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THE CASE FOR MONTREAL AS HOCKEY MECCA « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

THE CASE FOR MONTREAL AS HOCKEY MECCA

“Rules of Hockey No. 3: No player shall raise his stick above his shoulder. Charging from behind, tripping, collaring, kicking or shinning shall not be allowed.”
— Montreal Gazette, Feb. 27, 1877

So the Society of International Hockey Research has declared a decade after its launch that ice hockey was not founded in Kingston, Ont. or Windsor, N.S. (as claimed in those places). The society’s research team says evidence from 19th century records suggests Montreal and Halifax have sounder claims.

The printed rules (see excerpt above) came on the eve of a well-publicized match at the Victoria Skating Rink between the Metropolitan and the St. James clubs. The captain of the Mets was one J.G.A. Creighton, a Haligonian studying law at McGill, and the man who got organized hockey going at the new rink in its initial stage. From Montreal it was to spread west to Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto.

Later, Creighton became Clerk of the Senate in Ottawa. In the early 1890s he got the sons of the Governor General, Baron Stanley, into hockey, leading the father to donate the famous trophy now won and lost each June.

Creighton was probably the pivotal person in hockey’s flowering in Canada, although my research has not uncovered any credit for launching organized hockey that he either took or was given.

One must stress the word “organized.” Most of the world’s major team sports had long and diverse antecedents in informal play, often with mass participation and many watchers before they were crystallized by accepted, common rules of play and regular competition.

Fifty years ago, as a reference librarian at Queen’s University, I had come on a New York Times story on how the reference chief of the N.Y. public library had blown holes through a declaration made by pro baseball – one which sportswriters swallowed whole – that the game had been invented by one Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. (thus, the site of baseball’s Hall of Fame).

The librarian proved that a game called baseball, recognizably the nucleus of modern baseball, improving on the English villagers’ game of rounders, was defined and sponsored by several excellent players in Boston, from whence it spread quickly through New England and New York state before the Civil War.

In 1951 at Queen’s, I had read a report published in 1942 by a committee of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, headed by a veteran official of the OHA, Billie Hewitt, titled “Origin of Hockey in Canada.” Only 1,400 words long, it noted “the game in various forms was first played in Europe and Asia and first played in Canada in Halifax and Kingston … the first hockey was played by the Royal Canadian Rifles, an Imperial unit, stationed in Halifax and Kingston in 1855.”

HOCKEY RECORDS
The report recognized Montreal had records of hockey games beginning in 1874 but stated “they were superceded by games in Kingston and Halifax.”

What the report failed to say is that the records in Montreal newspapers (like the Gazette) from 1874 to 1877 were factually informative and their opinions credible. In them one learns how the game was defined through its launch at the new Victoria Skating Rink, the first large, enclosed and unobstructed ice surface in North America. Nothing nearly so specific in a public record has sustained the Halifax or Kingston claims.

When I learned how organized baseball’s credited beginnings had been doused by a librarian’s search through old press files, I began to wonder about the Hewitt report. The Queen’s library had a big collection of old newspapers, notably Montreal, Toronto, and Kingston dailies through long stretches of the 1800s. So for several years my spare time went to files of the Gazette, the Globe, etc.

My zest in scanning the old files owed much to thinking I was a pioneer, unearthing the history of hockey and coming to understand the human zest for competitive play in a huge diversity of circumstances. After several years work and much note taking came the big shock.
Although I’d covered the Gazette rather well through its 19th century files, I hadn’t got to files from the 1940s. So it shook me up to learn in the late 1950s that the Gazette in 1943 had run several stories in which the Hewitt findings on hockey were ridiculed. They were based on a study of hockey’s roots in Montreal, unveiled by Prof. E.M. Orlick. He and several others at McGill had also found the Gazette coverage of hockey in the 1870s and talked to one survivor of the first well-reported game (1875) in the Victoria Rink – ice surface 200×85 feet; room for 3,000 spectators.

An organized game such as hockey required four basics:
1) Some standards for both locale (rinks) and equipment (puck, sticks);
2) Accepted rules of play, with some means to ensure they are followed;
3) Regular competition in which there is a winner and a loser or losers;
4) Enough games or matches in repetition over years with a standard format and at set places and times.

Separating organized hockey from somewhat similar but less narrowly framed play such as shinny, shinty, hoquet, and bandy lets Canadians assume the role in hockey that the English had in soccer and the Americans in baseball. But whenever I puff up such assumption I recall two points – one on origins, the other on changes in game equipment – in the lead paragraph of a Gazette piece of March 4, 1877:

“At the rink last night a very large audience gathered to witness a novel contest on ice. The game of hockey, though much in vogue on the ice in New England and other parts of the United States, is not much known here, and in consequence the game last evening was looked forward to with great interest. Hockey is played usually with a ball, but last night in order that no accident should happen, a flat block of wood was used, so that it should slide along the ice without rising and going among the spectators to their discomfiture.”

The slapshot was a long way ahead – developed by Canadian players in mid-20th century, about the time the hockey played by teams of the USSR was emerging as different, perhaps even superior to ours.
The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2002, SunMedia Corp

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