In the winter of 1898, a group of ice hockey enthusiasts suited up for an outdoor game in West Orange, New Jersey. The frozen surface of Crystal Lake served as the venue for the match, which featured at least a dozen players.
One spectator of note was also in attendance at the game: cinematographer William Heise, who was employed by inventor Thomas Edison’s nearby film production studio. On that day, the studio’s film equipment was hauled to the lake, where Heise and the group of skaters unassumingly made hockey history.
The result was a short film titled Hockey Match on the Ice, credited to the Edison Manufacturing Company. Edison deposited the copyright on Feb. 24, 1898, making the late 19th-century movie the earliest-surviving footage of ice hockey.
Hockey and Film in the Late 19th Century
Today, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when moving images were a novelty. Likewise, we may now take for granted the well-established status of the sport of hockey. But in the 1890s, organized ice hockey was in its early decades of existence, and motion picture film was in its infancy.
The major organized hockey league of the day was the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), which was established in 1886. The AHAC had awarded the first Stanley Cup, then known as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, to the Montreal Hockey Club in 1893. The league later played its final season in 1898, the same year that Hockey Match on the Ice was filmed.
Away from the rinks of the 1890s, the invention of film had just achieved a breakthrough in the United States. Cinema has its earliest roots in late-1880s Europe, but it was inventor Thomas Edison – with his Edison Manufacturing Company – who was behind the birth of film on American soil.
Though Edison himself wasn’t a filmmaker as such, his team at Edison Studios spearheaded the invention of crucial filmmaking and viewing technologies in the late 1880s and 1890s. They also produced the first motion pictures shot in the U.S. and made over 1,000 shorts, many of which were filmed at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange.
During the 1890s, Edison films were primarily of the actuality genre. Actualities were a type of early film that presented a brief view centred on a particular subject or event. Camera movements and editing were uncommon until the early 1900s, so these early actualities were stationary, one-shot films that lasted only a minute or two at most.
Actualities filmed by Edison Studios covered many topics, including everything from celebrity appearances to local events, sports, and even scandalous scenes. Cameraman William Heise is especially associated with the latter two categories, as he is best known for filming the infamous 1896 actuality The Kiss – a, for its time, risqué film which featured cinema’s first on-screen kiss.
But Heise, a prolific early cinema figure, also helmed the production on numerous sport actualities. Among his titles in the 1890s were Men Boxing, Wrestling, Fencing, Bucking Broncho, Trick Bicycle Riding, and Ball Game.
Although these and other films made in the 1890s took up sport as their subject, an overlap between film and hockey didn’t occur for the first time until a cold West Orange day in early February 1898. This intersection yielded a stunning view of late 19th-century hockey as seen through the lens of actuality cinema.
Hockey Match on the Ice (1898, Edison Manufacturing Co.)
“The skaters dart to and fro, swinging their hockeys and trying to hit the disc toward the goal,” reads the wonderfully dated description of Hockey Match on the Ice, as provided in the Edison Films Catalog.
To make film meet hockey in Winter 1898, it’s likely that the Edison Studios crew transported its bulky film equipment to Crystal Lake via horse-drawn carriage. That winter, as Edison’s head cameraman, Heise had taken to shooting outdoor scenes in the Orange-Newark area. The lake was about two miles away from the Black Maria studio, suggesting that the hockey film’s shoot may have developed as much out of convenience as it did genuine interest in the sport on the rise.
(On its holding of the film, the Library of Congress incorrectly lists the shooting location as Newark, N.J. The correct site is Crystal Lake, West Orange, N.J. This was confirmed by West Orange historian Joe Fagan.)
Still, removed from its film-historical context, Hockey Match on the Ice offers a fascinating record of the sport in motion over 120 years ago. And the film’s stars dressed for the occasion, too. All the players are outfitted in high socks and most appear to wear thin gloves. The de facto star of the film even dons a fedora as he alone occupies the frame throughout the film’s duration.
As for the gameplay, the single 25-second shot picks up action as the puck bounces into frame, possibly by way of a puck drop. Play then momentarily shifts off-screen before a busy scrum ensues at centre ice. At one moment, as many as 12 players are counted crossing through and within the frame in pursuit of the puck. Finally, action heads down ice and several skaters turn their attention to the camera.
Related: Who Invented Hockey?
One wonders just how many players were involved in the game. There is a mix of white and dark sweaters, but were these clearly-defined teams? The film’s catalog description does suggest that there were “goals” in play. But were there goaltenders? Substitutions? Spectators?
Unfortunately, some questions go unanswered, in part due to the limitations of Heise’s framing and the absence of camera movement. We do, however, know that the game’s participants were rail workers from Montreal, according to News 12 Hudson Valley. At the time, some railway companies had formed their own teams, and it appears these visitors to New Jersey were more than prepared to hit the ice on the state’s local lakes.
So, hockey’s first film was an American production starring Canadians. All the same, ice hockey had already emerged as a popular sport in New Jersey prior to the turn of the 20th century. In fact, West Orange’s neighbouring township of Montclair had a team active in the American Amateur Hockey League (AAHL) between 1897 and 1899. One year later, the New Jersey Hockey League formed with clubs based in Short Hills, South Orange, Crystal Lake, and again Montclair. (from “New Jersey Hockey League has been formed,” The Chatham Press, Dec. 29, 1900.)
The Earliest Hockey Movie
In terms of runners up, Hockey Match on the Ice‘s nearest-dated competitor was the American Mutoscope Company’s similarly titled film Hockey Match, Quebec. The lesser-known work was dated to March 1898, according to an American Mutoscope and Biograph catalog record referenced by the AFI. “Two Canadian hockey teams play a hotly contested game on the ice in Quebec,” the record says of the film. Other similar actualities followed in the early 1900s, but Hockey Match on the Ice is the only one that’s easily accessible online.
The 1898 film’s view of the sport may trail slightly behind the quality of today’s NHL stars and sport cinematography. But the record of hockey’s first crossover with film is an indispensable one.
Likewise, the sport may have served as a suitable sight among many for an early Edison Studios actuality. But as much as Heise’s camera spotlighted the hockey game, the players—who give it their all before taking in a look at the camera—were also visibly charmed by the shoot and the chance to make their film debut. Little did they know that it was also their beloved sport’s first brush with the movies.
Lucas Anderson lives in Calgary, AB, and covers the Calgary Flames for THW. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where he completed his Master’s in Cinema Studies. Lucas writes on topics including sports, film, visual culture, and history. He still thinks about the Atlanta Thrashers, his former favourite NHL team.