Today, it’s known as Canada’s game. Even with stiff competition at the international level, Canadians still claim that ice hockey is a product of their country. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if researchers have been able to provide evidence to the contrary?
Some might argue that the findings are controversial, a stretch to find some kind of precursor to Canada’s first claim to the game. However, with a number of people wondering where hockey began, evidence points to the United Kingdom as the home to the earliest roots of hockey.
Pieter Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow depicts an early form of ice hockey
Canada’s Claim of Inventing Hockey
While the discussion of who invented hockey often includes Windsor, Nova Scotia — the first recorded indoor hockey game leads us to Montreal, Québec, in 1875. But the Canadian debate doesn’t stop there. In fact, when it comes to where the sport started in that country, there’s no real unanimity.
A very early hockey game at McGill University in Montreal.
Jean-Patrice Martel is one of three writers who collaborated on a book entitled On the Origin of Hockey – a book we’ll discuss a bit later. As part of the team that researched the history of the game’s origins, Martel noted that both Windsor and Montreal aren’t alone in claiming hockey as theirs when it comes to Canadian cities.
“Everybody wants to know where hockey came from,” said the Montrealer, Martel, in an interview with National Post writer Joe O’Connor. “It has been an endless debate in Canada. Windsor, Nova Scotia, even managed to get the Ministry of Transport to put up a highway sign saying it was the birthplace of hockey. Kingston claimed to be the birthplace of hockey. Halifax, Deline – in the Northwest Territories – all these places claimed hockey.
Montreal is where the first organized game took place, in 1875
“People in Montreal say, well, Montreal is where the first organized game took place, in 1875, so it is really the only date that matters. Everybody in Canada has a claim to hockey, and you can find one, or two, or perhaps three references supporting each claim. But then you look at England, and all of a sudden there are hundreds and hundreds of references to hockey being played all over the country – some dating back as far as the 1790s.”
Early Hockey at the Victoria Rink in Montreal.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say Montreal was the first organized game. It took place at Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875, with two teams of nine players each. James Creighton organized the game and even captained one of the teams.
While it is documented as the first indoor organized game of hockey in Canada, all signs point to Europe as the birth place of the beloved game – controversial or not.
Reading Up On the Origins of Hockey
The book was written by three members of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR). Along with Martel, who is a full-time computer analyst, Swedes Carl Giden (a physician) and Patrick Houda (a journalist) joined Martel in uncovering the truth about who invented hockey.
A day on the ice in a 17th century Dutch painting.
As mentioned, their research reveals the possibility that the first game could date back as far as the 1790s in Britain.
They discovered that the name – hockey – likely came from the cork they used as a puck. The corks were used as stoppers in beer casks and at that time, Hock Ale was a popular drink, according to Adam Proteau.
As for the participants, they might be rather shocking. Charles Darwin is a well-known name within the field of science and evolution, but no one associates the famous scientist with the game of hockey. However, the three SIHR researchers found the link between the two and also included King Edward VII and Albert (Prince Consort to Queen Victoria) as two more of the game’s earliest participants.
How does Darwin tie into this exactly?
Well, researchers found a letter dated March 1, 1853, from Darwin to his son William. In it, he wrote:
“My Dear Old Willy… have you got a pretty good pond to skate on? I used to be very fond of playing at Hocky on the ice in skates.”
Darwin was actually referencing games in which he took part during the 1820s in Shrewsbury, England, east of the Welsh border. While some might assume that “hocky” was a misprint, it isn’t. It was just the way it was written in 19th century England. In fact, it wasn’t originally called hockey at all. The game of hockey has been said to be modeled after what was actually referred to as hurley, hurling, bandy, shinty or shinny – according to the SIHR.
So if 1875 Montreal wasn’t the first game of hockey and Darwin’s participation in the 1820s wasn’t the first of its kind, how far back can we trace the game of hurly?
Europeans Are the Answer to Who Invented Hockey
Like Canada, researchers discovered a plethora of references to sports much like today’s game of hockey. In fact, it dates as far back as 17th century Scotland.
But first, let’s start with a reference to the game in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1803. The Aberdeen Journal reported on February 9, 1803, that two young boys around the age of 14 were playing shinty on ice when the surface gave way. They boys fell through and unfortunately did not survive.
The game was once again referenced in a painting (that can be seen on the SIHR website) by an artist that is believed to be Benedictus Antonio Van Assen. The painting is of two young men playing the game of hockey on a frozen surface as early as 1796. According the SIHR, the city of London experienced a severe cold spell in December 1796, which could explain the painting and where it took place.
Again, hockey is referenced in multiple publications between 1780 and 1791, with Admiral Charles Stewart providing one anecdote in the Life of Stephen Decatur, a Commodore in the Navy of the United States that read:
“During the winter, when the glassy surface of the Schuylkill invited the boys to skim over it on skates, no one excelled him [Decatur] in hurly, prisoner’s base, and the other games of the season.”
