The origins of ice hockey may date to stick-and-ball games played during the Middle Ages or even ancient Greece and Egypt. Some believe the game evolved from the ancient Irish game of hurling. But ice hockey’s beginnings—like those of many other sports—remain murky.
“There’s a painting in the 1500s of people playing something on ice that looks like hockey,” says Phil Pritchard, curator at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “They even had sticks.”
The modern sport’s closest ancestor may be “chamiare,” or shinty—a stick-and-ball game played on ice in the early 1600s in Scotland. In the mid-1700s, a game called bandy was played on ice on the eastern plains of England. In the winter, players competed with iron skates on ice that formed on the flooded meadows and elsewhere. That game spread to London and then in the 1850s to eastern Canada, where it was played by British soldiers. In the 19th century, Native Americans in Canada played a similar game.
Where Did the Name 'Hockey' Come From?
The term “hockey,” according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, can be traced to a 1773 book published in England called Juvenile Sports and Pastimes. But the name may pre-date this earliest known reference. A version of the game played on ground—field hockey—evolved during the period, too.
In Great Britain, newspapers as early as the 1840s referenced hockey played on ice. A Scottish newspaper reported in 1842 about a fatality during a hockey game involving about 20 participants skating on a canal: “[T]he ice suddenly broke in, and several were immersed, but rescued, except [an] unfortunate lad.”
In 1864, the Prince of Wales played hockey on a lake with a London skating club. “The game was kept up with great animation until 2 o'clock,” a London newspaper reported, “when the prince and the players repaired to the Fishing Temple, where they partook of a sumptuous luncheon.”
In 1949, a magazine in the Soviet Union claimed the sport was invented and perfected in Russia in the mid-19th century. But those claims may be dubious.
The First Organized Hockey Game
The first organized ice hockey game, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, was played on March 3, 1875, between two teams of nine men each from Montreal’s Victoria Skating Club. But there’s evidence organized games were played earlier in the century in Canada and the United States, Pritchard says.
In the 1875 game, the teams played using a flat, wooden block—a cousin of the modern puck made of vulcanized rubber—“so that it should slide along the ice without rising, and thus going among spectators to their discomfort,” the Montreal Star reported. Previously, the game often was played with a wooden or rubber ball.
Added The Star about the first game: “The game is like Lacrosse in one sense—the block having to go through flags placed about 8 feet apart in the same manner as the rubber ball—but in the main the old country game of shinty gives the best idea of hockey.”
By 1899, ice hockey had become popular in northeastern United States. “[W]ith no special attempt to reach the sport-loving element, it has advanced steadily, numbering its enthusiasts by thousands last winter, where two seasons ago they could hardly have been counted by hundreds,” the Montreal Gazette reported about the interest in the New York City area.
Canada Becomes Epicenter of Ice Hockey
Although ice hockey did not originate in Canada, it became one of the country’s national sports. In the late 19th century, organized leagues formed in Canada, where rules for the sport evolved—including the size of the net and number of players on ice at one time (six per team with a goaltender). Canadian rules, including the use of a rubber puck, eventually were adopted worldwide.
In 1920, a team from Canada won the first hockey world championship, held at the Winter Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
In 1917, the National Hockey League formed with four Canadian teams. In 1924, the Boston Bruins became the first American team in the NHL, which has expanded several times over the years.
For more than 100 years, the NHL has been the world’s preeminent professional hockey league. The NHL even awards its Eastern Conference champion the Prince of Wales trophy, a nod to that 19th-century royal ice hockey competitor.