GP   Pts	Center	    GP   Pts	Right Wing    GP   Pts
C. Denneny  36   36	F. Nighbor  25   25	R. Smith      28   25
H. Kilrea   35   5	J. Duggan   27   0	F. Finnigan   36   2

With this baseline in mind, we can examine the Pirates' forwards, and note the decidedly different shape of their numbers:

1925-26 Pittsburgh Pirates Forwards, Points

Left Wing   GP   Pts	Center	   GP   Pts	Right Wing   GP   Pts
F. McCurry  36   17	H. Milks   36   19	H. Darragh   35   17
H. Cotton   33   8	H. Drury   33   8	T. White     35   8

1925-26 Pittsburgh Pirates Forwards, Penalty Minutes

Left Wing   GP   PIM	Center	   GP   PIM	Right Wing   GP   PIM
F. McCurry  36   32	H. Milks   36   17	H. Darragh   35   6
H. Cotton   33   22	H. Drury   33   40	T. White     35   22

The scoring totals among the starting forwards and the substitute forwards are remarkably consistent. The starters each score between 17 and 19 points, while the subs each had eight points each. The starters clearly played together; in game summaries for the season, Duke McCurry, Hib Milks and Harold Darragh were listed as the three starting forwards in nearly all of the Pirates' games. And the consistency of the second unit scoring totals strongly implies they played about the same amount of time. All of this, when considered in combination with the Pirates being historically credited with playing set forward lines, strongly implies that Baldy Cotton, Herb Drury and Tex White did in fact play together as a second forward unit.

And although the second unit scored only 45% as many points as the first, their penalty minutes totals were 163% of the starters figures. We can't be sure, but we could hazard a guess that the second line was playing something like two thirds of the minutes that the first line was, which is certainly enough to be considered part of a regular rotation. But before we can credit the Pirates as being the first NHL team to used two set forward lines, we do need to look at the 1924-25 Hamilton Tigers:

1924-25 Hamilton Tigers Forwards, Points

Left Wing    GP   Pts	Center	   GP   Pts	Right Wing    GP   Pts
R. Green     30   34	B. Burch   27   27	W. Green      28   27
E. Bouchard  29   4	M. Roach   30   10	A. McKinnon   29   11

1924-25 Hamilton Tigers Forwards, Penalty Minutes

Left Wing    GP   PIM	Center	   GP   PIM	Right Wing    GP   PIM
R. Green     30   81	B. Burch   27   10	W. Green      28   75
E. Bouchard  29   14	M. Roach   30   4	A. McKinnon   29   45

The Tigers certainly used their substitute forwards more than most other teams at the time. And it appears that substitute center Mickey Roach and right wing Alex McKinnon played a fair bit, considering their points and penalty minutes compared to starters Billy Burch and Shorty Green. But on the left wing, sub Edmond Bouchard's numbers, compared to Red Green, tell us that he played very little. If he wasn't playing much, but the other substitutes were, then they couldn't have been part of a regular unit. And other than the 1924-25 Tigers, there isn't another NHL team who used their subs enough to be in the running for this honor.

So this part of the myth is CONFIRMED: it appears that the Pirates were the first NHL team to used set forward lines, rather than using a starter/sub system.

Did the Pirates Use Three Forward Lines?

Pittsburgh had two set lines in the 1925-26 season: the first line of Milks, Darragh and McCurry, and the second line of Drury, Cotton and White. But they did also have a third line of center Odie Cleghorn between left wing Louis Berlinguette and right wing Fred Lowrey or Alf Skinner? If so, was this third forward unit actually part of the rotation? That is, did the Pirates roll three lines when other teams weren't even using two yet?

To begin with, it's clear that if three lines were used, they were not used in every game, or even regularly. The NHL schedule was 36 games, and although the top six forwards each played in nearly every match, the third line positions had an average of only 23 man-games apiece. And if you delve into the game summaries, you find that Pittsburgh played nine forwards on only nine occasions, or in one quarter of its games. Cleghorn seemed to be experimenting with the arrangement in the middle of the season, with seven of these occasions in a 14-game stretch in midseason. However, the last 12 matches featured no third line games.

Moreover, when these third liners played, they clearly played very little. They seem to be more akin to old fashioned substitutes than newfangled second liners. The evidence is that although there were 70 man-games played by these third liners, they recorded a grand total of three points, all by Cleghorn. Louis Berlinguette played 30 games without recording a single point. Most games featured only two of these third liners, again implying that they were used to provide breathers for the top six forwards, rather than being used as a distinct unit themselves.

So although Cleghorn did sometimes use nine forwards in a game, the third unit was not part of the regular rotation, but were used only as occasional substitutes. This small part of the myth is BUSTED.

But if the Pirates were not the first to roll three lines, who was? As it turns out, the transition from two lines to three happened much faster than the subsequent move from three lines to four. It seems the 1929-30 Black Hawks, taking advantage of newly expanded rosters, were the first team to rotate three forward lines. But that's a topic for another article.

Next week, we'll continue our mythbusting by examining where Cleghorn might have gotten the idea to use two set forward lines.

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