There are few better ways to enjoy competitive fun than lacing up a pair of skates, grabbing your stick, and heading out onto a fresh sheet of ice for a game of hockey. Whether in an organized league or just playing some pick-up with friends, the competitive nature of the game has remained the same throughout history. Although the rules, equipment, and even the playing surface have changed over time. The game wasn’t always what we know it to be today. 

The origins of ice hockey are hard to pinpoint. There are many instances of similar activities, which have sparked theories and curiosity. Many deem the game synonymous with Canadian culture, assuming it had to come from here. Even though it has become a significant part of the fabric of this great country — with competitive teams and over 600,000 registered players — the origins of the game date back many years and to places you might not have imagined. Let’s take a journey in time to look at the history of ice hockey.

Field Hockey

Before the Ice

Nowadays, when people talk hockey, they’re likely referring to the game that involves composite sticks, a vulcanized rubber puck, and a two-hundred-foot sheet of ice. 

Long before skates and ice, the concept of hockey, as many of us know it today, was being played out through ball & stick games on dry surfaces. Many variations date back to the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Some of the most notable games include the Irish competition of hurling, the Scottish-derived game of Shinty, bandy ball in England, and field hockey across the continent. Stick and ball games were also played by Indigenous peoples in the Americas before European settlers arrived. 

Victoria Park Rink

Image courtesy of William Notman & Son, Public domain, via Wikimedia

The Origins of Ice Hockey

Identifying the first instance of a game like hockey played on an ice surface can be tricky. Going back to the middle ages, a game called IJscolf was popular in Northwestern Europe. It took place on an ice-covered surface and involved participants attempting to strike a wood or leather ball against two poles in the fewest strokes possible. The game was played with a curved stick, made of wood, called a colf or Kolf. There was also a first reported stick and ball game, a game of shinty on ice, which occurred at the Firth of Forth in Scotland during the winter months of 1608

Despite these occurrences, has there ever been an official consensus on when the first ice hockey game actually took place? We’re talking about the game that most closely resembles the modern version of today. In 2008, we got our answer. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) declared the first hockey game to have been played on March 3, 1875, at Victoria Park Skating rink in Central Montreal. This ice hockey rink set the size standards for other competitive rinks in North America and other parts of the world. The game itself was played between two teams of nine players each. It ended in a hotly-contested 2 – 1 win for the team captained by James George Aylwin Creighton, a lawyer, engineer, journalist, and athlete originally from Nova Scotia.

The State of the Game 1

The State of the Game Today

Whether it is from the couch, in the stands, or on the ice, there are many ways to enjoy ice hockey today. As we have seen, it has developed quite a bit since it was first played as a ball and stick game on dry surfaces. Today, ice hockey is enjoyed indoors and outdoors around the world. Seventy-four countries are members of the International Ice Hockey Federation, a predominant governing body for the sport. Along with being one of the most popular sports in Canada, it is also thoroughly enjoyed and played in countries like the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. 

Along with the Olympics, club competitions exist in continents across the globe. The major leagues are in Europe, Eurasia, and North America, with The National Hockey League (NHL) being the most popular and most well-attended of other similar leagues. With teams from Canada and the United States, the NHL includes some of the most recognizable names in hockey, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and the Boston Bruins. Founded in 1917, the NHL has expanded to 32 teams at the start of the 2021 season. 

While the game is now pre-dominantly enjoyed within the confines of large, enclosed stadiums with thousands of seats, it is not uncommon to catch people of all ages playing the sport outdoors on ponds and other artificially made surfaces during the winter months. In fact, the attendance record for a hockey game occurred during an outdoor game between the University of Michigan’s men’s ice hockey team and their cross-state rival Michigan State at Michigan Stadium. Usually used for football, fan attendance exceeded seating capacity, with a recorded 113,411 fans taking in the event. 

Hockey Equipment V2

The Evolution of hockey Equipment

Ice hockey has changed only slightly since the first set of rules was presented in the 19th century. We think you would still recognize ice hockey as the sport then, as you do today. Minus the brightly lit, modern facilities and hefty player salaries, of course. One thing that has seen some drastic changes over time is the equipment used by players. When looking at the evolution of hockey equipment, we can see that it has come a long way over time. It now offers players more protection while still allowing them to maintain a high level of performance on the ice. Let’s have a look at some of the most notable changes leading up to the modern game.

Before the 1900s: Players wore almost no protective equipment. Skates were made by attaching a blade to the bottom of a boot, and some players opted for shin-guards made from wood or cane. Even goaltenders, faced with the daunting task of stopping high-speed shots, sometimes point-blank, wore no extra equipment. The first rendition of goalie pads was debuted in 1896 by George Merritt, a goaltender for the Winnipeg Victoria’s. He used Cricket Pads for protection and ultimately shut out the Montreal Victoria’s, 2 – 0 in the same game. 

In the early 1900s: Players began to take the use of protective equipment more seriously. Some players used scrap pieces of felt and stitched them to their undershirts for shoulder and back protection. Using felt and leather, some even made kneecap protection. It was often attached to the shin guard to cover more of the leg. Gloves were introduced to protect hands and wrists, although many saw it as a way to keep warm while on the ice instead.

In 1933: Toronto Maple Leaf superstar forward Ace Bailey was body-checked from behind by Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins. Bailey suffered a fractured skull, subsequently ending his career. After this incident, Shore became the first NHL player to wear protective headgear. The 1930s also saw uptake on forearm and elbow protection. Players utilized felt and leather attached to the outside of their jerseys or directly on undershirts to achieve this. The first goalie mask, made of leather, was also worn in 1930 by Clint Benedict, goaltender for the then Montreal Maroons of the NHL. Though it was Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens who was the first to regularly wear a face mask beginning in 1959.

The 1950s, 60s & 70s: Following WWII, fiberglass and plastic protective equipment replaced the felt and leather. The 1950s saw the introduction of fiberglass sticks, and by the 1960s, players also realized the benefits of curving their blades to allow them to get a higher shot off. In 1979, a big development in the NHL, was that helmets became a mandatory piece of equipment.

The process has been slow and steady across 150 years of history. Though, players & goaltenders now wear protection that is almost fully encompassing. Advancements in materials means better protection of the back, shoulders, chest, shins, and knees, providing players with peace of mind and the maintenance of excellence on the ice.

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