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Ice Hockey

It is played by boys and girls, men and women of all ages â€" as passionately in Porkalompolo, Sweden, as in Podunkville, US. Yet, among the fans who could rattle off the names of professional or amateur players, many would have trouble relating the history of their favorite sport. Ice hockey, known simply as hockey in Canada and the United States, is a team sport played on ice. It is one of the world's fastest sports, with players on skates capable of going high speeds on natural or artificial ice surfaces. The most prominent ice hockey nations are Canada, United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Switzerland.

It is the official national winter sport of Canada, and it has a strong enough following in certain regions of the United States (notably the Northeast, the Northern Midwest, and Alaska) that many Americans consider hockey to be a "major sport" in their country as well, although some Americans from other parts of the U.S. dispute hockey's inclusion as a major sport. The parts of North America which have the strongest followings of the sport are often called "hockey country". In all there are 64 members in the International Ice Hockey Federation. As one might expect, its worldwide popularity is concentrated primarily in locales cool enough for natural, long-term seasonal ice cover.

The history of ice hockey is one of the most contested in all of sports. The city of Montreal had been traditionally credited with being the birthplace of hockey, but early paintings contest this claim; a 16th-century Dutch painting shows a number of townsfolk playing a hockey-like game on a frozen canal. Kingston, Ontario and Windsor, Nova Scotia also lay claim to its origins for similar reasons. The origin of the word hockey is officially unknown, but may derive from the Old French word hoquet, shepherd's crook. Hockey could also come from the Iroquois word hoghee, meaning a tree branch, which was often used as a stick in these games. Legend also has it that Hockey was the name of one of the Army officers stationed in Nova Scotia when soldiers first started playing the game there.

Like most games, hockey didn't arise from one defining moment but evolved from many influences. Many experts claim that hockey grew out of the game of hurley â€" also called bandy and shinty â€" which, according to the Dublin Evening Post, the Irish were playing on ice in 1740.

When Great Britain conquered Canada from France in 1763, soldiers used their knowledge of field hockey and the physically aggressive aspects of what the Mi'kmaq Aboriginal First Nation in Nova Scotia called dehuntshigwa'es (lacrosse). As Canadian winters are long and harsh, new winter sports were always welcomed. Using cheese cutters strapped to their boots, both English- and French-speaking Canadians played the game on frozen rivers, lakes, and ponds. Early paintings show hockey being played in Nova Scotia, as well as in the state of Virginia in the United States.

With the degree of movement into and throughout the Canadas and the Colonies, it is no surprise that numerous variations of ball-and-stick games arose and were naturally adapted to be played on ice in the winter months. In 1843, Arthur Henry Freeling wrote the following in his diary: "Began to skate this year, improved quickly and had great fun at hockey on the ice." This is the earliest known mention connecting skating and `hockey'.

Regardless of its ancestry, the sport we recognize today as hockey is almost universally acknowledged as being a Canadian product. At the very least, the game's initial popularity and growth can be credited, in large part, to another Canadian, James Creighton. James George Alwyn Creighton was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1850. His father was a figure skater and James took naturally to the ice. He obtained his degree in engineering and moved to Montreal, to work on the Lachine Canal. There, Creighton gained a reputation as an expert figure skating judge and began teaching his friends the game of hockey, as he had played it back home. He imported hockey sticks made by the Mi'kmaq, and hockey skates made by Starr Manufacturing of Dartmouth.

On 3 March 1875, after months of practice at Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink, Creighton announced to the readers of The Gazette that two teams (or 'nines' as he called them) of the club's members would play a game of hockey. Until that time, hockey games had any number of players per side, sometimes dozens at once! This was not such a great problem when played on the vast expanses of frozen ponds and bays. But Creighton could see trouble ahead if they tried to pack so many players on the smaller surface of an indoor arena, and imposed a limit of nine players per team.

Rather than use the usual ball, he substituted "a flat, circular piece of wood... preventing all danger of its leaving the ice". A laudable goal, considering spectators (all 40 of them at that first game) had no 'boards' to protect them. Creighton also leaned heavily on the rules that he had learned back home.

