Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thoughts on Hockey's Origins

If you follow hockey history, you'll know that there's often been a lively debate about the "birthplace" of hockey. Several locales in Canada have laid their claims to this honour, amongst them Montreal, Kingston, Halifax and Windsor, Nova Scotia. These claims all have varying degrees of evidence supporting them (Windsor, for example, bases its claim on a passage in a work of fiction which is misrepresented as a "memoir"), but nothing has ever really been resolved. It always strikes me that part of the reason for the conflict is that people don't really define what they mean by "hockey" when they want to claim their home town as its birthplace.

Hockey can mean a number of things. Its original usage simply meant the activity of hitting a thing with a stick, and also referred to the stick with which you hit the thing. No ice need be involved, nor skates, nor teams. So finding a reference to "hockey" in the 17th century isn't enough to establish that hockey, as we know it today, was played then. You need more than that. That didn't stop the Fostys from making that mistake, of course. If you're going to quote a source talking about "hockey", you need to make sure they mean what you mean by the term. Otherwise any analysis is moot.

I have previously defined hockey (adding the qualifier "modern" for extra clarity) as follows:
Modern hockey is a competitive game that is played on an ice rink by two teams made up of an equal number of players wearing skates, who play using a codified set of rules, and use sticks to try to propel a puck though their opponents' goal.
I still don't know if that's a sufficient definition or not. By modern hockey, I want to mean the earliest formalized version of the game that we can trace back directly from the version of the game we know today. Some historians, when advocating for a particular birthplace of hockey, will argue that the current game we know, and the informal game mid-19th century folks played on their ponds and rivers, are the same thing.

I can't agree with that, since even today we have two separate words to describe these games: hockey and shinny. If informal games of hockey played on natural ice are the very same thing as the hockey played in the NHL, then why do we have a seperate term for the outdoor game? Any line you draw between "modern" hockey and "pre-modern" hockey will be at least somewhat arbitrary, but the delineation between modern, organized hockey and simple, informal hockey does seem appropriate. At the very least, it might help people to stop talking past each other when discussing the origins of the game.

The only thing that might approach general agreement among hockey historians is that the modern, organized version of hockey has its roots in Montreal, with the game played on March 3, 1875, organized by Halifax native James Creighton and played between two sides of nine men apiece, which a 2002 report by the Society for International Hockey Research calls "the earliest eyewitness account known ... of a specific game of hockey in a specific place at a specific time, and with a recorded score, between two identified teams." But I'm not sure that even this is sufficient to be recognized as "modern" hockey. The main differentiator between this game and earlier ones is that it was played indoors in the Victoria Skating Rink, rather than simply on a frozen lake, pond or river.

I've been of a mind lately that 1883 may be a better date for the beginnings of modern hockey, with the first Montreal Winter Carnival Tournament, which was arguably the first truly competitive hockey event. That is, I think "competitive" is a very important aspect of the definition of modern hockey, which is why informal games of shinny on frozen ponds should not be considered "modern" hockey.

Of course, just because something isn't modern, doesn't mean it's not important. I'm certainly not advocating that modern hockey is the only game we need concern ourselves with. I'm just trying to add a little perspective to the discussion, to help it along. You can't discuss the origins of hockey without first defining what you mean by hockey, and that crucial first step is often omitted entirely.


  1. I think you need permanence as part of the definition - permanence of the rules and of the event. One of the interesting things about the 1883 Winter Carnival was that hockey wasn't even mention in a book written about the Carnival. Yet someone was watching, because the early game was spread.

    One other unique feature of the 1875 game not necessarily mentioned by historians: tickets were sold, so if nothing else, it was the first paid event.

    I am now of the belief that modern hockey was born, after centuries of development, sometime in the 1880s in Montreal.

    Research continues.

  2. Hi Morey,

    I did touch on permanence, I think, in the sense of being able to trace back directly from today's game. We seem to be in general agreement about when modern hockey began - though who knows how long that will last!


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