Monday, 2 June 2014

On the Origin of Organized Hockey

My last post was a review of the new book On the Origin of Hockey, which presents a great deal of new evidence about early ice hockey, especially as it was played in England. One of the conclusions you can draw from the book is that giving special status to the first recorded, organized hockey game in Canada (played in Montreal on March 3, 1875) does not make sense, given that there are earlier games played in England that were just as organized and just as much hockey as that one. That is, if the first Montreal game is an example of organized hockey, then there are several earlier matches in England that should be considered organized hockey as well. So I thought I'd take you through the process, to show that this conclusion is well-founded.

We start with the definition of hockey in general, which we take from the Society for International Hockey Research's (SIHR) Report of the Sub-Committee Looking into Claim that Windsor, Nova Scotia, is the Birthplace of Hockey. In 2002 this report concluded that all a game needs to be considered (ice) hockey is that it is played on an ice rink by two opposing teams of skaters who use curved sticks to try to drive a small propellant into or through opposite goals.

This definition was arrived at because the committee writing the report needed terms of reference to determine when something is hockey and when it is not. The committee correctly concluded that there is no compelling evidence to conclude that Windsor is the birthplace of hockey. The primary point presented by proponents of the Windsor claim, for example, was from a work of fiction wherein one fictional character is imagining what the youth of another fictional character might have been like. It is thoroughly unconvincing and is rightly dismissed as evidence that hockey was played at a particular time in a particular place. So in fact the definition of hockey was not really needed, due to the nature of the evidence being examined.

However, the committee did engage in a bit of digression about the first recorded hockey match played in Montreal, which was on March 3, 1875. This might have been relevant had the Windsor claim suggested that hockey began in Nova Scotia later than 1875, in which case the Montreal game would have been evidence against that. But that's not the case, so it seems the committee might have been suggesting that Montreal should be considered the birthplace of hockey, though they explicitly state that is not the intent.

The committee noted that the Montreal game seems to mark the transition of hockey from a pastime to a dedicated sporting endeavour: "The March 3 event, structured as it was, invites a distinction between formal and informal hockey..." This raises the question, of course, of what the committee saw in this match that is not present in earlier reports of hockey. They explained:

"The match appears to be unique. It is the earliest eyewitness account known, at least to this SIHR committee, of a specific game of hockey in a specific place at a specific time, and with a recorded score, between two identified teams."

So the purpose of discussing the Montreal game actually seems to have been to put it forward as the birthplace of formal, or organized, hockey rather than hockey in general. Based on newspaper reports, we know the following details about this first hockey match in Montreal: that it was played at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal on March 3, 1875 between two teams of nine men each (the names of which were recorded); that there was a captain for each team; that they used a flat, circular piece of wood instead of a ball; that they tried to drive said object through the opposing goal; that there were spectators; and that captain Creighton's team defeated captain Torrance's team by two goals to nil (but we do not know who scored the goals). Both teams were selected from members of the Victoria Skating Club.

If we combine the criteria for formality with the earlier criteria for hockey presented by the committee, we can derive the committee's implicit definition of formal hockey. Formal hockey would have the following characteristics:
  1. ice rink
  2. players wearing skates
  3. players using curved sticks
  4. trying to drive a small propellant
  5. opposite goals
  6. game played in a specific place at a specific time
  7. recorded score
  8. two identified, opposing teams
According to the report's own words, the 1875 Montreal game was the earliest to meet these criteria at the time the report was written, in 2002. It is therefore entirely possible that in the 12 years since then, additional references would have been found of games that match them. The great amount of digitization of old newspapers that has occurred in the past few years only increases the ease at which such references can be found.

On the Origin of Hockey produces several candidate games, that may be considered "organized hockey" using these criteria. Great credit must be given to the authors Carl Giden, Patrick Houda and Jean-Patrice Martel for unearthing and presenting the reports of these games. Let's examine a few.

Moor Park, Hertfordshire - February 2, 1871
I mentioned this match in the review. We know it was hockey, we know the teams, we know the score, we even know the lineups and the goal-scorers. We know about as much about this match as we do the first Montreal game. Specific reference is made to the ice, and the fact that it is called hockey necessarily entails sticks and a propellant, since all descriptions of hockey from that time period and before involve such things. The goals are also specifically mentioned, and the two seven-man teams are listed. A brief goal-by-goal account is provided, and a 10-minute intermission is also mentioned. Unfortunately it does not specifically refer to skates, so in theory someone could object to it on that basis. In the book, the authors present a convincing argument that the skates are implicit, however we do have to recognize that they are not specifically mentioned. Moreover, skates were also not specifically mentioned in the reports of the March 3, 1875 game in Montreal, so if the lack of a specific mention is a problem for Moor Park, then it's a problem for Montreal as well.

