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.