We've been discussing the pre-Stanley Cup era quite a bit lately here at Hockey Historysis. Some people view 1893 as more than just an arbitrary cutoff date, however, and argue that the introduction of the Stanley Cup is a real marker of a change in the quality of the hockey being played, in that it gave the players something to strive for. But in this post and its sequels, I'll show that hockey from the mid-1880s to 1892 was not substantially different than hockey immediately after the introduction of the Stanley Cup in 1893. The dividing line between 1892 and 1893 is as artificial and political as the line between 1917 and 1918. As such, players from the pre-Stanley Cup era should be considered to be on par with players post-1892, at least until the professional era.
In this post we'll address the idea that the very nature of the game was different before 1893.
The Nature of the Game
It has been argued that hockey before 1893 was a gentlemanly game, played more for its own sake than for the competition. It was played by affluent young men, members of posh clubs. This allegedly began to change when the Cup was introduced, which gave the teams something real to strive for, and increased their incentive to do anything it takes to win.
This argument stems from the misconception that hockey before the Stanley Cup was a game played between teams from gentleman's clubs. This is false; the clubs in question were athletic clubs (such as the famous Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, who sponsored the Montreal Hockey Club, who we've been talking so much about). Members of these clubs joined them to undertake sport, not to assemble in the drawing room for dry sherry.
Violence has been a part of the game of hockey since its earliest years of organized competition. The players on the ice were rarely gentlemen. The following excerpts are taken from Montreal Herald game reports from the 1890 Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) season, which of course predates the Stanley Cup by three years.
The game was rather rough at times and it is regrettable to say that one of the home players forgot himself so far as to strike one of the visitors. The visitors, to their credit be it said, even when fighting against odds, stuck to their work with a commendable spirit and never seemed to lose courage. (Montreal vs Quebec, 9 Jan 1890)
The Montreal teams gained a victory over their opponents, the Victorias, but the victory was not as clean a one as might be desired. There were three men on the winning side who resorted to very rough play. During certain stages of the game there was a good exposition of the game, but at other times there was a good deal of tripping, swiping, falls and wholesale dumping against the bank.…Campbell took charge of [the puck] and piloted it through several of his opponents, but his shot for goal was wide. Immediately after this Findlay and Kinghorn lost their temper and made an undesirable display of themselves on the ice to the disasprobation of the audience. This seemed to have the effect of making the remaining portion of the game rougher than it should have been. (Montreal vs Victorias, 17 Jan 1890)
During certain stages of the game there was a good deal of ill temper shown by members of both teams...The match was fast, exciting, and at times a trifle rougher than was necessary. (Montreal vs Dominions, 31 Jan 1890)
The match throughout was hard and fast and not of the easiest kind to describe. The puck was here, there and every where. It travelled fast and was not allowed to remain long in one place. There was a good deal of hacking and shinning, but this was not confined to one individual of one side, both taking a hand in it. The only regrettable feature of the match was the ill-feeling shown by Lee and McQuisten, who had a dispute and commenced to settle it with their fists. They both fell to the ice and had to be separated. They received a sharp reprimand from the referee. Later on Lee meet with an accident whereby he sustained a severe cut over the right eye. (Montreal vs Victorias, 4 Mar 1890)
In four of the seven match reports from this season, the writer felt the need to point out unnecessary violence in the game. The idea that hockey at this time was a group of gentleman playing a friendly game is simply false. Rough play was common, and as indicated in the above reports, fistfights happened occasionally as well. This only makes sense if the players were taking the competition very seriously, and were doing whatever they thought was needed for victory.
As to the alleged affluence of the players involved in the game at this time, this is certainly more difficult to determine that the above, since a hockey player's off-ice life was not often recorded for posterity. However in Paul Kitchen's Win, Tie or Wrangle we get some background on a number of Ottawa Hockey Club players, for instance:
Albert Morel, G, 1891-1894: The son of a cabinetmaker, Morel was a student when he first joined the hockey club, and later worked as a private secretary and a bookkeeper for a lumber company.
Weldy Young, CP, 1891-1899: The son of a fire superintendent, he worked as an engraver in a watchmaking business tun by him and his two brothers.
Chauncey Kirby, C, 1891-1899: The son of a city treasurer, worked as a clerk at the Quebec Bank.
Bert Russell, LW, 1893-1896: Worked as a draughtsman for the Geological Survey.
Although there may be a tendency toward white collar work, none of these descriptions seem to indicate a particularly affluent lifestyle. Indeed, the player best described as affluent from the early days of Ottawa hockey would be Frank McGee, who didn't play senior hockey until 1903, a decade after the first Stanley Cup championship. McGee came from one of Ottawa's most prominent families, growing up in the “magnificent home” of his father, who was the clerk of the Privy Council, the highest-ranking civil service office in Canada. He worked as a timekeeper for the railroad, but it is certainly fair to say he came from an affluent family. However, he played at a time when the game was supposed to be becoming more serious, due to the Stanley Cup.
Similarly, census records can give us some insight into what players did for a living at a time when they didn't receive a penny for playing hockey. The following players all played at the highest level, prior to the introduction of the Stanley Cup:
Barlow, Billy: clerk
Bignell, Herbert: insurance clerk
Clapperton, Alexander: dry goods clerk
Cafferty, Thomas: lithographer
Davidson, Robert: grocery clerk
Fairbairn, William: insurance clerk
Hodgson, Archie: whale stationer
James, George: hardware clerk
Kinghorn, James: mill clerk
Larmouth, F.M.: brokerage clerk
Lee, Sam: trunkmaker
Lesser, Joshua: agent
Low, George: bank clerk
McDonnell, John: photographer
Routh, Havilland: clerk
Shearer, Andy: lumber merchant
Warden, William: bank clerk
Again, there does seem to be a tendency toward white-collar jobs, but unless “grocery clerk” or “hardware clerk” implies “affluent” to you, then there's no reason to think these men were particularly well-off in society, members of restrictive upper-crust social clubs.
Hockey before the Stanley Cup was a rough game, played by men from a variety of social classes, just as it was after the Stanley Cup was introduced. There's no reason to consider hockey before 1893 in any different light than in the years 1893 to 1899 and beyond.