Fastest Game on Earth: Hockey’s Obscure Origins

Steve English February 21, 2014 5

From now until the last fireworks light up Sochi’s sky on February 23, G Adventures will offer up the best original and curated content from around the web. Want to follow along? We’ll share our take on Sochi 2014 through through the @gadventures handle, on Facebook—and right here on the Looptail. Check out all of our Winter Games–related articles here. This is your planet—see it at play.

Hello Canada, and hockey fans in the United States, Newfoundland, and around the world! We’re coming down to the wire in Sochi as the events wrap up, with the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments taking centre stage. Canada  took the women’s ice hockey final yesterday over the United States in a thrilling overtime match, and the Swedish men’s squad will face either Canada or the US for all the marbles this Sunday. And no matter who wins, the good ol’ hockey game is always the best game you can name.

It’s doubtful that any country loves hockey as much as Canada does; it’s practically the national religion here. The numbers bear that out: According to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Canada claims over 625,000 registered players from a population of around 34 million – roughly one player for every 55 people. And while Canada can lay claim to being hockey’s spiritual homeland, the true origins of “the fastest game on Earth” aren’t as easy to pin down.

Photo by B. Wile.

Photo by B. Wile.

Gilgamesh, hockey’s first all-star

If you stretch the facts a little (okay, a lot), you can trace hockey’s roots all the way back to the Bronze Age and the Sumerian warrior-king Gilgamesh. Tablets from this time describe a game called “pukku-mikku” in which players chased a wooden ring across a field of flattened dirt using curved sticks.

Pukku-mikku-like games flourished across the Ancient World through the centuries, with artistic depictions and historical records turning up in both Greece and Rome. As the Roman Empire spread across Europe, the game came with it, adapting itself to the local climate and environment. Most historians cite the Irish game of hurling as the natural forerunner to ice hockey. Developed in the first century AD, hurling involves players batting a ball (sliotar) towards a defended goal with wooden stick (hurley). Attackers can beat the keeper for two points or lob the ball through a set of uprights for one point. Considered one of the great Gaelic games, hurling remains popular just about anywhere the Irish are, from New Zealand to South Africa and Argentina.

Hurley sticks. Photo by K Mcguire.

Hurley sticks. Photo by K. Mcguire.

European roots

So far, one important element has been missing from the story: ice. Europeans have been amusing themselves on frozen lakes and ponds for at least 3,000 years, but early skates were typically little more than flattened bones strapped to the feet. The Dutch invented the first steel-bladed ice skates in the 13th and 14th century, and quickly employed them for sport. An ice-hockey/golf hybrid called kolf – in which players attempted to hit a ball into a hole in the ice using wooden clubs – became a popular winter pastime in Holland in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was often depicted in paintings from the era, the most famous being “The Hunters in the Snow” by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Check out the bottom left-hand corner of the rink and see if you can spot the child chasing a puck-like object with a curved stick.)

“The Hunters in the Snow” by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

“The Hunters in the Snow” by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Crossing the pond

But how did low-key European wintertime distractions transform into the fast, aggressive game we know today? For that, it had to cross the Atlantic. While the true origins of the game remain murky, the first recorded instances of “hockey-on-the-ice” occurred among British soldiers stationed in remote outposts of the Canadian wilderness. There, bored soldiers would frequently while away the long, dreary winters by taking to the ice in their boots for hurling, and eventually adapted the game for play on skates. Other accounts claim the British were inspired to take their game to the ice after watching the First Nations peoples play a similarly fast and rough stick-and-ball game on the ice using sticks they whittled themselves from tree branches. (In some versions of the story, the soldiers joined the Aboriginal players and even traded extra skates for the natives’ superior sticks.)

Lake Hockey. Photo by K. Riek.

Lake Hockey. Photo by K. Riek.

Whatever its origins, Canadians took to the game to their collective heart almost instantly. As settlers flooded in from Europe, the forts became cities and the game grew and grew with each passing winter. The IIHF credits March 3, 1875 in Montreal as the official time and place of the modern game’s birth, when two teams squared off at the Victoria Rink for the first game between established teams and pre-arranged rules.  (Somewhat unsurprisingly, the rough-and-tumble sport’s first-ever match ended in fisticuffs.)

While it’s true that ice hockey is predominantly a northern game, its reach expands around the globe year upon year. To date, the IIHF counts 72 countries among its membership, including such unlikely locales as Israel, Turkey, and Qatar. And considering the long, ocean-spanning course the game has taken, maybe ice hockey on the Arabian Peninsula isn’t so much a strange new development as it is a long-awaited homecoming.


  1. James Laverance March 14, 2014 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Hello I’m James a general sports historian and have uncovered some interesting findings.I’ve contacted most historical museums in south dakota but can’t seem to put a specific date to these(games of stick ball on ice south Dakota) can you.
    It states that somewhere in South Dakota around the 1700′s? the Teton Sioux tribe played a form of lacrosse on ice.Using a bent tree branch as a stick and carved Buffalo shoulder bone runners as skates knocking a ball around also found out the Kiowa did also.If you can find out anything else(the date,place) I would greatly appreciate it.Thank you

    Here’s some stuff i’ve researched

    1749: British military diary explains fusion of shinny and Mikmaq hockey.In the book Halifax: Warden of the North, one of the finest books ever written on Canadian history, the author Thomas H. Raddall, citing a British military diary from 1749, credits the Mi’kmaqs with an early influence on the Canadian game of hockey. He writes:

    It is a fact little known in Canada, but a fact none the less, that ice hockey, Canada’s national game, began on the Dartmouth Lakes in the eighteenth century. Here the garrison officers found the Indians playing a primitive form of hurley on ice, adopted and adapted it, and later put the game on skates. When they were transferred to military posts along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes they took the game with them and for some time afterwards continued to send to the Dartmouth Indians for the necessary sticks.

