Who Invented Hockey: A History of Hockey

| , | November 15, 2023

There are various theories about who invented hockey. In American parlance, the word ‘hockey’ will bring to mind ice, pucks, heavily padded players, and scuffles. The winter national sport of Canada, hockey actually has quite a long and complicated history. Hockey originated in a different continent altogether, centuries before it made its way to Canada. But the reason it is so associated with Canada is because Canada has taken it to heights never seen before.

Who Invented Hockey?

hockey-game

The early form of hockey as we recognize it today almost certainly originated in the British Isles. It went by different names at the time and eventually developed different variations.

England and ‘Bandy’

Research has revealed that the likes of Charles Darwin, King Edward VII, and Albert (Prince Consort to Queen Victoria) all put skates on their feet and played on frozen ponds. A letter from Darwin to his son has even named the game ‘hocky.’ However, it was more popularly called ‘bandy’ in England. It is still played to this day, mostly in northern Europe and Russia. It grew out of football when English clubs wanted to keep playing during the frozen winter months.

In fact, at around the same time (the early 19th century CE), a very similar game played on the ground evolved into the field hockey of the modern day. But in Scotland, we can trace back the game even further than the 1820s.

Scotland’s Version

The Scots called their version of the game, also played on ice, shinty, or chamiare. The game was played by players on iron skates. It took place on the icy surfaces that formed during the harsh Scottish winters and probably spread to London from there. It may have been British soldiers who took the sport to eastern Canada, although there is evidence that the indigenous people also had a similar game.

17th and 18th century Scotland gives us repeated mentions of the game of hockey. Or something like it, at least. The Aberdeen Journal reported on a case in 1803 where two boys died while playing on the ice when the ice gave way. Paintings from 1796, when London experienced an uncommonly cold December, show young men playing on a frozen surface with sticks that look remarkably like hockey sticks.

A 1646 Scottish text, ‘The Historie of the Kirk of Scotland’ references the game of chamiare as far back as 1607-08. It talks about how the sea froze unusually far and the people went out to play on the frozen reaches. This may be evidence of the first game of ice hockey played in history.

ice-hockey
Hockey on ice

What Does Ireland Have to Say?

The history of the Irish game of hurling or hurley can be definitively traced back to the 1740s. Passages speaking about teams of gentlemen playing on the frozen River Shannon have been found in a book by Rev. John O’Rourke. But the legend of hurling is much older, claiming that it began with Cú Chulainn of Celtic myth.

Since there was a huge number of Irish immigrants in Canada, it is not surprising that they took the popular sport with them. We can only conjecture how a sport that was so common to the British Isles spread around the world. 

A popular Nova Scotian legend tells the story of how the boys of King’s College School, many of them Irish immigrants, adapted their favorite game to the frigid Canadian climate. This was supposedly how hurley on ice was created. And ice hurley gradually became ice hockey. It is unclear how true this legend is. Historians claim it may be no more than a typical ‘Irish yarn.’

However much the different Canadian states may argue over who invented hockey, the evidence seems to say that the game can actually be traced back to Europe, a few centuries before the Canadians began playing it.

When Was Hockey Invented: Hockey in Ancient Times

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Ancient Greek relief depicting a game similar to a hockey

Well, there are different interpretations of that. Some scholars will say it was invented in medieval Europe. Others will say that any of the stick and ball games played by the ancient Greeks or ancient Egyptians counted. It depends on what you consider the ‘invention’ of any game. Would any sport where people pushed around a ball with a long stick count as hockey?

READ MORE: Ancient Greece Timeline: Pre-Mycenaean to the Roman Conquest

In 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) decreed that the first official game of ice hockey in the world was played in 1875 in Montreal. So perhaps ice hockey is that old. Or perhaps it is only as old as 1877 when the first rules of the game were published in the Montreal Gazette. If so, Canada invented ice hockey in the 1870s.