And what did the press think of this new sport? Kingston's British Whig Standard reported: "A disgraceful sight took place... over a game of hockey. Shins and heads were battered, benches smashed, and the lady spectators fled in confusion." What was omitted was that this brawl took place not between the teams, but between the players and figure- skating club members, who were not impressed with the new game and wanted their ice back.

In 1877, in order to make some sense of the game, McGill students, James Creighton, Henry Joseph, Richard F. Smith, W. F. Robertson, W. L. Murray, Frank Patrick, and Lester Patrick invented seven ice hockey rules. Having an organized system in place, the game became so popular that it was featured for the first time in Montreal's annual Winter Carnival in 1883. In 1888, the governor general of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston (whose sons were hockey enthusiasts), attended the Carnival and was so impressed with the hockey spectacle that he thought there should be a championship trophy for the best team. The Stanley Cup was first awarded then to the champion amateur team in Canada, and continues to be awarded today to the National Hockey League's championship team. As an interesting historical footnote, one of Lord Stanley's sons was instrumental in introducing ice hockey to the United Kingdom and from there, to Europe at large.

Creighton moved to Ottawa and began playing hockey for the team put together by the sons of then-Governor General Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley. Lord Stanley of Preston, a native of England, was first exposed to Canadian ice hockey at the Montreal Winter Carnival of 1889. Shortly after that, he became a shareholder in the Ottawa rink where his soon-to-be-favorite team, the Rebels, played.

Wishing to encourage fair competition across the young country, according to "generally recognized" rules, Stanley purchased a silver-nickel alloy bowl and donated it as the 'Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup'. In the Stanley Cup's infancy, it was not a prize vied for only at the end of the winter, rather, whoever held the cup from the previous season would sometimes accept challenges from other teams wanting a shot at it. Teams battled for the trophy up to four times in a season, resulting in multiple changes of hands during a single year. The hockey season was vastly different from what we know. The season ended when the ice was no longer playable and the last team to successfully vie for the cup would then hold it until the next season when the process would begin anew.

By 1893, Winnipeg hockey players incorporated cricket pads to better protect the goaltender's legs. They also introduced the "scoop" shot, later known as the wrist shot. In the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, Houghton, MI was the birthplace of professional ice hockey in the United States when the Portage Lakers were formed in 1899.

With today's blurring of the lines between amateur and professional sport, many fans might be surprised by the attitudes of late 19th-century officials. When, in 1898, the mayor of Berlin, Ontario, presented the local team with 'trophies' of gold pieces, the Eastern Ontario Amateur Hockey Association considered this a sign of professionalism. The players claimed they were going to have them melted down and made into watch fobs. Nonetheless, the team was suspended for the rest of the season.

This set off a slow burn in at least one of the players â€" John 'Doc' Gibson. When he moved to Michigan, he continued playing hockey and organized the world's first openly professional league. "Openly" because players had already been getting perks and paid under the table for several years.

So it was that, in 1904, the International Pro Hockey League, the world's first professional league, was born in the US. It had three teams from Michigan, Houghton, Calumet and Sault Ste. Marie, and one from Pittsburgh. The only non-American team was from Sault St. Marie, Ontario. In spite of the IPHL's influence on hockey, it was not to live long. When a recession hit the US in 1907, money stopped flowing and the IPHL folded.

Although there were many good players born and raised in the US, Canadians were in demand south of the border, while players from Canada were drawn to the money. Canadian Hod Stuart signed on with the Calumet team as player, coach and manager for $1,800 per season. Once teams in Canada realized what was happening, some of them followed suit and openly paid their players, resulting in many of the recent émigrés returning home.

By 1910, the upstart National Hockey Association â€" assembled from teams who had grown tired of the status quo â€" was paying some of its key stars anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 a season. Fred "Cyclone" Taylor held out for $5,200. Not only was this a lot of money for a 12-game season, it was more than double what the country's Prime Minister was paid!

