Who Invented Hockey?

Today, it’s known as Canada’s game. Even with stiff competition at the international level, Canadians still claim that ice hockey is a product of their country. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if researchers have been able to provide evidence to the contrary?

who really invented hockey
Pieter Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow depicts an early form of ice hockey (THW Archives)

Some might argue that the findings are controversial, a stretch to find some kind of precursor to Canada’s first claim to the game. However, with a number of people wondering where hockey began, evidence points to the United Kingdom as the home to the earliest roots of hockey.

Did Canada Invent Hockey?

While the discussion of who invented hockey often includes Windsor, Nova Scotia — the first recorded indoor hockey game leads us to Montreal, Québec, in 1875. But the Canadian debate doesn’t stop there. In fact, when it comes to where the sport started in that country, there’s no real unanimity.

who invented hockey
A very early hockey game at McGill University in Montreal. (THW Archives)

Jean-Patrice Martel is one of three writers who collaborated on a book entitled On the Origin of Hockey – a book we’ll discuss a bit later. As part of the team that researched the history of the game’s origins, Martel noted that both Windsor and Montreal aren’t alone in claiming hockey as theirs when it comes to Canadian cities.

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“Everybody wants to know where hockey came from,” said the Montrealer, Martel, in an interview with National Post writer Joe O’Connor. (from ‘Why hockey isn’t really our game: Canada’s national sport was born on the frozen ponds of England, book reveals,’ National Post, 05/24/2014) “It has been an endless debate in Canada. Windsor, Nova Scotia, even managed to get the Ministry of Transport to put up a highway sign saying it was the birthplace of hockey. Kingston claimed to be the birthplace of hockey. Halifax, Deline – in the Northwest Territories – all these places claimed hockey.

Montreal is where the first organized game took place, in 1875

“People in Montreal say, well, Montreal is where the first organized game took place, in 1875, so it is really the only date that matters. Everybody in Canada has a claim to hockey, and you can find one, or two, or perhaps three references supporting each claim. But then you look at England, and all of a sudden there are hundreds and hundreds of references to hockey being played all over the country – some dating back as far as the 1790s.”

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But for argument’s sake, let’s say Montreal was the first organized game. It took place at Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875, with two teams of nine players each. James Creighton organized the game and even captained one of the teams.

While it is documented as the first indoor organized game of hockey in Canada, all signs point to Europe as the birthplace of the beloved game – controversial or not.

Reading up On the Origins of Hockey

The book was written by three members of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR). Along with Martel, who is a full-time computer analyst, Swedes Carl Giden (a physician) and Patrick Houda (a journalist) joined Martel in uncovering the truth about who invented hockey.

a day on the ice 17th century
A day on the ice in a 17th century Dutch painting. (THW Archives)

As mentioned, their research reveals the possibility that the first game could date back as far as the 1790s in Britain.

They discovered that the name – hockey – likely came from the cork they used as a puck. The corks were used as stoppers in beer casks and at that time, Hock Ale was a popular drink, according to Adam Proteau.

As for the participants, they might be rather shocking. Charles Darwin is a well-known name within the field of science and evolution, but no one associates the famous scientist with the game of hockey. However, the three SIHR researchers found the link between the two and also included King Edward VII and Albert (Prince Consort to Queen Victoria) as two more of the game’s earliest participants.

How does Darwin tie into this exactly?

Well, researchers found a letter dated March 1, 1853, from Darwin to his son William. In it, he wrote:

“My Dear Old Willy… have you got a pretty good pond to skate on? I used to be very fond of playing at Hocky on the ice in skates.”

Darwin was actually referencing games in which he took part during the 1820s in Shrewsbury, England, east of the Welsh border. While some might assume that “hocky” was a misprint, it isn’t. It was just the way it was written in 19th century England. In fact, it wasn’t originally called hockey at all. The game of hockey has been said to be modeled after what was actually referred to as hurley, hurling, bandy, shinty or shinny – according to the SIHR.

So if 1875 Montreal wasn’t the first game of hockey and Darwin’s participation in the 1820s wasn’t the first of its kind, how far back can we trace the game of hurly?

Europeans Are the Answer to Who Invented Hockey

Like Canada, researchers discovered a plethora of references to sports much like today’s game of hockey. In fact, it dates as far back as 17th century Scotland.

But first, let’s start with a reference to the game in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1803. The Aberdeen Journal reported on February 9, 1803, that two young boys around the age of 14 were playing shinty on ice when the surface gave way. They boys fell through and unfortunately did not survive.

The game was once again referenced in a painting (that can be seen on the SIHR website) by an artist that is believed to be Benedictus Antonio Van Assen. The painting is of two young men playing the game of hockey on a frozen surface as early as 1796. According the SIHR, the city of London experienced a severe cold spell in December 1796, which could explain the painting and where it took place.

Again, hockey is referenced in multiple publications between 1780 and 1791, with Admiral Charles Stewart providing one anecdote in the Life of Stephen Decatur, a Commodore in the Navy of the United States that read:

“During the winter, when the glassy surface of the Schuylkill invited the boys to skim over it on skates, no one excelled him [Decatur] in hurly, prisoner’s base, and the other games of the season.”

Historian George Penny published anecdotes from Perth, Scotland, that referenced the game of shinty being played “on the ice by large parties” and “on the streets.” These anecdotes are estimated to have taken place between 1745 and 1809.

But the earliest reference, according to the SIHR is a Scottish text from 1607-08. In The Historie of the Kirk of Scotland, published in 1646, a passage discussing the Great post in the winter of 1607-08 references the game of chamiare, another word for shinty according to the Scottish National Dictionary and the SIHR. It reads: “The sea freized so farre as it ebbed, and sindrie went in to shippes upon yee, and played at the chamiare a mile within the sea marke.”

Ireland’s Input

While it’s not the earliest reference to the game of hurly, a book discussing the Great Irish Famine of 1847 by Rev. John O’Rourke contains content from the Dublin Evening Post written on January 19 and February 2, 1740. The passage reads: “Teams of gentlemen play match of hurling on the ice of the River Shannon near Portumna.”

With the research of the SIHR to back up the similarities between hurling and hockey, former All-Ireland winning hurling manager Ger Loughnane was part of a documentary that looked at Irish immigration to Canada, the connection between hurling and hockey and how Celtic culture influenced a country’s national sport.

The film is called Poc na nGael and in it, Loughanane takes a trip to Canada to find the commonality of the two games. The film’s director Eamonn O Cualain explains that like the two games, their fans are also similar.

“We found out that 250 years ago an Irish principal in a school in Nova Scotia was doing training in games of hurling at the school…After hurling took to the ice and became ice hurling, it took on a new life of its own. A new sport. The Canadians are definitely as passionate about ice hockey as we are about hurling.”

While some will still argue that the game of hockey is something more Canadian than anything else, the evidence is there for those who are interested in reading about it. Similarities exist between the European game of hurling or hurly or whatever you’d like to call it and today’s game of hockey.

Regardless of who lays claim to it, evidence points to its beginnings in Europe over 200 years before the first documented game of hockey in Canada.

* originally published in Sept. 2017