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Stories behind every NHL team name

Stories behind every NHL team name
1/Maddie Meyer // Getty Images

Stories behind every NHL team name

As the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues go head-to-head in the Stanley Cup finals, the Bruins seek to best yet another championship while the Blues pursue what would be their first-ever (and highly improbable) win after being in dead-last place just five months ago. Tensions are running high as fans gear up for the final sprint of games ahead of the last on June 12.

Team colors, logos, images of players, and heroic maneuvers on the ice are ubiquitous with fandom, as die-hards spend money traveling to games, purchasing tickets and merchandise, and generally serving as walking advertisements for the team they support. Knowing something about the history and even trivia behind the team one supports connects to an important part of the psychology that unites otherwise random people in a connected social experience.

How does a team come to be known as a fish, a bird, or a historical figure, anyway? How does an owner assure buy-in from the fan base, with a name that is both connected to the place and can inspire an appealing logo and mascot?

To find out more about how all 31 NHL teams got their names (and how some owners rebranded teams when they moved to different cities), Stacker searched for answers in team histories from the National Hockey Association's (NHA) founding in 1909 to its replacement as the NHL in 1917 and the comings and goings of other leagues all the way up to today. If a current team had a through-line in any of these leagues, we found out when and where they played, and what they were called, and why. Sources include NHL.com, local history sites, and fan sites. We discovered how prevalent it was to have fan involvement in the naming process, through contests and voting.

Read on to learn which team was named after a Disney movie, and which one was inspired by a team at the U.S. Military Academy.

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Anaheim Ducks
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Anaheim Ducks

Owned by the Walt Disney Company, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were so named after the 1992 film “Mighty Ducks.” When Disney sold the team in 2005, the new owners dropped the adjective from their team's name.

Arizona Coyotes
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Arizona Coyotes

Many Native American cultures associate the coyote with the trickster: a creature of wisdom who makes life hard for others while coming out ahead himself. Perhaps that's what team owners had in mind when they brought the Winnipeg Jets to the Phoenix area in 1996. The name was chosen by fans in a naming contest, beating out the Scorpions.

Boston Bruins
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Boston Bruins

Just like today, in 1924 advertising dollars had the power to shape what we see and believe. When a grocery store tycoon in Boston decided to start a hockey team, he didn't have a name in mind. If the name and colors matched the yellow and brown color scheme of his store, he was happy. The quick and cunning brown bear, or bruin in English folk tales, was a good fit for the color—and for the temperament of the team.

Buffalo Sabres
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Buffalo Sabres

The city of Buffalo has plenty of names playing off Buffalo Bill Cody, or buffalo the animal. So when the city's hockey team was founded in 1970, owners wanted to think outside the box. What more effective way than to invite fans to submit names? Sabres was the clear winner. The logo of a buffalo appearing to leap over a pair of crossed sabres evokes daring and agility.

Calgary Flames
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Calgary Flames

The image of a place on fire makes perfect sense when thinking about the city of Atlanta, Ga., which burned during a Civil War battle in 1864. Atlanta's hockey team was so-named the Flames; when the team moved to Calgary in 1980, the name went with it.

Carolina Hurricanes
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Carolina Hurricanes

This aptly named team was originally based in New England in 1971 and known as the Whalers (and later the Hartford Whalers). The golden era of New England whaling is long gone, but the era of the hurricane shows no sign of being archaic in Raleigh, N.C.

Chicago Blackhawks
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Chicago Blackhawks

A Native American leader of the Sac and Fox tribe, Black Hawk was a major figure in the War of 1812 and other important moments in U.S. history. His name carried forward, lending itself as a nickname of the 86th Infantry Division during World War II. Frederic McLaughlin, a commander in that division, would go on to own an expansion hockey team, and name that team after Black Hawk, referencing both the man and the division.

Colorado Avalanche
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Colorado Avalanche

The name Quebec Nordiques was great when the team was located in Canada. But as Bullwinkle J. Moose would say, it's hard to pronounce. Team owners tried out some other ideas that conjured the outdoors flavor of their new location in Denver. Avalanche conditions are familiar phenomena in the Rocky Mountain region, so fans supported the choice when the team arrived in 1995.

