I recently announced my upcoming book On His Own Side of the Puck: The Early History of Hockey Rules. This book focuses on the rules of organized hockey beginning in 1875, where they came from, and where they went from there. Following is an excerpt from chapter six, which discusses the authorship of the original Montreal rules, or rather the various claims of authorship.
Authorship of the Montreal Rules
We have previously discussed the importance of James Creighton to the organization of the game, though so far as we know he did not claim any special importance to the game for himself during his lifetime. Although Creighton made no claim himself that we know of, several claims have been made in the past as to the authorship of these rules.
There is no shortage of Creighton's fellow McGill students from the late 1870s to claim authorship of the rules. Two of these were Richard Smith and William "Chick" Murray, both of whom played with the 1883 McGill side that won the first Montreal Winter Carnival hockey tournament. These men related stories about the early years of organized hockey, many years after the fact. Their reports contain a number of inconsistencies and errors, which is to be expected from decades-old memories. These inconsistencies and errors, I submit, are sufficient to disregard the claims, especially in light of the information presented in this book as to the origin of organized hockey rules. We will discuss their claims momentarily.
William Fleet Robertson is another McGiller who later made claims about the origin of these rules. His statements seem more trustworthy than Smith and Murray's in some sense, but still suffer from a critical problem of inconsistencies.
Smith's report was written in the January 18, 1908 edition of the Montreal Daily Star. He claimed that he and two other students drafted the rules of the game in September 1878, and that they were then submitted to a group of students the following September. Smith suggests that he took some rules from field hockey, designed a few of his own, and also used some rugby football rules.
One problem with Smith's story is, of course, the date. The first organized hockey match was played in March of 1875, so his suggested date is about five years too late. Creighton and his chums had been playing organized hockey for several years before Smith claims to have invented the rules. He also claimed that the first hockey game was played in December 1879, which we know to be untrue as well.
Then there is the issue of the rules themselves. We know what the earliest recorded rules of organized hockey look like. To say that these rules borrowed something from field hockey is an understatement. We have seen how these first rules were largely an edited version of the [English Field] Hockey Association rules. There is little in the first rules that could be said to have been invented rather than borrowed from another sport, be it field hockey or lacrosse. The one original invention is the requirement for players to always be on their side of the ball. This could be seen as an influence of rugby, at least to modern eyes and indeed Smith does claim rugby influenced "his" rules. But in fact the rules of rugby in the 1870s had no requirement for players to always be on their own side of the ball. The rules actually stated that all players were onside unless they took certain actions, and one of these actions was not simply being on the wrong side of the ball.
Smith's dates and characterizations of the rules of early organized hockey both cast doubt on the accuracy of his recollections. There is ample reason to be skeptical of them, and there is no reason to accept these claims over the records of rules and matches that we have, which were written at the time, rather than 30 years later as in the case of Smith's claims.
Smith's claims are likely the source of the idea that early organized hockey rules were influenced by rugby, since he specifically refers to that sport in his story. This, in turn, has likely led to the idea that early organized hockey's offside rules were akin to rugby, and thus many modern authors report that passes were strictly lateral in nature. As we'll see in the discussion of offside rules in Appendix I, this is not the case. And since this idea is based on an uncreditable report, it should not be surprising that it is incorrect. Smith cannot be taken at his word.
Robertson's claims come from an undated letter of his. He claims that he witnessed a match of field hockey in England, and upon his return to McGill used his experience with that game to help organize the game there. This does have a degree of plausibility to it; after all, we know that the first organized hockey rules were based on field hockey. But again, the dates don't make sense. Robertson returned from his England trip on November 9, 1879, which would put his input into the organized hockey rules around the same time as Smith's claim, which we know to be several years too late.
Murray's claim does have the advantage of reconciling Smith's and Robertson's claims with each other, all the while inserting himself as the original creator of the rules. Given that these claims were made many years after Smith and Robertson had made theirs, they should be expected to be consistent with the earlier claims. This means, unfortunately, that Murray's claims have precisely the same problems as the earlier ones. Internally consistent does not mean true.
Murray claims to have himself drafted the first rules of organized hockey on November 10, 1879, over four-and-a-half years after the first match of organized hockey was actually played. He then claims to have discussed the rules with Smith the following day, and that these two, plus Robertson, revised the rules on November 12, 1879 and decided that Smith should write them down. These claims, while internally consistent, are untenable given the historical evidence we have of when organized hockey began.