Corporate sponsorship entered the game in 1910, as a means of dredging the financially troubled NHA up out of the muck. The Spalding puck was chosen as the league's official model and games were divided into three 20-minute periods. The intermissions were intended not to give the players a rest so much as to increase sales at the concession stands.

Advantage seemed to belong more to the forwards than the goalies in hockey's early days, understandably, since goaltenders had very little padding, used regular sticks, and were not allowed to drop to the ice. It was quite common for star players to tuck-in multiple goals per game. The most amazing multiple goal performance has to be that of Ottawa Silver Seven hotshot, Frank McGee. After losing an eye in a high-sticking mishap in 1900, McGee decided to give refereeing a try. It was just not the same, though, and he soon returned to his former player status.

On Friday, 13 January 1905, in a Stanley Cup game against a rather sorry team from Dawson City, McGee went absolutely ballistic. In that one game, he scored 14 goals â€" eight of them in a single 81/2 minute barrage. Although this was his greatest single-game feat, McGee was no one-night wonder. In 1904, he scored 21 goals in eight Stanley Cup playoff games. In the 1906 playoffs, he had 18 goals in four games.

Many women were playing 'shinny' on ponds and outdoor rinks by the 1890s. Still, it was 1900 before they had their own league. This was in Quebec, where women at Montreal's McGill University had been playing since 1894. Soon, women's hockey teams were being organized. One newspaperman, after watching an early game, reported that "some of them are very swift skaters and they can dodge with the puck to equal some of the best men players." Unlike the men's leagues, where you could find a team of 'Victorias' in almost any town, the women often chose clever and unique names: the Saskatchewan Prairie Lilies, the Snowflakes, Golden Girls and Old Hens.

Women's early hockey 'uniforms' consisted of long wool skirts, turtleneck sweaters, warm gloves and toques. Like the men, they wore no protective gear. Their dresses provided an interesting style of 'defensive' play: players in front of the net would squat down until their dresses touched the ice, thereby preventing passage of the puck.

The First World War had a well-known effect on women and the workforce â€" but some found another opportunity open to them. The war had taken its toll on not only the labor pool, but hockey too, and the ladies of the ice were ready to step into the role for North American hockey fans.

Arena owners were more than ready to have them do it. Losing hockey players meant losing money, too. Fans â€" men and women, both â€" turned out in droves to see this new spectacle and women's hockey soon had its own stars. Not the least among these new sensations was 26-year-old Albertine Lapensee of Cornwall, Ontario.

When the Cornwall Victorias traveled to Ottawa in 1916, the Ottawa Citizen reported, "it is probable that the match will attract the largest crowd that has ever witnessed a girls' game in Ottawa", because "Miss Albertine Lapensee will be the centre of attention when the Cornwall team skates out. The gallant little lady has gained fame as the queen of all lady hockeyists. She scored fifteen goals in a recent game."

Unfortunately for Albertine and many other female athletes, the end of the war marked the end of popular interest in women's hockey, for the time being. Twenty years later, though, a new World War would have women once again filling the factories and arenas.

The National Hockey League was formed, as others had been, through a dispute between team owners. In 1917, owners and directors of the National Hockey Association decided that because they didn't like the owner of the Toronto team, they would form their own league, without Toronto. But, when it was announced that the Toronto owner had sold his club, the financially strapped Quebec team gave up its spot to let in Toronto Thus, the NHA became the NHL, and little changed but the name.

With the fledgling NHL spreading its wings, hockey in North America had divided into amateur and professional ranks - with semi-pros working the ice between the two extremes. Men's leagues had gone through several incarnations, with each rebirth due to, in general, another dispute among owners. Women's and international leagues, although suffering a few set-backs, had proven popular and would soon return, stronger than ever. The sport was on its way to becoming the most popular in North America and the hottest game on ice, throughout much of the world. On February 16, 2005, the NHL became the first major professional team sport in North America to cancel an entire season because of a labour dispute. Play resumed again in the fall of 2005.

Al Henderson. He Shoots, He Scores! Hockey's Origins and Early Years. History Magazine. April/May 2008.


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