Hockey’s Evolution Through the Lens of Diversity
by Bob Dawson
Contrary to popular belief, hockey wasn’t invented, but rather evolved and grew slowly in popularity over time. Hence, pinpointing exactly where and when the game was born is impossible.
One might say that hockey is the product of “human diversity and ingenuity”. That is to say, individuals or people from diverse groups and backgrounds influenced hockey’s evolution over time through their innovations. This important fact is, perhaps, often overlooked, forgotten, ignored, or in some cases even denied.
This article, therefore, is intended to highlight the origins of hockey and some interesting aspects of its evolution through what this writer calls the “lens of diversity”.
The Origins of Hockey
In their book, Splendid is The Sun: The 5,000 Year History of Hockey, George and Darril Fosty stated, “The history of hockey is the story of human cultural interaction and geographic migration.”
Many hockey historians trace the game’s early beginnings to Mesopotamia, the area along the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers that is widely considered the “cradle of civilization”, to about 3000 BC. They point to what is known as the 12th Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic (accounts of the Sun God religion) that mentions a game known as “Pukku-Mikku” being played by men using curved sticks to manipulate a wooden ring on a flat dirt surface. From Mesopotamia, other forms of the game involving sticks and different objects such as balls, discs, blocks, etc. emerged and spread over the centuries across much of the ancient (e.g. Egypt, Greece, Asia, etc.) and modern world (e.g. Europe, North America, etc.).
Based on research, the modern version of ice-hockey or hockey as it is better known, which is said to have its origins in Canada, appears to have evolved in part from various forms of hockey-like “stick and ball” games brought into the country by European immigrants. An entry by Wallace W. Stewart for “ice-hockey” in the 1936 edition of the Encyclopedia of Canada refers to the game’s evolution:
“Hockey is sometimes regarded as a game of Canadian origin; but this is true only in a limited sense. In its primitive form, the game was long known in England as ‘bandy’, in Ireland as ‘hurley’, and in Scotland as ‘shinty’. In Canada, it was known as ‘shinny’, obviously a corruption of the Scottish game. These early games were played, however, almost without rules, and with a ball or almost any other similar object for a ‘puck’. The present game of ice-hockey , with its fixed number a side, and its standardized rules and equipment, does seem, however, to have originated in Canada.”
Considering the evidence, it’s apparent that nationality may have played a role in the early evolution of hockey. For example, it has vague similarities to the Dutch game of “ijskolf”, which is essentially the game of kolf (golf) played on ice with a round ball. In addition, the Irish game of “hurley” was later played on ice during the winter months in England and then in Nova Scotia in the 18th century.
It’s important to note that modern hockey’s deepest roots and evolution are linked to Canada’s First Nations/Aboriginal peoples. Besides lacrosse, various games resembling “shinny” played on ice with skates made of animal bones and sticks made from tree branches or roots as well as wooden pucks were introduced by them centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
In Canada, various incarnations of the game of hockey are said to have occurred in the early to late 1800s in several areas such as Deline (formerly Fort Franklin), North West Territories (1825), Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (1827); Windsor, Nova Scotia (1843); Montreal, Quebec (1875), and Kingston, Ontario (1886).
As it stands, Montreal’s claim as the site of the “first organized” indoor hockey match played by students from McGill University on March 3, 1875 at the Victoria Skating Rink was endorsed by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Organized by James Creighton, formerly of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the game featured 9 players a side and followed the so-called “Halifax Rules” written by Creighton himself.
The debate as to the “birthplace of hockey” still continues to this day. Nevertheless, the growth of hockey within and outside of North America over many years speaks to its popularity. Based on the most recent information from the IIHF, which is the international governing body for ice hockey, 72 or 36.9% of the 195 countries in the world have people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds who play hockey.
Origins of the Word “Hockey”
As in the birth of the game itself, the origin of the word hockey is controversial. There are others who claim the word is probably derived from the French word “hoquet” (shepherd’s crook), which refers to the curved shape of the stick. It’s said that the curved or hooked ends of the sticks used for hockey resembled the crooks.