Elsham, Lincolnshire - January 6, 1871
On this date, two eight-man teams played to a draw after nearly 90 minutes of hockey. The two identified sides were Elsham and Brigg, and the newspaper reports make it clear that this match involved an ice rink, players wearing skates, using sticks and trying to drive an object through opposite goals. We know that the game was planned ahead of time (Colonel Astley had invited the men from Brigg to come play a match), and was played in a particular place at a particular time. We do not know the precise score, but we do know for certain that a score was kept because the match was declared a draw. All of the implicit criteria for formal hockey seem to be represented in this game.

In fact, these two teams later played a rematch, so it's clear that having a decision on the score was important to the players involved. The second match was played on February 4, 1871 and this time Elsham walked over Brigg by a score of eight to nil. Brigg surrendered 15 minutes before time was up, so we know that there was a specific time that was to be allowed for the game. The ice was said to be in excellent condition for the game.

Bluntisham-cum-Earith, Huntingdonshire - January 4, 1871
This was a big week for early organized hockey, with matches only two days apart, though over 150 kilometres in distance from each other. In this case the teams were 20-a-side, one representing Bluntisham & Earith (the "Bury Fen team") and the other from Over & Swavesey. The former side scored a victory two goals to nil. Once again all of the criteria for formal hockey as indicated by SIHR seem to be met in this match. We even know the names of the team captains.

Spetchley, Worcestershire - December 28, 1870
This is the second match mentioned in the review, and similar to the first we know the (10-man) teams, the score, the lineups and the goal-scorers. In one of the reports describing the game, it is under the heading "skating" so in this case (unlike Moor Park above), we know for certain that there were skates involved.

So the winter of 1870/71 was a busy time for early organized hockey in England. Unfortunately for the sporting fans of that country, it did not seem to really catch on, at least not the way it did in Canada some few years later. But there is an even older candidate for the earliest known game of organized ice hockey, over 13 years before this busy winter.

Swavesey, Cambridgeshire - February 5, 1857
On this date, teams from Over and Swavesey met in a match of "bandy", almost 24 years before they would band together to play against Bluntisham & Earith as noted above. At this time, of course, there is no way to differentiate between hockey and bandy when played on the ice, since the rules of each that would allow us to tell them apart had not been standardized yet. Bandy was simply a form of hockey, as the authors of the book argue in some detail. All of the criteria appear to be met in this game as well. Swavesey won the match, though the exact score was not reported. So this is not quite as good an example as some of the 1870/71 matches, but it is worth considering.


Not all of these games are precise matches for the apparent SIHR criteria to be considered organized hockey. But it is abundantly clear that the level of organization of the Montreal match of March 3, 1875 was  not unique for its time. There were formal games of ice hockey played in England at least four years before that time, and perhaps as much as 18 years before.

What is unique about Montreal is what happened in the years after that first game, as the sport slowly grew in popularity, and interest really began to take off with the first Montreal Winter Carnival tournament in 1883. But assigning special value to the 1875 game is not supportable, given that we now have evidence of a number of very similar matches played previously in England. Canada certainly made hockey into the great winter game, but it was built upon a foundation that first arrived from England.


  1. I think that it's all fascinating, this pre-history. But it is that. Since nothing came of those games, you have to think that the games have no meaning to the sport. It's a bit of sensationalism to think they do. They were playing ice polo in the States and there was a mention of a hockey game in Halifax in 1859 in the Boston Gazette, so it seems clear something was going on. But it didn't turn into anything until Montreal and Creighton.

    1. These matches have far more in common with the first Montreal matches, than the first Montreal matches have in common with games played today, that's the point. And since the first Montreal rules were based directly on English field hockey rules, suggesting that the games played in England have no relevance to Creighton's hockey is erroneous. If you want to erect a dividing line between Canada and England, and say that only what happened on this side of the Atlantic is relevant to the development of the sport, I don't think you'd have much to stand on.

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