Historian George Penny published anecdotes from Perth, Scotland, that referenced the game of shinty being played “on the ice by large parties” and “on the streets.” These anecdotes are estimated to have taken place between 1745 and 1809.
But the earliest reference, according to the SIHR is a Scottish text from 1607-08. In The Historie of the Kirk of Scotland, published in 1646, a passage discussing the Great post in the winter of 1607-08 references the game of chamiare, another word for shinty according to the Scottish National Dictionary and the SIHR. It reads: “The sea freized so farre as it ebbed, and sindrie went in to shippes upon yee, and played at the chamiare a mile within the sea marke.”
While it’s not the earliest reference to the game of hurly, a book discussing the Great Irish Famine of 1847 by Rev. John O’Rourke contains content from the Dublin Evening Post written on January 19 and February 2, 1740. The passage reads: “Teams of gentlemen play match of hurling on the ice of the River Shannon near Portumna.”
With the research of the SIHR to back up the similarities between hurling and hockey, former All-Ireland winning hurling manager Ger Loughnane was part of a documentary that looked at Irish immigration to Canada, the connection between hurling and hockey and how Celtic culture influenced a country’s national sport.
The film is called Poc na nGael and in it, Loughanane takes a trip to Canada to find the commonality of the two games. The film’s director Eamonn O Cualain explains that like the two games, their fans are also similar.
“We found out that 250 years ago an Irish principal in a school in Nova Scotia was doing training in games of hurling at the school…After hurling took to the ice and became ice hurling, it took on a new life of its own. A new sport. The Canadians are definitely as passionate about ice hockey as we are about hurling.”
While some will still argue that the game of hockey is something more Canadian than anything else, the evidence is there for those who are interested in reading about it. Similarities exist between the European game of hurling or hurly or whatever you’d like to call it and today’s game of hockey.
Regardless of who lays claim to it, evidence points to its beginnings in Europe over 200 years before the first documented game of hockey in Canada.
* originally published in Sept. 2017
OK, quick: Where was the first NHL game played? And who scored the first NHL goal?
They're actually trick questions, because no one knows for sure — that is, until now.
For many decades, ever since the National Hockey League firmly established itself as the planet's premier professional circuit, neither hockey historians nor the sport's trivia-obsessed fans have been able to say with certainty where the very first NHL action took place or who recorded the league's first goal.
That's because the newly formed NHL launched its first season on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 19, 1917, with two games — one in Ottawa and one in Montreal.
New evidence verified
It's long been known that the Ottawa game between the Montreal Canadiens and host Ottawa Hockey Club was scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. But the official start time of the other game, a clash between the Toronto Hockey Club and the hometown Montreal Wanderers, had remained unknown until a key discovery last month.
The new evidence — verified by the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) — has been found in a long-overlooked Montreal newspaper that finally clarifies where the first-ever NHL puck-drop took place and who notched the league's history-making first goal.
While most Montreal papers didn't report the scheduled start time, the recently digitized French-language daily Le Canada published a game-day advertisement that clearly sets the opening faceoff at 8:15 p.m.
A recently found ad from the newspaper Le Canada promotes an 8:15 p.m. start time for a game on 'artificial ice' between the Toronto Hockey Club and the Montreal Wanderers.
The ad, touting the Toronto vs. Wanderers game "on artificial ice," specifies ticket prices between 50 cents and $1.55 and a scheduled start at 8:15 p.m.
That means Montreal, already acknowledged as the birthplace of modern hockey — thanks to a well-documented indoor game in March 1875 — and the winner of the first Stanley Cup in 1893, is also where NHL players faced off for the very first time.
The NHL's inaugural scorer? A Wanderers defenceman named Dave Ritchie, who ended the 1917-18 season playing for Ottawa after the Wanderers' rink burned down and the team folded.
The game took place less than a month after the NHL was formally constituted at a meeting of team owners on Nov. 26, 1917, at the Windsor Hotel in — once again — Montreal.
The first-game revelation comes in the midst of the NHL's yearlong celebration of its 100th anniversary. The festivities will culminate on Dec. 16 with an outdoor game at Ottawa's Lansdowne Park between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens.
Early days of the NHL4:19
Last month, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners of the Senators and Canadiens announced plans for the outdoor game, Bettman pointedly described the event as a centennial tribute to the league's first "night" of play — specifically, "the night that launched 100 years of NHL hockey."
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, however, categorically called it a "celebration of the 100th anniversary of the very first NHL game, which took place in the nation's capital in 1917."
The Ottawa game in 1917 was held at a long-gone downtown arena close to Parliament Hill. The other match that night was at the Montreal Arena — another vanished ice palace that once stood at the corner of Ste-Catherine Street and Wood Avenue in the Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount — between the Wanderers and Toronto.