Columbus Blue Jackets
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Columbus Blue Jackets

In 1997, the NHL granted Columbus, Ohio, one of five expansion hockey franchises. The search for a name was on. The owners teamed up with Columbus-based Wendy's restaurants to invite fan input. The resulting 14,000 entries became 10, with Justice as the other contender. Blue Jackets got the nod because the name evoked the area's efforts in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Dallas Stars
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Dallas Stars

The Minnesota North Stars shone over Minneapolis—until they didn't. A combination of poor attendance, venue problems, and owner Norman Green's personal difficulties prompted the team to head south to Texas. Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys helped convince Green that city would be a good direction, and the newly named Stars arrived in time for the 1993–94 season.

Detroit Red Wings
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Detroit Red Wings

Starting life in British Columbia as the Cougars, the team became the Detroit Cougars in 1926. But without stadium, the Cougars' first season of games was played just across the river in Windsor, Canada. The team had troubles with finances, and in 1930 the Cougars' name was changed to the Detroit Falcons. James E. Norris bought the team in 1932 out of receivership and the team name was changed again to the Detroit Red Wings. Eventually, logos with predatory mammals and birds of prey were replaced by the milder but still feisty red wing—this one with a wheel as part of its structure, evoking the Motor City.

Edmonton Oilers
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Edmonton Oilers

The World Hockey Association (WHA) gave the NHL a run for its money in the 1970s but eventually, the older of the two organizations prevailed. As a result, several WHA teams were absorbed into the NHL, including the Alberta Oilers. The team name was kept in part because it reflects the importance of oil as a resource in the province of Alberta.

Florida Panthers
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Florida Panthers

Although once abundant, the Florida panther population is estimated around just 100 animals still living in the wild there. However, the species has heightened name recognition among folks in non-tropical areas of the country because of the hockey team, which was part of the owner's goal all along. The Panthers have played in the Miami metro area since 1993.

Los Angeles Kings
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Los Angeles Kings

Metropolitan Los Angeles currently has 11 major league professional teams between football, basketball, soccer, and hockey. Even when the city was awarded an expansion franchise back in 1966, there were plenty of other teams playing. So team owner Jack Kent Cooke turned to fans to find a name that would stand out. The suggestion of royalty fit the bill.

Minnesota Wild
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Minnesota Wild

After the Minnesota Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, the hockey scene in the Twin Cities was dim. But then a new franchise was founded in 1997 and saw its first season in 2001. They needed a name and felt that “Wild” captured what Minnesotans enjoyed about their state. The name beat out Freeze and Northern Lights, among others.

Montreal Canadiens
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Montreal Canadiens

More than 20% of folks in Montreal speak at least three languages, and French is spoken by most. That's why Montreal's official hockey team name, le Club de hockey Canadien, is easy to understand. For those with less knowledge of French, the team's nickname “Habs” is a bit puzzling. The term is short for Les Habitants, referring to early settlers.

Nashville Predators
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Nashville Predators

Sometimes team names reflect events in a city that captured the public's imagination. Such was the case in Nashville, where a downtown excavation project in the 1970s uprooted the fang and leg bone of a saber-tooth tiger. When Nashville was awarded its first pro sports franchise in the ‘90s. A logo was developed recalling that earlier find and fans chose the nickname to fit.

New Jersey Devils
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New Jersey Devils

Back in 1974, the Kansas City Scouts hockey team had a logo evoking a famous Kansas City statue of a Sioux Indian scout on horseback. When the Scouts headed west that year, they reincarnated as the Denver Rockies. By 1982 found the Rockies were relocating again, this time to New Jersey. Now they've taken as their name and mascot the Jersey Devil, an otherworldly character said to make its home in the Pine Barrens.

New York Islanders
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New York Islanders

When a sports team makes an island its home, some reference to that feature of geography in its name makes sense. When it's Long Island, you've already got millions of people in the habit of referring to themselves as Long Islanders, or just Islanders. The team name was founded there in 1972.