The first recorded use of the word hockey is found in the text of a royal proclamation issued by Edward III of England in 1363 banning certain types of sports or games. In part, the proclamation read “Moreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood, iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games.”
The earliest known reference to the word hockey, referring to a stick and ball game, is said to have occurred in 1799. William Pierre Le Cocq, who at the time attended a boys’ school in Buckinghamshire, England, wrote a letter to his parents in which he said, “I must now describe to you the game of Hockey; we have each a stick turning up at the end. We get a bung. There are two sides one of them knocks one way and the other side the other way. If any one of the sides makes the bung reach that end of the churchyard it is victorious.”
Strangely enough, the word hockey is linked to a Colonel Hockey, who was stationed at Fort Edward, a British military garrison, near Windsor, Nova Scotia, considered to be one of the birthplaces of hockey. As the story goes, the Colonel used the game to keep his soldiers in shape and the game soon adopted his name, whereby many referred to the workouts as “Hockey’s game.”
While there is no official documentation to support either claim, there does appear to be some credence to Colonel Hockey’s story. It’s reported that the British army list in the library of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly in Halifax lists a John Hockey serving in the mid-1800s when the name of the game was supposedly adopted.
In 1825, Arctic explorer and naval officer Sir John Franklin noted while searching for the Northwest Passage that his crew members exercised by playing hockey on Great Bear Lake near Fort Franklin, Northwest Territories. In his diary, he wrote, “The game of hockey played on the ice was the morning sport”. This is considered to be the earliest recorded use of the term hockey, in Canada.
About 1843, a British army officer stationed in Kingston, Ontario recorded in his diary “Began to skate this year, improved quickly and had great fun at hockey on the ice.” An article in the Boston Evening Gazette in 1859 makes reference to an early game of hockey on ice occurring in Halifax, Nova Scotia in that year.
The Hockey Puck
For the most part, the origin of the word “puck” is uncertain. According to sources like the Oxford English Dictionary the name (puck) relates to the verb “to puck” as in the game of hurly for striking or pushing the ball which is taken from the Scottish Gaelic puc or the Irish poc, meaning to poke or punch, or deliver a blow.
Prior to their invention, hockey pucks weren’t always made of black rubber like they are today. The first pucks are thought to originate from an Irish game called “hurling”, a mix between field hockey and lacrosse. Wooden balls were used and eventually had the top and bottom parts cut off to reduce bouncing on the ice. Hockey players also used other objects such as stones, frozen potatoes, lumps of coal, frozen cow or horse dung (poop).
Charles Goodyear, an American engineer, invented “vulcanized rubber” in 1839; however, it wasn’t used in the construction of pucks until the 1880s. Although Goodyear is often credited with its invention, modern research has proven that the early inhabitants of the Americas in places like Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica used stabilized rubber for balls and other objects as early as 1600 BC.
The word “puck” was first recorded in the February 7, 1876 edition of the Montreal Gazette, so the NHL regards this date as the hockey puck’s birthdate even though they’d already been used for decades by then.
During the 1870s, flat pucks were made of wood as well as rubber. At first, pucks were square. It’s reported that the first recorded organized game of ice hockey used a wooden puck to prevent it from leaving the rink. Rubber pucks were first made by slicing a rubber ball then trimming the disc square. The Victoria Hockey Club of Montreal is credited with making and using the first round pucks in the 1880s. It wasn’t until 1886 that the first vulcanized rubber puck was used. At first, the puck wasn’t a solid, one-piece object, but rather it was made of layers of rubber cemented or laminated together.
NHL regulation pucks were not required for professional play until the 1990-1991 season, but were standardized in 1940. The black rubber of the puck is made up of a mixture of natural rubber, antioxidants, bonding materials and other chemicals to achieve a balance of hardness and resilience.
