Debating the Origins of Hockey: Does it Matter Where, When and by Whom Hockey was First Played?

Last month, I attended the annual conference of the North American Society for Sport History in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Not surprisingly, with hundreds of sport scholars gathered in a Canadian city, the sport of hockey featured prominently on the program. It was an interesting and intellectually stimulating weekend.

One paper was particularly interesting for the focus of Hockey in Society, partly because of its content and partly because of the discussion it generated afterward. It was entitled “Imagining the Creation: The Canadian Family Squabble over the Origins of Hockey” and was written by Paul W. Bennett of St. Mary’s University. Dr. Bennett’s paper discussed, and critiqued, the arguments surrounding the origins of hockey, and particularly the debate that is waged about the place in which hockey in its “modern” form was first played – a topic that is the subject of fierce disagreement between representatives of the various locations that lay a claim to being the “birthplace of hockey.”

Given the intense feelings that many people have about this topic, I am well aware that I am wading into a debate about which many scholars and amateur historians have much more knowledge than me. My point here is not to actually engage in the origins debate, but rather to question its necessity at all. In doing so, I do not mean to dismiss the work that many historians are doing to pinpoint the origins of modern hockey. Rather, I hope to critique the idea of hockey – or any other cultural institution for that matter – as a “fixed” entity and instead understand it as a fluid, ever-changing activity that developed in particular ways at particular times and that is constantly changing as a result of various social forces.

The Debate Over the Origins of Hockey

A number of Canadian towns or cities have staked a claim as the site of the first ever organized hockey match. Boosters of Windsor, Nova Scotia argue that the town hosted the first game in the first half of the 1800s. Kingston, Ontario and Halifax also have claims. Meanwhile, in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation named Montreal the “birthplace of hockey.” The topic is of such interest to many hockey historians that in 2001 the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) struck an Origins of Hockey Committee to explore the topic, particularly in light of the claims made by the Windsor camp about that town being hockey’s birthplace. The SIHR committee’s report concluded that:

The committee found evidence of stick and ball games played on ice on skates in Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. . . . The committee found no evidence in the Windsor position of a connection from whatever form of hockey might have been played at Long Pond to the game played elsewhere and to modern hockey. . . . The committee concludes that Dr. Vaughan and the Windsor Hockey Heritage Society have not offered credible evidence that Windsor, Nova Scotia, is the birthplace of hockey.

The committee offers no opinion on the birth date or birthplace of hockey, but takes note of a game at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875. This is the earliest eyewitness account known to the committee of a specific game of hockey in a specific place at a specific time, and with a recorded score, between two identified teams.

Thus, to the SIHR committee, key features of “hockey” (as opposed to hockey-like stick and ball games played on ice) include the game being played “a specific place at a specific time, and with a recorded score, between two identified teams.” This is similar to distinctions made by sport historians between disorganized folk games and organized sports, the latter of which are distinguished by their formalized rules and organizations structures.

“Two-Eyed Seeing” and the Mi’kmaq Contribution to the Development of Hockey

In his paper, Dr. Bennett, while he discussed these various claims about hockey’s origins, problematized the attempt to fix hockey’s origins to a particular time and locale. Rather, he argued that the Mi’kmaq First Nation made significant contributions to the development of hockey and he advocated for a “two-eyed seeing” understanding of hockey’s development. Two-eyed seeing can be described thusly:

“Two-Eyed Seeing” is learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing … and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.

I agree with Dr. Bennett that the contribution of Aboriginal Peoples to the development of hockey, and Canadian cultural institutions more broadly, is of critical historical importance. Further, I agree that the dispute about the origins of hockey can deteriorate into petty squabbling and dubious history in the name of civic boosterism. More critically, I wish to extend this argument and question if and why pinning down a precise time and location for the “birth” of hockey is even a necessary exercise.

