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ARCHIVED - Backcheck: a Hockey Retrospective

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The Origins of Hockey

Painting by Pietr Bruegel (the elder) entitled HUNTERS IN THE SNOW, circa 1565

Hunters in the Snow, by Pietr Bruegel (the elder), circa 1565


Page from book, SIR JOHN FRANKLIN'S JOURNALS AND CORRESPONDENCE 1825-1827, showing a reference to skating

Page from Sir John Franklin's journals and correspondence: the second Arctic land expedition, 1825-1827

With some trepidation, Backcheck ventures onto the thin ice of Canada's great debate. It is not a debate about the future of health care; it is about the origins of hockey. Because we value life and limb as much as our gentle readers must surely do, we take no sides. We simply offer an overview of the issue.

Hockey's origins are indeterminate. Indeed, the very definition of the game is at debate. Some observers accept as hockey any pastime where participants on skates use a club, or other wooden implement, to knock a ball or some such propellant about. Others say an activity cannot be recognized as hockey unless it is a contest between teams and conducted under an accepted set of rules.

Amusements bearing some resemblance to hockey are known to have taken place in Europe as early as the sixteenth century, or even earlier. For example, a painting by Pietr Bruegel (the elder) entitled "Hunters in the Snow" (circa 1565), depicts skaters carrying curved sticks. One of these figures is about to bring his stick in contact with a small object on the ice.

The earliest skate blades were fashioned from animal bones, but it is known from the journals of Olaus Magnus, the last Catholic Archbishop of Sweden, that polished iron blades were used in the Gulf of Bothnia area in the 1500s.

Some hockey history enthusiasts trace the game's beginning to Mesopotamia, in the third millennium B.C. These historians point to Tablet XII of the Gilgamesh epic (an ancient text from the area that is now Iraq) that shows men employing curved sticks to manipulate a wooden ring over a dirt surface.

Regardless of what these stalwarts along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or those on the lakes of northern Europe were actually doing, there is no evidence to suggest a progression of their play to a form that can be accepted as structured sport.

Research points to North America as the region where the idea of a contest on ice took hold and led to the sport we know today. Incarnations of the game are said to have occurred in New York and Newfoundland as early as the late eighteenth century. In recent years, the name of Windsor, Nova Scotia, has come to the forefront as hockey's birthplace. Proponents point to a passage in Thomas Chandler Haliburton's 1843 novel, The Attaché; or Sam Slick in England, as evidence. Sam, a fast-talking Connecticut Yankee, mocks the reminiscences he imagines his traveling companion will have of his childhood at King's Collegiate in Windsor, including "hurly on the long pond on the ice." Critics do not accept this passage as satisfactory evidence, noting that the source in question is a work of fiction. However Windsor's backers argue that the novel is largely autobiographical and that the "hurly" referred to is a direct recollection by Haliburton of what he knew as a youth around 1810.

Another Maritime entrant in the origins contest is Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Advocates base their argument on an array of events, innovations and developments that sets their claim apart from those of rivals. They note that primitive forms of the game were played on Dartmouth lakes and ponds as early as 1827. The Acadian Magazine in January of that year, for example, contains a poem including the lines: "Now at ricket with hurlies some dozens of boys/ Chase the ball o'er ice with a deafening noise." A newspaper report in February 1867 tells of "a match game called hockey, i.e. ricket" being contested by officers of the Garrison and the Fleet at Oathill Lake. As well, notes the Dartmouth claim, that city was the home of the Starr Manufacturing Company, Canada's earliest producer of ice skates.

For years, the city of Kingston, Ontario, enjoyed the title of hockey's birthplace. This resulted from a report of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association in 1942, which said that soldiers of the Royal Canadian Rifles played hockey on the harbour ice in 1855. The evidence has subsequently proved suspect and Kingston authorities themselves have rejected the claim, asserting that the game was not introduced there until 1886.

Recent archival research has brought the town of Deline (formerly Fort Franklin), Northwest Territories, into the picture. Documentation shows that men under Arctic explorer John Franklin's command both skated and played hockey on a small lake beside Great Bear Lake on October 25, 1825. It is not known whether they were skating while playing "hockey" or were engaging in two separate activities at different times during the day. This is a crucial point because the prevailing view is that for an activity to be called ice hockey, participants must be on blades.

The International Ice Hockey Federation has endorsed a longstanding Montréal claim. It is based on documented evidence, in newspapers, of a specific game between two teams of identified members and a recorded score. The match was played at the city's Victoria Rink on March 3, 1875. No earlier descriptions of an actual game of hockey with a recorded score have ever been found. It ended, incidentally, in a brawl!

Strengthening the Montréal claim is: evidence of the direct progression of the sport from that seminal March 3rd game to another match at the same rink two weeks later; the formation of the McGill Hockey Club in January 1877; the publication of written rules in February 1877; the staging of a highly publicized tournament at the Montréal Winter Carnival in 1883 and the founding, in Montréal, of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada in 1886.

The debate about hockey's origins continues today. To help settle the debate, one must answer the question "what is hockey?" To aid followers of Canada's national winter sport in assessing claims, the Society for International Hockey Research has issued a definition meant to accommodate early forms of the activity: Hockey is a game played on an ice rink in which two opposing teams of skaters, using curved sticks, try to drive a small disc, ball or block into or through the opposite goals.

For further information on this subject, try the following:

Fitsell, J.W. Hockey's Hub: Three Centuries of Hockey in Kingston. Kingston: Quarry, 2003.

Fosty, George and Darril Fosty. Splendid Is the Sun. New York: Stryker-Indigo, 2003.

Jones, Martin. Hockey's Home: Halifax-Dartmouth, the Origin of Canada's Game. Halifax: Nimbus, 2002.

Vaughan, Garth. The Puck Starts Here: The Origin of Canada's Great Winter Game, Ice Hockey. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1996.

Zukerman, Earl. "McGill University: the Missing Link to the Birthplace of Hockey". Total Hockey. 2nd ed. Kingston: Total Sports, 2000.

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