New York Rangers
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New York Rangers

Tex Rickard founded this team in 1926 as an expansion team. In a play on words, sportswriters referred to the team as “Tex's Rangers” to sound like Texas Rangers, a group of lawmen well-known at the time. Rickard incorporated elements of their attire into his team's logo.

Ottawa Senators
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Ottawa Senators

Although there is some dispute over where exactly hockey was born, everyone can agree it was someplace in Canada. So when you read about a hockey team started in 1883, it shouldn't be a surprise. That team, the Ottawa Senators, took a hiatus of about 60 years, however, and was reborn in 1990 under the moniker of its predecessor, all in a nod to Ottawa as the capital city.

Philadelphia Flyers
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Philadelphia Flyers

“Flyers” isn't exactly a unique sports team name. You've got Flyers in Edmonton, Scotland, Niagara Falls, and so forth. The name conveys zippiness, speed, skill, and above all, joy. The people in Philadelphia thought so in 1966, and the name and logo have continued almost unchanged since then.

PIttsburgh Penguins
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PIttsburgh Penguins

What could make the penguin even more formidable as it maneuvers its icy terrain? Skates, of course! And a seriously hefty stick to stave off hungry sharks and orcas. Maybe that's not what Pittsburghers had in mind when they built a civic center known fondly as the Igloo. Never mind that penguins live in Antarctica and igloo-dwellers in the Arctic.

San Jose Sharks
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San Jose Sharks

What do Blades, Breakers, Breeze, Condors, Fog, Gold, Golden Gaters, Golden Skaters, Grizzlies, Icebreakers, Knights, Redwoods, Sea Lions, and Waves have in common? They all lost to Sharks when the public voted on a name for San Jose's expansion franchise in 1990.

St. Louis Blues
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St. Louis Blues

When W.C. Handy published “St Louis Blues” in 1914, he might not have guessed that 53 years later it would lend its name to a hockey franchise. He couldn't have predicted some of the team's ups and downs over the years, but he might have approved the team mascot: a skating bear wearing a T-shirt with winged musical note logo emblazoned on the front.

Tampa Bay Lightning
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Tampa Bay Lightning

The idea for this name must have struck like a bolt of lightning. After all, the team's home known as the lightning capital of North America. So when franchise president Phil Esposito waited out a thunderstorm in 1990 it struck him that certain properties of lighting would make great metaphors for a sport like hockey.

Toronto Maple Leafs
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Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Arenas was one of four teams to join the NHL in its inaugural season. The Arenas were reborn as the St. Patricks and then, in 1927, as the Maple Leafs. Team owner Conn Smythe chose the name for the Maple Leaf Regiment from World War I.

Vancouver Canucks
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Vancouver Canucks

Word origins and naming decisions are often not straightforward. Such is the case with the Canucks, whose name might come from Irish, or German, or indigenous Canadian or Hawaiian languages. Regardless, the cartoon character Johnny Canuck has been a known figure in Canada since 1869. He was once the team's primary logo, but has since been sidelined to the jersey shoulder.

Vegas Golden Knights
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Vegas Golden Knights

Team owner Bill Foley graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He borrowed from that team's name, the Black Knights, and applied it to his new franchise team in Las Vegas. There, knights always advance and never retreat—and do it all with shinier bling.

Washington Capitals
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Washington Capitals

Between professional and college ranks, the Washington D.C. area is home to 15 sports teams. Many teams in our nation's capital have self-referencing names like Nationals, Whips, and Potomacs. When the city was awarded an NHL franchise in 1972, naming-contest voters made the logical choice.

Winnipeg Jets
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Winnipeg Jets

The Winnipeg Jets were part of the WHA from 1972 to 1979, when they became part of the NHL. In 1996 the team was sold and sent to Phoenix and renamed the Coyotes. Then in 2011, a team in Atlanta called the Thrashers was bought and packed off to Winnipeg, where they became the Jets.

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