Hockey as a Historically Contingent Social Construct

When I taught undergraduate students about the origins of hockey, I showed them a clip from the CBC series Hockey: A People’s History that dramatized the 1875 Montreal hockey game mentioned in, though not endorsed by, the SIHR report. This game is considered by many to be the first ever formal hockey match and thus was of note for the documentary series. As described in the video, the game featured a 9-aside contest in which players could not pass forward, goalies could not drop to the ice to stop the puck, the goal was constructed from two posts stuck in the ice eight feet apart, and substitutions were not allowed. I then asked students to highlight some of the ways in which the sport depicted in the video differed from their contemporary understanding of hockey. Predictably, they were able to highlight the many ways in which the rules of this 1875 match were markedly different from how organized hockey is played today.

I then used this discussion as a launching pad to discuss other ways in which this early incarnation of hockey clashed with contemporary understandings of and popular myths about the sport. In particular, I emphasized the point that when people offer the common refrain that “that’s just the way the game is” (for example, on the topic of fighting) we should remember that the sport of hockey has undergone, and continues to undergo, significant changes – changes that happened at particular times and in particular ways due to social and political struggles around the form and meaning of the sport. This perspective thus allows people passionate about hockey to explore how and why the sport developed in the way that it did, as well as to imagine new possibilities for changing enacting social change within and through it.

To return to the debate about where and when the first hockey match was played, it appears that this argument will not cease anytime soon. On a positive note, the discussion about hockey’s origins points to the passion that many Canadians hold for the sport as well as the dedication of researchers who wish to uncover more historical information about the game. Clearly hockey is a resonant cultural activity and one that is of great significance to Canada and its history.

However, I also believe that the obsession with pinning down a first “real” hockey game – an undertaking firmly grounded in a strict modernist understanding of what sport is or should be – obscures critical sociopolitical struggles surrounding the sport and, as Dr. Bennett suggested, sidelines the contributions to the sport made by a diverse range of people, including Aboriginal Canadians. The Montreal players were, as likely were those in Windsor, Halifax, and Kingston, all white, all middle or upper class, and all male. They, and the men who would enthusiastically take up and codify hockey in successive decades, could afford the time and money to adhere to a strict code of amateurism – a code that essentially barred from participation men from the working class. Furthermore, there was no room in early organized hockey for participation by women or ethnic and racial minorities.

That these early organizers actively structured hockey to exclude certain people speaks to the problematic nature of celebrating their accomplishments in codifying the sport’s rules. It also entrenches their vision and version of the sport as the first manifestation of a “real” form of hockey – ignoring, therefore, the many cultural and historical currents and diverse peoples that contributed to the construction of the sport. Finally, it delegitimizes all forms of hockey that do not fit within the understanding of this “real” (i.e. highly competitive, rule-bound, male-only) form of the sport. While other forms of the sport may be affiliated with “hockey,” they are qualified and thus framed as inferior to the “real” hockey. Thus, we have “women’s hockey,” “pond hockey,” “sledge hockey,” etc.

Of course, despite the best efforts of many entrenched in the early governing structures of amateur and professional hockey, hockey, in its diverse forms, has become more accessible to a greater diversity of Canadians – though it remains excluding for many people. It has also taken on different social meanings in diverse cultural contexts, a fact borne out in much academic and popular writing about the sport. But all of that is diminished, and in many cases lost, when we seek to fix hockey’s birth to a particular location, time, and set of people. I argue that we should rather seek to understand how various social, political and economic currents have interacted at particular historical moments to construct the sport of hockey in particular ways – and how various groups of people have legitimized or resisted these constructions. Such an understanding, I believe, offers a much more complex and nuanced picture of the historical development of hockey – a fluid, diverse and ever-changing physical cultural practice – than any attempt to fix its origins to a particular set of 19th Century white males in a particular Canadian city on a particular date.

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2 thoughts on “Debating the Origins of Hockey: Does it Matter Where, When and by Whom Hockey was First Played?

  1. Pingback: Hockey Research at the 2014 North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) Conference | Hockey in Society

  2. Pingback: Canadian Aboriginals and Hockey: A Complex and Conflicted History | Hockey in Society

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