But what about the British who have been playing games very similar to ice hockey on skates as far back as the 14th century CE? What about the rules of those games? Was it then that hockey was invented, after all, even when it went by another name?

The Early Antecedents of the Game

Who invented hockey? Hockey is one variation of a stick and ball game that has been played around the world throughout history. The ancient Egyptians played it. The ancient Greeks played it. The native people in the Americas played it. The Persians and the Chinese played it. The Irish have a sport called hurling that is thought by some scholars to be the forefather of hockey.

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline: Predynastic Period Until the Persian Conquest

As far as tangible history is concerned, paintings from the 1500s depict people playing a game involving sticks on the ice. But the closest ancestor of the modern game is probably shanty or chamiare, played by the Scots in the 1600s, or bandy played by the English in the 1700s.

hockey-stick
A hockey stick belonging to William Moffatt, made between 1835 and 1838 in Nova Scotia from sugar maple wood

Why is Hockey Called Hockey?

The name ‘hockey’ probably comes from the hockey puck. In the early days, the pucks used in casual games were the corks that acted as stoppers in beer casks. Hock Ale was the name of a very popular drink. Thus, the game came to be called hockey. The earliest official record of the name is from a 1773 book called ‘Juvenile Sports and Pastimes,’ published in England.

Another theory is that the name ‘hockey’ is derived from the French ‘hoquet.’ A hoquet is a shepherd’s stick and the term may have been used because of the curved shape of the hockey stick.

Of course, the pucks used in ice hockey at present are made of rubber and not cork.

hoquet
A shepherd stick

Different Kinds of Hockey

The game of hockey, or field hockey as it is also known, is more widespread and perhaps older than ice hockey. Ice hockey was probably an offshoot of older games that were played on the ground, in hot weather.

There are several other kinds of hockey too, like roller hockey, rink hockey, and floor hockey. They are all somewhat similar in that they are played by two teams with long, curved sticks called hockey sticks. Otherwise, they have different rules of play and equipment.

The First Organized Game

When we talk about who invented hockey, we can’t really look at Canada. However, in many ways, Canada made ice hockey what it is today. After all, the very first organized ice hockey game played in history was in Montreal on March 3, 1875. The hockey game was played at the Victoria Skating Club between two teams of nine players each.

The game was played with a circular wooden block. This was before the introduction of the puck into the sport. It could be easily slid along the ice without flying into the air like a ball would. Unfortunately, it meant that the wooden block also slid among the spectators and had to be fished out.

The teams were captained by James George Aylwin Creighton (originally from Nova Scotia) and Charles Edward Torrance. The former team won 2-1. This game also saw the invention of a puck-like instrument (the term ‘puck’ itself originated in Canada) to avoid injury to the spectators.

It is difficult to say what exactly an ‘organized’ game means because similar games had obviously been played before. It is simply recognized as such by the IIHF.

victoria-hockey-club
Victoria Hockey Club, 1899

Canada Becomes the Champion

Canada may not have invented hockey, but it dominates the sport in all ways. Canadians are extremely passionate about the sport and children throughout the country learn to play hockey while growing up. It was Canadian rules, including the use of the vulcanized rubber puck, that were adopted worldwide.

Canadian Innovations and Tournaments

Several of the early rules for hockey were adapted directly from English football (soccer). It was the Canadians who made changes that resulted in ice hockey developing into a rather different sport than regular hockey.

They brought back the flat discs that had given hockey its name and had been abandoned for balls. The Canadians also reduced the number of players in a hockey team to seven and new techniques for goalkeepers were introduced. The National Hockey Association, which was the precursor to the National Hockey League (NHL), further dropped the number of players to six in 1911.

The NHL was formed in 1917, with four Canadian teams. But in 1924, an American team called the Boston Bruins joined the NHL. It has expanded quite a lot over the subsequent years.

By 1920, Canada had become the dominant power in hockey globally. It may not have been the inventor of the team sport, but it has contributed more to it than any other nation over the last 150 years.

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