In discussions of early hockey in Montreal, starting in the 1870s, you'll often see claims that rugby football was a significant influence on the early versions of the game. Take this article as an example, in which many comparisons are made between 1870s ice hockey and rugby. To be fair to author Adam Gopnik, not all of the comparisons he makes are of the direct kind, some are simply the similar physical natures of the two sports; however, I suspect this point is overstated when made in reference to the 1870s version of hockey, which was not as physical as the version of the game we know now. The author's application of modern impressions of hockey is indicated when he refers to "...its combination of being the most flashily brilliant and speedy of games and at the same time the most brutal of contact sports..." Hockey in the 1870s did not feature nearly the speed that it does now; it could not, both because of the equipment used by the players, and the fact that they had to play every minute of the game, forcing the players to pace themselves.
But the idea of significant rugby influence is well-ingrained in stories about early Montreal hockey. Once again, the article above claims that "...what [James] Creighton was trying to create when he first
codified the rules of hockey in 1873 was a form of rugby on ice, played
according to rules inflected by lacrosse." Now, since we don't have any writing from Creighton himself on the topic, we must ask what the source of this information is. The most likely candidates are the tales told by a number of old-time Montreal hockeyists, some time after the fact.
Some of these claims are discussed here, in an article penned by E.M Orlick on the origins of ice hockey. Richard Smith claimed (in 1908, some thirty years after the alleged fact) that he had been involved with writing the first set of hockey rules, and used both field hockey and rugby as inspiration. Orlick rightly points out the problems with details in Smith's story, in that the dates do not line up and there is no evidence that Smith was actually a player in the very first recorded matches of hockey in Montreal; he showed up a few years later. Orlick then discusses the claims of William "Chick" Murray, who relayed his tale in 1936 (about 60 years after the alleged fact). Murray stated that it was his idea to pattern the rules on rugby, but to add lacrosse posts as goals. So it seems quite likely that Gopnik's impression of the origin of ice hockey rules were informed by Murray's claims. Again Orlick rightly points out the inconsistencies in Murray's story, and feels justified in rejecting it. I cannot disagree.
A later article by Orlick discusses Henry Joseph, who has a decided advantage over Smith and Murray in that we know he was a player in the first two organized ice hockey matches played in Montreal in 1875. This was written in 1943, and refers to events allegedly occurring as early as 1873, so we're now dealing with statements made 70 years after the fact. Joseph appears to be Gopnik's source that ice hockey was first played in 1873, two years before the first recorded match on March 3, 1875. It is, of course, eminently plausible that ice hockey, specifically the version played in the Victoria rink in Montreal, was played for some time before the first recorded game. Joseph goes on to say that James Creighton suggested a shinny-like game to be played on skates, noting that in Montreal at the time, shinny was played on ice, but not with skates. Finally Joseph claims that this shinny-like game had its rules patterned on rugby.
So these stories do seem to be the source of the idea that rugby was a significant influence on the first hockey matches in Montreal, perhaps enhanced by the fact that so much of early hockey was connected to McGill University, a stronghold of rugby. If the influence was so great, surely we should be able to detect it in the historical record. So let's have a look at early ice hockey and rugby, and compare their similarities to those between ice hockey and field hockey, a game that, at least superficially, seems to bear a more immediate resemblance.
As discussed at some length in my book On His Own Side of the Puck, the early Montreal hockey code was based directly on English field hockey association rules (which in turn were based on association football [soccer] rules). Here is a comparison of the offside rules from various rule sets.
1877 Montreal offside rule
Rule 2: When a player hits the ball, any one of the same side who
at such moment of hitting is nearer to the opponents’ goal line is out
of play, and may not touch the ball himself, or in any way whatever
prevent any other player from doing so, until the ball has been played. A
player must always be on his own side of the ball.
1875 Hockey Association offside rule
Rule 6: When a player hits the ball, and one of the same side who
at such moment of hitting is nearer to the opponents' goal-line is out
of play, and may not touch the ball himself, not in any way whatever
prevent any other player from doing so, until the ball has been played,
unless there are at least three of his opponents nearer their own
goal-line; but no player is out of play when the ball is hit from the
1863 Association Football offside rule
Rule 6: When a player has kicked the ball, any one of the same
side who is nearer to the opponent's goal line is out of play, and may
not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other
player from doing so, until he is in play; but no player is out of play
when the ball is kicked off from behind the goal line.
1871 Rugby Football offside rules
Rule 22: Every player is on side but is put off side if he enters
a scrummage from his opponents' side or being in a scrummage gets in
front of the Ball, or when the ball has been kicked, touched or is being
run with by any of his own side behind him (ie between himself and his
own goal line).
Rule 23: Every player when offside is out of the game and shall
not touch the ball in any case whatever, either in or out of touch or
goal, or in any way interrupt or obstruct any player, until he is again
Rule 24: A player being offside is put on side when the ball has
been run five yards with or kicked by or has touched the dress or person
of any player of the opposite side or when one of his own side has run
in front of him.
Rule 25: When a player has the Ball none of his opponents who at
the time are offside may commence or attempt to run, tackle or otherwise
interrupt such player until he has run five yards.