The Hockey Stick
While there are varying opinions about the origins of hockey, there is little debate that the first hockey sticks were carved by members of the Mi’kmaq tribe on reserves in Nova Scotia in the early 1800s. The “one-piece” sticks were made entirely out of wood known as ironwood because it was so strong. Considered the best trees for making sticks, they had the roots that grew out in the correct angle for a stick blade. When the ironwood was used up, the carvers used yellow birch, another hardwood.
Historian Garth Vaughan of Nova Scotia in his book The Puck Starts Here: The origin of Canada’s great winter game ICE HOCKEY writes “Having made sticks for hockey in Nova Scotia in the formative years of the game, the Native carvers developed their craft into a major home industry once the demand for sticks came from places like Boston, Quebec, and Ontario.” As hockey grew in popularity, the heavy demand for the sticks outstripped the Mi’kmaqs’ ability to keep up. Consequently, the Starr Manufacturing Company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, began making hockey sticks. This was a natural progression for the company since it had already been making hockey skates. They called their sticks “Mic Mac”, in honor of the original stick makers. These sticks were popular in the 1930s and 1940s and sold for $4.50 per dozen in Eaton’s catalogues.
It’s reported that in the 1920s, hockey players began to tape their sticks to increase the grip and strengthen the blade. In 1927, Cy Denneny of the Ottawa Senators created the first of what came to be known as the “banana blade.” Up until this point, hockey sticks featured a straight blade. Denneny bent his blade in an attempt to increase the accuracy of his shots, but National Hockey League players did not start using curved blades as a general rule until the 1960s.
Between 1957 and 1980, other refinements to the hockey stick took place, some by design and others by accident. Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers apparently twisted the blade of his stick into a curve. According to Bathgate, the curved blade made his slap shot move erratically in the air and threw off the opposing team’s goalie.
Another story has it that Slovak-born and Chicago Blackhawks great, Stan Mikita broke the straight blade of his stick, during a hockey practice, in the form of a “V”. When he fired the puck at the net, he found that there was far more accuracy in his shot. He shared this observation with fellow teammate Bobby Hull and from that point they began to experiment with curve sticks, running their blades under hot water until they were soft before bending them under a doorjamb overnight. While others have claimed to experiment with the curve blade before Mikita and Hull, it was they who popularized it. The results changed the game forever.
With the advancement in technology during the early 1980s, the sticks were made of metals such as aluminum and graphite as well as fiberglass to better fit the individual playing styles of the players. Since the turn of the 21st century, there have been essentially 3 types of hockey sticks – wood, aluminum, and composite. The latter sticks are the most often used today by hockey players due to their lightweight, flexibility and durability.
The origin of ice skates dates back several thousand years, but the game of hockey didn’t originate until the 19th century. Since their invention, ice skates have been used for various sports including hockey. Over time, they have undergone numerous modifications as a result of new discoveries and advances in the world of technology.
It’s thought that one of the earliest pair of skates was discovered in Switzerland and dates back to 3000 BC. Like many other ancient skates that have been discovered, they featured animal bones shaped into blades and holes were bored at each end to allow the skater to tie them on with leather straps. Released in January 2008, a landmark scientific study led by physiologist Federico Formenti of Oxford University concluded that the ancient travellers, who used animal-bone blades, gave Finland a 4,000-year head start when it comes to the most fundamental aspect of the game of hockey, namely “skating”.
William Fitzstephen, a cleric and administrator in the service of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in the 12th century, described the use of bone skates in London, England:
“… when the great fenne or moore (which watereth the walles of the citie on the North side) is frozen, many young men play upon the yce, some striding as wide as they may, doe slide swiftly… some tye bones to their feete, and under their heeles, and shoving themselves by a little picked staffe, doe slide as swiftly as birde flyeth in the aire, or an arrow out of a crossbow.”
In terms of other developments, the Dutch around the 14th century started using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottom runners. The skates were attached to the skater’s boots with leather straps. Poles were often used to propel the skater across the ice. Around 1500, they added a narrow metal double- edged blade, making the poles a thing of the past, as the skater could now push and glide with his feet.