The Arena in Montreal, shown circa 1907, hosted the first NHL game in 1917 before being destroyed by fire in January of the following year. (Valentine and Sons Publishing Co/Bibliothèque et Archives Nationale du Québec)
Over the years, obvious questions lingered and fuelled endless debate: Were the two games played simultaneously or did one start earlier? And which of the games produced the earliest goal?
As Montreal author Don Weekes noted in his 2009 volume The Biggest Book of Hockey Trivia, Canadiens star Joe Malone scored six and a half minutes into the first period of the game in Ottawa while Ritchie scored at the one-minute mark in Montreal.
Joe Malone of the Montreal Canadiens has been credited with scoring the NHL's first natural hat trick — three consecutive goals — on Dec. 19, 1917, against Ottawa. (Library and Archives Canada)
"Unfortunately," Weekes noted, "the Montreal game's start time remains unconfirmed. So, credit both the Wanderers' Dave Ritchie and Joe Malone of the Canadiens as the first goal scorers in NHL history."
As recently as December 2016 — the 99th anniversary of the NHL's first games — news sites across the country published a Canadian Press "Today in History" item that stated: "Either Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers or Joe Malone of the Montreal Canadiens scored the first NHL goal. The dispute comes down to the fact there is no remaining record of when exactly each game started."
Contract dispute adds to confusion
But in their 2002 book Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey, authors Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth argued that Ritchie — despite "some debate amongst hockey fans over the years" — probably deserved first-goal honours. Why? Because the start of the Canadiens-Ottawas game was delayed 15 minutes by a contract dispute involving several of the Ottawa club's players, while "the Toronto-Wanderers game started on time."
On time, yes, but the central mystery remained: At precisely what hour was the Montreal game scheduled to start? If the puck-drop was set for 9 p.m., then the Ottawa game and Malone's goal might have come first.
The discovery of the advertisement in Le Canada — and its clear indication that the Montreal game was to begin at 8:15 p.m. — finally resolves the issue.
The Arena stood at the corner of Ste-Catherine St. and Wood Ave. in the Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. (Library and Archives Canada)
There's never been any suggestion that the Montreal game was delayed. So combined with the later, 8:30 p.m. scheduled start in Ottawa — and the 15-minute delay on top of that — it's clear that the city of Montreal, the visiting "Torontos" and the hometown Wanderers (including opening scorer Ritchie) had a half-hour head start in claiming their unique place in NHL history.
Montreal-area hockey historian Jean-Patrice Martel, president of SIHR and co-author of the 2014 book On the Origin of Hockey, was surprised the telltale advertisement had not been discovered earlier.
'There are situations where the difficulty is in knowing what to look for.'- Jean-Patrice Martel, hockey historian
"I did not find any book, article, blog entry or even exchange on the SIHR electronic discussion group (or any other) that stated that the Wanderers' game had started at 8:15 p.m.," said Martel, who discussed the finding with other SIHR members, as well.
He also checked another historical French-language newspaper, La Patrie, for additional evidence of the Toronto-Wanderers start time — and, within minutes, found a virtually identical game-day advertisement confirming the 8:15 p.m. faceoff.
"There are situations when information is hard to find, and then there are situations where the difficulty is in knowing what to look for," he said, noting that the discovery of the Montreal start time "belongs to the second category."
A newspaper ad touts the game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Hockey Club. The 8:30 p.m. start was delayed by a contract dispute. (Library and Archives Canada)
Now, he said, Montreal can claim the first-game honour and "Ritchie's goal can safely be considered to have been scored at least 25 minutes earlier than Malone's."
Among the other scorers in Montreal was Wanderers forward Harry Hyland, who notched three first-period goals against Toronto that night — now confirmed as the NHL's first hat trick — and went on to score five goals by the end of the game.
The NHL's opening-night game in Montreal offered two other nuggets for fans of hockey history. The Wanderers goalie — now confirmed as the first netminder in NHL history to earn a win — was Bert Lindsay. He was the father of future NHL legend Ted Lindsay, whose name adorns the trophy given annually to the league's most outstanding player, as chosen by his peers.
Hockey legend Ted Lindsay poses with the award named in his honour given to the league's best player as voted by his peers. (Greg Strong/Canadian Press)
And the Wanderers' player-coach Art Ross, a high-scoring defenceman in the pre-NHL era and namesake of the trophy given today to the NHL's top point-getter, recorded his first and only NHL goal near the end of the second period of the Toronto-Wanderers match. It was described by Le Canada as "le plus beau point de la soirée" — the most beautiful goal of the night.
The Montreal Arena — where it can finally be said with confidence that the NHL got its start — was gone within two weeks of that first game nearly a century ago.
A catastrophic fire consumed the 20-year-old rink on Jan. 2, 1918, and the Wanderers franchise, too, went up in flames. The club's sole NHL victory was its 10-9 win over Toronto in the game that we now know marked the true beginning of the league — and "launched 100 years of NHL hockey."