Rule 26: Throwing back. It is lawful for any player who has the
Ball to throw it back towards his own goal, or to pass it back to any
player of his own side who is at the time behind him in accordance with
the rules of on side.
You will note that although both ice hockey and rugby had an offside rule, they were different offside rules. Early ice hockey is sometimes called a "backwards game" in the sense that rugby is; that is, the object of play can be passed backward to teammates, but cannot move ahead (see rugby rule 26). This was not the case in hockey. The puck itself could move forward, so long as the pass recipient was not ahead of the puck at the time the pass was made. So you could pass the puck ahead of your winger, who could skate up to meet it. Indeed, in his 1899 book Hockey: Canada' Royal Winter Game, Art Farrell explained that this was the ideal method for making a pass; note that the offside rule had not changed at all by 1899.
If you go rule-by-rule, it's absolutely clear that field hockey played a much larger part in the rules of early ice hockey. I would go so far as to say that there is no reason to believe rugby had any influence at all on the rules, if you actually look at the rules. Even the sort-of-similar rules (such as offsides) are handled differently. Joseph claimed that rugby used one referee and two umpires, as we know that early ice hockey did. But the 1871 rugby rules make no mention of either, instead specifying that the team captains are the sole arbiters of infractions. However, lacrosse did use one referee and two umpires.
The earliest reference to positions in early Montreal ice hockey we have is from 1876, which identified players in a match as forwards, half-backs, backs and goaltenders. Goaltenders were referred to in 1875, but this was the first time other positions were named. Some of the rugby influence claims state that rugby positions were used (except, of course, for the curious addition of a goalkeeper). Neither modern rugby (nor modern field hockey) positions bear much apparent resemblance to this set-up. However, if we do look at groups of players rather than individual positions, in rugby today players will be referred to as forwards, half-backs and backs. No goaltender, of course.
However, this does not seem to be terminology contemporary to early ice hockey. Here, for example, we see that rugby in the 1870s featured forwards, half-backs, three-quarter-backs, and full-backs. Which is still quite close to the early ice hockey setup. However, we must also consider field hockey in this equation.
Hockey: Historical and Practical is a volume on English (field) hockey, written by J. Nicholson Smith and Philip A. Robson and published in 1899. As the title suggests, it discusses both the history of field hockey, and how it was played. When detailing the positions on the field, Smith and Robson break the players into four categories: the forwards, the half-backs, the backs and the goal-keeper. These are precisely the positions that were used in 1870s hockey in Montreal. So it seems that even if rugby used such nomenclature, it was not unique to that sport. And indeed this would make field hockey a better fit, since rugby does not use a goaltender.
It should be plainly obvious that the equipment used in early ice hockey was much more similar to that of field hockey than to rugby. Rugby has no sticks, and the ball is much too large to be used for hockey. The goal markers were much different as well. Ice hockey added skates of course, but you cannot credit that idea to rugby, clearly.
We have already noted that the difference in the offside rules produce a significant effect on the game play of these sports. In rugby, the ball could only move backward. In field hockey and ice hockey, it could move forward so long as the players involved were onside.
The objects of rugby are quite different than ice hockey. You scored goals by kicking the ball over the crossbar and between the posts, and of course you could score touch downs, which have no equivalent in ice hockey or field hockey. In terms of the object of the game, it's clearly field hockey that is more similar.
Rugby, then as now, involved scrummages (which have no equivalent in ice hockey), and allowed tackling, which ice hockey did not. You were not permitted to take hold of a hockey player and drag him down, even if he did have the puck. In rugby, players could pick up the ball and catch it out of the air before beginning a run while holding on to the ball. There was nothing like this in hockey.
So all we're left with in terms of game play is the vague sense of physicality mentioned by Gopnik. Now, I believe that the physicality in the early version of Montreal hockey can easily be overstated, if it is thought of in modern terms. In its earliest days, ice hockey certainly allowed contact, but it was not the constant body-checking we see in the game today. Indeed it could not have been, since players expending their energy on such endeavours would not have lasted the 60 minutes they were required to play each match. However, there was certainly some rough and physical play, whereas in field hockey there was a rule in place that was designed to prevent body contact (playing right to left).
If you want to see this is as a rugby influence on early ice hockey, I'm not going to stop you. Indeed many of the players involved in the early Montreal matches were rugby football players. But it seems fairly clear that it was field hockey one ice, perhaps sprinkled with a taste of rugby. The level of physicality in early ice hockey was not equal to that in rugby; it was certainly more than field hockey, but it was also certainly less than rugby.
Going through this process, I cannot see how rugby can be said to have been a significant influence on early Montreal ice hockey. There are several claims of this, however they were all made at least three decades after the fact, and are part of stories that tend to have rather large inconsistencies with history in them. In all of the ways discussed above, with one possible exception, field hockey is a clearer source of inspiration for early Montreal hockey than rugby. When you couple this with the fact that claims of rugby influence were all made well after the fact and rely solely on fallible human memory, you reach the conclusion that there is no particular reason to believe rugby played a role.
Since McGill was such a rugby stronghold, perhaps these McGillers (Smith, Murray, Joseph) just associated everything with rugby, when in fact there were other sports much closer in nature. But whatever the reason, it appears that their claims do not stand up to scrutiny.