Montreal Winter Carnivals: The Birthplace of Modern Hockey

It’s a no-brainer to suggest that life now wasn’t always this way. We all know it. However, for hockey fans, the game they see on the ice today is not at all the game that started so many years ago. It used to be played much differently. In the book The Odd Fellow’s Heart, former journalist Morey Holzman traces the beginnings and the early changes of the game Canadians – and in fact sports enthusiasts all over the world – have come to love.

Related: The Ice Rink: A Brief History

Holzman, who’s also the co-author of the 2002 classic Deceptions and Doublecross, set out to find answers to the beginnings of hockey. Where did it come from? Who “invented it?” How did it change and morph into the game we know today? Who gave us this great game?

The Odd Fellow's Heart book cover
The Odd Fellow’s Heart book cover (Morey Holzman)

The Book’s Title: The Odd Fellows’ Heart

The name of the book The Odd Fellows’ Heart demonstrates just how important the Odd Fellows – a fraternal organization – was to the beginning of hockey. In the days the book chronicles, the systems of government didn’t take care of people the way they do today. If a person’s parents died, survivors were basically on their own. The Odd Fellows as a fraternal organization played a huge part in Jimmy Stewart’s life, and it also created the dynamic in which Stewart was able to play a huge role in the building of hockey right at its very beginning.

Related: Black History Month: The Colored Hockey League Was Hockey’s First Organized League

The Odd Fellows believed in three things: burying the dead, taking care of the widows, and educating the children. Because there were no government services in either Canada or the United States, they helped families out. One of those families were the Stewarts – Irish immigrants living in Montreal’s English-speaking section.

 The Odd Fellows and the “Creation” of Hockey at Winter Carnivals

The Odd Fellow’s Heart argues that one almost unknown person, a young first-generation Canadian named Jimmy Stewart who was orphaned at a young age, was the person who was the impetus for turning hockey from an upper-class gentlemanly game played by English-speaking university students at McGill into a sport watched and played by millions worldwide. 

Grave marker of Jimmy Stewart’s maternal grandfather and a Member of the Odd Fellows

Stewart because the lynchpin of our “Good ole Canadian game” because he started and organized the first working-class team at the Montreal Winter Carnivals during the 1880s. As Holzman suggests in his book, the idea of the winter carnival was critically important. The Winter Carnival was basically Montreal’s equivalent of throwing a party in the middle of winter to show the world that Canada wasn’t simply one big frozen wasteland. One big event at the winter carnival was building an ice castle and having teams of snowshoers storm the castle while fireworks lighted up the winter sky. 

Jimmy Stewart: At the Right Place at the Right Time

Although hockey became a thing at these winter carnivals, it only existed as a kind of a side event and was just something a Montrealer could do in the winter. Here, Holzman suggests, Stewart became a key to the birth of hockey both in Montreal and as it expanded further. Because he was in the right place at the right time, he helped create the first hockey organization. Because Stewart was himself such a strong skater, he helped introduce the skill of skating and positional play. 

best hockey players Gretzky and Lafleur
NHL’s best: Wayne Gretzky (one of the NHL’s best players) and Guy Lafleur (one of the NHL’s best skaters)
(Photo by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In addition, Stewart introduced some of the simple things we’ve come to take for granted today. He was the first to use a whistle to officiate games; and, he was the first to codify a uniform puck – including size, weight, and material. He instituted sudden-death overtime to break a tie. He introduced the penalty box. 

Although neither elected nor selected, he was what has been called a “builder” in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He became president of hockey’s first dynasty as well as the head negotiator between Stanley Cup trustee Phil Ross and the Montreal A. A. A. to allow the Stanley Cup to become hockey’s most important trophy. 

But The Odd Fellow’s Heart is More than a Book about Hockey

But The Odd Fellow’s Heart is about more than Jimmy Stewart’s role in the building of hockey, it’s also a story of how hockey moved from hockey’s disorganized attempts to being a commercialized sport in 1875 until the successful foundation laid in 1887 that continues today.

Honestly, you don’t have to be a hockey fan to enjoy this book. For me, and I’ve studied North American history as an academic, the book shows just how different life was during that era between the US Civil War through World War I. It’s a time vastly different than we know – a time when government was small and humans taking care of each other was big.

Why Holzman Wrote the Book

As Holzman noted to me in an interview with me that will soon be up on The Hockey Writers, it’s been his lifelong interest to dig up hockey history. It started when he was a kid in Detroit in the 1970s and he remembers reading Goal Magazine, in which the Red Wings would include a middle section of about 20 pages that included what the team called “Moments to Remember.” Those moments were all hockey history; and, as a 12-year-old kid growing up, those stories fascinated Holzman.

Related: The Best NHL Players of All-Time, by Decade

When he got older, he wanted to investigate some of hockey’s early history; however, he discovered that nobody really had many answers. There were only speculations about so many things – including hockey’s birth and development. Even hockey historians didn’t have definitive answers to some of his questions. For example, a question like “How did hockey start?” generated a plethora of different responses. But which response was correct? When he interviewed hockey historians separately there was not an agreed-upon answer.

The Great Game of Hockey has entertained many Canadians

Holzman said to himself that if the people who are supposed to know really don’t have any answer and the Hockey Hall of Fame doesn’t have an answer, it was probably worth discovering. The book is his attempt to do so.

As I noted, it’s a book about hockey history but it’s also a book about history. As such, it should appeal to a wide audience. My call is that The Odd Fellows Heart is a book about the history of hockey that hockey fans should first read and then put on their bookshelves to share with others.