A Pennsylvanian from Philadelphia named E. V. Bushnell in 1848 invented the first all- steel clamp that made it possible to clip the blade onto a boot. This eliminated the previous cumbersome method of tying it on and added more speed for skating.
In 1861, John Forbes, a young Scottish immigrant worker with the Starr Manufacturing Company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, developed the first skate, which attached the blade to the boot using a self-fastening lever and eliminated the need for screws and plates. Through the outstanding craftsmanship of the black tradesmen in the company’s skate operations, the mass production of the “spring skate” insured that by 1863 skates were accessible and affordable to the general public. From 1863 to 1939, Starr shipped over 11 million skates worldwide. Starr’s skates won an award at the 1876 American Exhibition in Philadelphia.
About 1865 Jackson Haines, an American known as the Father of Figure Skating, developed the two- plate all metal blade. The blade was attached directly to Haines’ skate boots, which added stability and allowed him to do more athletic leaps and jumps. The typical practice of the time was to strap the blades onto the boot.
It wasn’t until the invention of the so-called “tube skate”, in 1900, that skate blades began to be attached to the bottom of a skate boot with rivets. In 1914, John E. Strauss, a blade maker from St. Paul, Minnesota, invented the first closed toe blade made from one piece of steel, making skates lighter and stronger.
The skate boot also underwent many changes, both in materials and in design. In the beginning, boots were made from leather and reached up the calf at the back of the leg. Robert Henderson modified this so that it cut just above the ankles, allowing more freedom of movement. Different materials were tried as companies searched for the best combination of safety, comfort and mobility.
With advances in technology, the boot for hockey skates is generally made of molded plastic, leather (often synthetic), and ballistic nylon. Skates used in competitive hockey rarely use molded plastic for the upper boot, as this results in limited mobility.
The Goalie Mask
Throughout history, humans have worn masks of all types and for different reasons. In some cases, masks are considered important works of art. To a large extent though, masks have served needs more useful than artistic. Take the mask of the hockey goaltender for example. It has a practical purpose, namely protection. It was made to shield the face of the hockey goalie from, among other things, speeding pucks.
The first ever mask wearing goaltender was a woman by the name of Elizabeth Graham. On February 7, 1927, while playing hockey for Queen’s University at Harty Arena in Kingston, Ontario, she donned a fencing mask. Apparently, Graham’s father had requested her to wear the mask because he didn’t want to see her teeth get damaged after undergoing extensive dental surgery. It was reported in the Montreal Daily Star that Graham “gave the fans a surprise when she stepped into the nets and then donned a fencing mask.”
On January 7, 1930, during a game, Montreal Canadiens’ great Howie Morenz’s shot went off the nose and cheekbone of goaltender Clint Benedict. This shot would cause Benedict, who was in nets for the cross-town rival Montreal Maroons, to wear a mask based on either a football face guard or one worn by that of sparring boxers.
As the story goes, Benedict found that the nosepiece impaired his vision, so after two games, he gave it up. The mask was made out of leather and wire.
Japan’s Teiji Honma was the first to wear a goalie mask in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Made of leather with a wired cage, he wore it to protect his face. The cage had 2 circular eyeholes designed to fit over his glasses. It was similar to what a baseball catcher wore. Honma played 2 games, losing 3-0 against Great Britain and 2-0 to Sweden. The former would go on to win the gold medal.
Masks, for the most part, only became widely used in professional hockey after goaltender Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens began wearing one in 1959, after having broken his skull, cheekbones, nose and jaw by being hit with pucks. The mask was made of fiberglass and covered his entire face.
During the 1970s, Gerry Cheevers of the Boston Bruins had the team trainer paint stitches on his fiberglass mask whenever a puck or stick hit him in the face. It is still, perhaps, the most recognizable mask in hockey history. He is considered by many to be the pioneer of goalie mask art and design.
In the famous Canada – Russia Summit Series of 1972, Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak used a helmet-cage hybrid mask. It featured a regular hockey helmet with a full birdcage covering the face, which soon after became popular among goaltenders. Like the original fiberglass design, the helmet-cage combination had been criticized for not providing adequate facial and cranial protection.
