A Brief History of Ice Hockey

Old Skates

Hockey is played around the world in many forms, including field hockey, stick hockey, and roller hockey. Ice hockey has become the most popular variation, following the first organized games played in the late 1800s. But origins of ice hockey date back well before that.

Who Invented Ice Hockey — And When?

Ice hockey developed from “stick-and-ball” games that were played in the UK as far back as the 17th century. The first such game played on ice was chamiare (shinty) in Scotland in 1608. A similar game, bandy, was played on ice in England around the same time. But who invented ice hockey, and when, has long been debated. 

Some say the very first ice hockey game was played in the early 1800s in Windsor, Nova Scotia (Canada), at King’s College School. Students there adapted hurley (hurling), an Irish field game, into a game played on ice. Scottish and Irish immigrants in Canada, as well as the British Army based there, are said to have begun playing the sport not long after. Others say it was the Mi’kmaq Indians in Nova Scotia who first started playing a hockey-like game on ice — using a stick and a square wooden block — also based on the Irish game of hurley.

Ice hockey rules follow many of those from English field hockey and football (soccer), including offsides, charging, and not handling the ball (or puck) with your hands. Other rules were modified from English regulations to fit ice hockey, as this then-new game was different logistically (played on an enclosed ice rink instead of an open field). As the sport grew across Canada, so did the country’s influence on the game.

Canadian-altered rules allowed charging from the front, and the number of players allowed on the ice per team was reduced from as many as 30 players to today’s six. Rubber pucks replaced balls. Body checking has become commonplace, and other Canadian-influenced regulations, such as the point at which a player is considered offsides on the ice, are still observed.

Origins of Professional Ice Hockey

The International Ice Hockey Federation cites the first organized ice hockey game was held in Montreal in 1875 between two teams of students from McGill University. Within 10 years, the game in competitive form was taking shape with the onset of the Montreal Winter Carnival hockey tournament. McGill University became the tourney’s first winner in 1883, over the Montreal Victorias and the Quebec Hockey Club.

The Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) formed in 1886, lasting 12 seasons. It was during this time that Canadian Governor-General Frederick Arthur, Lord Stanley of Preston, donated a silver cup to be awarded each year to the champion. The first winner was the Montreal Hockey Club (the hockey team associated with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association). At the turn of the century, the Canadian Amateur Hockey League was established, replacing the AHAC.

Ice Hockey as We Know It

Professional ice hockey as we now know it developed around 1904 with the establishment of the International Professional Hockey League in Houghton, Michigan, and its first team, the Portage Lakers. The National Hockey Association (NHA) was organized a few years later in Montreal, as ice hockey was becoming more popular.

Rising interest in the game presented a challenge, however: a lack of artificial-ice rinks that would allow ice hockey to be played at any time, anywhere. A rival organization — the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) — was created in 1911 by Canadian businessman Joseph Frank Patrick and his sons, Lester and Frank, both ice hockey players at McGill University during the sport’s formative years. The Patrick family constructed two artificial-ice rinks in British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria). The Vancouver rink seated 10,000 people; at the time, this was one of the largest buildings in Canada.

But attendance suffered for the PCHA during World War I, and began to decline even further after the NHA disbanded and re-formed as the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1917. By 1926, the Patrick family had sold all of its players and teams to the NHL, establishing it as the leading league for the sport.

Today, ice hockey has grown into one of the most popular sports in the world. And its rich history as one of the oldest global sports makes ice hockey among the coolest games on earth.