The trophy is named in honour of Frank Calder, the former President of the National Hockey League from its inception in 1917 to his death in 1943. Although Rookie of the Year honours were handed out beginning in 1932–33, the Calder Trophy was first presented at the conclusion of the 1936–37 NHL season. After Calder's death in 1943 the trophy was renamed the Calder Memorial Trophy.
In 1990, Sergei Makarov of the Calgary Flames became the oldest player, at age 31, to win the Calder, even though he had played for the "unofficially" professional team HC CSKA Moscow (the "Red Army" team) in the Soviet Union. After that season, the rules for awarding the Calder were amended so that players could only be eligible if they were under 26 years old by September 15 of their rookie season.
To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played any more than 25 games previously in any single season, nor have played in more than six games in each of two separate preceding seasons in any major professional league."The latter fact was perhaps most prominent when in 1979–80, first-year phenom Wayne Gretzky was not eligible to win the Calder Trophy despite scoring 137 points (the previous rookie record at the time being 95), because he had played a full season the previous year in the World Hockey Association. In 1991, goaltender Ed Belfour won the Calder having previously appeared in 32 games with the Chicago Blackhawks over the 1988–89 and 1989–90 seasons. Belfour was eligible for the award because 9 of those appearances came during the 1990 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the other 23 appearances were made during the 1988-89 season. The 9 playoff games and 33 games played with the Canada men's national ice hockey team did not count towards the regular season eligibility requirements. In 2010–11, Logan Couture was eligible for the Calder Trophy despite having played in 40 previous games (25 in the regular season and 15 in the playoffs, both in 2009–10), while Alex Pietrangelo was ineligible despite having played only 17 previous games (8 in 2008–09 and 9 in 2009–10, both times sent back to juniors).
The trophy has been won the most times by rookies from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have won it on nine occasions.
The voting is conducted at the end of the regular season by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and each individual voter ranks their top five candidates on a 10–7–5–3–1 points system. Three finalists are named and the trophy is awarded at the NHL Awards ceremony after the playoffs.