A Lesson in History
Ryan Cane
January 4, 2003

The debate over the birthplace of hockey is a long and complicated. However, that is not enough for this reporter to dive into controversy. Perhaps a conclusion is not in reach, but a little knowledge might shed some light on an issue that has community pride and heritage at stake.

Wherever it started, hockey certainly began as a primitive activity, which makes it hard to decide when exactly it was invented. Skates have been around since the 1500s and who knows when it was decided to hit an object (ball, hard cow patty, chunk of wood, old shoe, or, rumors have it, a dead cat) with a stick like object (rumours fly here as well, from the end of a shepherd’s hook to the end of umbrella).

It wouldn’t have been long before someone decided that they should keep score, that there should be a number of players on the ice (for safety, of course…the birth of hockey moms), have a target of some sort and that someone should win or lose.

Many observers believe hockey got its name from the French word hoquet, which means "shepherd's crook" or "bent stick." A number of writers thought this game should be forbidden because it was so disruptive to people who were out for a leisurely winter skate.
While any Canadian would say Canada is the birthplace of hockey, save a little discrepancy as to the exact city, some historians place the roots of hockey in northern Europe. This claim comes from the popularity of field hockey. When the ponds and lakes froze in winter, it was not unusual for the athletes who fancied that sport to play a version of it on ice.

This game of field hockey in winter was called bandy, and the local players used to scramble around the town's frozen meadowlands swatting a wooden or cork ball, known as a kit or cat, with wooden sticks made from the branches of local willow trees. But if the players where not really on skates; is that hockey?

In 1988, Windsor, Nova Scotia, proclaimed itself the birthplace of hockey in Canada. The justification came from a history of King’s College that stated students played hockey on Windsor’s Long Pond in the early 19th century.

This did not go down well in Halifax, or Montreal, or Kingston, cities that all make claims to being hockey’s birthplace. It also didn’t go down well in Holland, England, and Ireland, which also claim to be hockey’s birthplace.

British soldiers stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were reported to have organized contests on frozen ponds in and around that city in the 1870s, and about that same time in Montreal, students from McGill University began facing off against each other in a downtown ice rink. There are good arguments that Micmac aboriginals of Nova Scotia played hockey in the mid- or early-19th century.

The continent's first hockey league started in Kingston, Ontario, in 1885, and it included four teams. The teams used seven players a side. There was a goalkeeper, three forwards, two defensemen, and a rover who roamed between offense and defense.

A new book written by Martin Jones turns everything upside down, claiming the origins of hockey to be on the other side of Halifax Harbor. Jones believes that the first hockey games were played on Lake Banook and provides evidence of these first games. It was not a coincidence that two city blocks from the lake the first modern skate was invented and produced by the Starr Manufacturing Company in the 1860s. Jones notes that Banook Canoe Club played an important role in the establishment of Dartmouth's first hockey league by entering a team in the new league in 1905.

But the rules governing hockey in Nova Scotia were those established by the Halifax Hockey Club in the mid-1800s. Or, at least, in 1937 Halifax Herald sports writer, James Power, documented the rules he had known in the late 1800s. Here are some: the wooden puck could not leave the ice surface; no slashing; change ends after a goal; forward pass allowed; players stayed on the ice for the whole game; goalies had to stand at all times; and, there were two 30-minute periods with a ten-minute intermission. That does sound a little different from the game we know today!

Hockey soon became so popular that games were being played on a regular basis between clubs from Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. The English Governor-General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston, was so impressed with the game that in 1892 he bought a silver bowl and decreed that it be given each year to the best amateur team in Canada. That trophy, of course, has come to be known as the Stanley Cup and is awarded today to the franchise that wins the National Hockey League playoffs.

When hockey was first played in Canada, the teams had nine men per side. But by the time the Stanley Cup was introduced, it was a seven-man game. The change came about accidentally in the late 1880s after a club playing in the Montreal Winter Carnival showed up two men short, and its opponent agreed to drop the same number of players on its team to even the match.

In time, players began to prefer the smaller squad, and it wasn't long before that number became the standard for the sport. Each team featured one goaltender, three forwards, two defensemen, and a rover, who had the option of moving up ice on the attack or falling back to defend his goal.

And from these humble beginnings, hockey has advanced and become the sport we all know and love. So, in the quest for finding the game’s origins, does it really matter?

For more information:

Lisa Dornan
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-777-4557 / 403-510-7046 (mobile)


Morgan Bell
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6427 / 403-669-1261 (mobile)


Esther Madziya
Coordinator, Media Relations
Hockey Canada


Spencer Sharkey
Coordinator, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-777-4567 / 905-906-5327 (mobile)


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