Today, hybrid fiberglass cage masks have replaced the birdcage masks worn by former goaltenders Dominik Hasek (Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators) and Chris Osgood (Detroit Red Wings, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues). Goalie masks have become an art form, an extension of a goalie’s uniform. Manufacturers continually try to modify facemask designs to better serve goalies in terms of safety, performance and comfort.
Styles of Play and Innovations
As hockey grew in popularity, teams and leagues were formed across Canada. Players over time developed and introduced new styles of playing as well as innovations that forever changed the game.
Composed of the sons and grandsons of former American slaves, the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHLM) is credited by historians George and Darril Fosty in their book, Black Ice, with helping to pioneer the sport of ice hockey, transforming this winter game from the primitive “gentleman’s past-time” of the 19th century to the modern fast moving game of today. Established initially in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1895, and despite racism and discrimination the league existed until the mid -1920s. During its existence, approximately 400 people played on the 10 teams of the CHLM.
In an era when many believed blacks could not endure the cold, possessed ankles too weak to skate effectively, and lacked the intelligence for and skills in organized sport, the players of the CHLM defied the established racist myths and assumptions. They, in fact, helped revolutionize the game of hockey through their innovations and style of play in 2 key areas, namely, goaltending and shooting that are overlooked, downplayed or ignored.
Goaltending (The Butterfly Style)
Henry “Braces” Franklyn, who stood 3 feet 9 inches tall and played with the Dartmouth Jubilees from 1895 to 1898, was the first recorded goaltender to employ the “butterfly style” to stop the puck. He would go down on the ice with both pads with his toes pointing outwards and the tops of his pads meeting in the middle. This resulted in a wall of padding without any holes, lowering the chances of low angle shots getting in.
At the time, other amateur and professional leagues adopted a stand-up only position for their net minders, occasionally even issuing fines to goaltenders if they fell to the ice while playing the puck. The butterfly style was later perfected by goaltending greats Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuck and Tony Esposito, who played in the NHL during the 1950s-1960s and 1970s-1980s, respectively. They had tremendous success with it. The style is, perhaps, the most widely used style in the NHL as well as amateur and professional hockey today.
Going down onto the ice butterfly style wasn’t Franklyn’s only innovative technique. As a goaltender, he would also regularly skate out of his goal crease to play the puck, skate with it, and pass up the ice to teammates. This aggressive style of goaltending would not be seen until the emergence of legendary NHL Hall-of-Fame goaltender Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-1950s.
Shooting (The Slap Shot)
During the early 1900s, recreational and organized hockey rules did not permit players to raise their sticks above their waist to shoot the puck. Moreover, lifting the puck off the ice was not permitted.
In 1903, during a game between the Halifax Eurekas and the Truro Victorias, the Eurekas’ star player, Eddie Martin, in a baseball like swing raised his stick above his waist in shooting the puck. This technique resulted in harder and more accurate shots on the net as well as scoring opportunities. Subsequently, other players in the CHLM copied the technique.
Newspaper descriptions and accounts of Martin’s shooting technique indicate that he may have pioneered the hockey slap shot. This would have been 25 years before future hockey Hall- of- Famer Fred “Bun” Cook of the New York Rangers introduced the slap-shot to the NHL and 50 years before Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion of the Montreal Canadiens and Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers perfected it as an effective way to shooting the puck in the 1950s. Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet, later popularized the shooting technique with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Hockey, as we have come to realize, is a dynamic sport. Undoubtedly, the trappings of the game (e.g. rules, etc.) will continue to change, so too will the style of play. Those from diverse groups and backgrounds, who play the sport and bring with them their diverse skills and talents, will influence the game and the way it’s played.
Despite what some might say, “hockey is diversity”. And it goes without saying; diversity in hockey is the key to its long- term success and survival. That said, it’s worth embracing and celebrating by all those who play the sport, oversee hockey organizations (e.g. Hockey Canada, the NHL, International Ice Hockey Federation, etc.), and follow it as fans or spectators.
About the writer