    Various ‘stickball’ games have been played by Native Americans throughout the continent prior to Europeans arrival . This goes for Southern, Central American and Northern American region. The nature of rules, and equipment varied according to where –and of course- the climate. If you are interested in ice hockey, the Mic Macs are recorded as playing what we would call a pond hockey using bone as their runners, sticks for balance as well as their hitting stick.  Since bone doesn’t perform like metal the balance sticks let them glide more. The blade could have been buffalo or any other large animal such as elk. I know anecdotally from Lakota people that they also did bone skates and played  stick games in winter along river ways. On dry land the ‘hockey’ or ball game was called ‘shinny’ and was played by women and men. In fact many museum collection’s, including ours, have shinny sticks from Southwestern, Plains and Eastern peoples.

    The information and resources about this topc, Charles Eastman and Sara Wakefield, I have generally date to the 1800s. Both were witnesses to this game as played by the Dakota. Eastman as a Dakota native played it. Walker also discussed the game in his books about the Lakota. He lived with the tribes and interviewed tribal members, who stated that the game was a long-standing tradition. However, he lived with the reservation tribes in the 1900s. As far as I know, none of the earliest reports of the tribes, Jesuit priests (circa 1500s), ever reported the game, but their interaction with the Siouan peoples was limited and many of their accounts are second hand coming from enemy tribes.

    This does not eliminate the Sioux as among the earliest players of the game; neither does it confirm that they were one of the first to play the game in the Americas. Now Lacrosse or some variant thereof was documented by early settlers in the East among the Siouan speakers of the coast and I believe some reports indicate that the game could be played on ice.

    • Jay March 30, 2014 at 12:49 am - Reply

      Thanks James. Looks like I have a lot of reading to do.

  2. James Laverance April 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    Hello my name is James Laverance and I would like to share some info on the evolution of ice hockey.

    I’ve researched both Canadian and American perspective’s.

    From frozen ponds to the present indoor game ,hockey has really been an evolution and tapestry of different elements which can’t be traced to one specific time or period.

    Through out it’s history though,are some very interesting accounts of information and dates which have helped develop the game into what it is today.

    In my findings I’ve came across some very interesting information.

    In South Dakota around the early 1700′s the Lakota Sioux were playing a stick-ball on ice game using bone skates.
    They would use a bent tree branch as a stick and buffalo shoulder bone as blade to glide on.
    Usually played along the village winter river ways.

    On tufts cove in Dartmouth Nova Scotia in 1749 the Mik’maq natives were discovered playing a similar game to lacrosse but on ice.
    They used a hitting stick to strike the ball as well as a gliding stick to hold as they were using skates made of animal jawbone.

    In new York city in 1783 during the revolutionary war British loyalists living there played a game of ice Hurley on collect pond using steel pole skates.
    After the war and ended they came up to Halifax and brought their game with them.

    1788 is the conventional birthplace of hockey as kings college Windsor ns (renamed after king’s college new York) opened up and there the students played the game on long pond.

    Birthplace of early hockey games began on long pond Windsor,Where students from Kings college began playing ice Hurley.

    From there different stick-ball games were developing.Like ice bandy,wicket,break shins,ice lacrosse,shinny,rugby,etc.

    The first hockey stick called the William Dilly Moffatt stick was carved around 1838 in Cape Breton Nova Scotia. Made by the Mi’kmaq native Indian.

    The modern skates were invented by EV Bushnell of Philadelphia in 1848.

    While playing in the Windsor-Halifax-Dartmouth area the Mi’kmaq people provided wooden pucks cut from tree branches around 1860.

    The name hockey.
    While stationed at Fort Edward,Nova Scotia circa.1855 a certain Colonel John Hockey conditioned his troops by playing the game shinny and renaming it after him.
    Refering to these workouts as hockey’s games.

    The first indoor and semi-organized game was played with 9 players per side in the Victoria skating rink Montreal on March 3rd,1875.Organized by James Creighton using previous Halifax rules.

    The number of players were reduced to 7 in 1883 at the Montreal Winter Carnival. Positions were now named.Goalkeeper,Point,Cover point,Rover,Left wing,Right wing,Center.

    Skating rinks.First natural indoor ice rink was the Quebec Skating Rink 1851,1852.First indoor rink in the US was the Great Chicago Skating Rink in 1860.

    The first artificial indoor skating rink was built by William Newton in New York City using Matthew Bujac’s method of ice-making built in 1870.

    First international match.In 1886 Burlington Vermont held a winter carnival and Montreal sent 2 teams to form a 3 team tournament.A local team called the Van Ness House Club from Vermont played The Montreal HC in first ever match between to countries.Montreal won 3-0.

    Other sorts of leagues and scheduled games were being organized around this time.Later in 1886 the Amateur Hockey Association was formed in Montreal.Making it the first organized hockey league in Canada.

    The first professional league was organized in Portage,Michigan in 1904 called the International Professional Hockey League.Local business man James Dee and Canadian dentist Doc Gibson formed a five team league.

    Earliest known arrival of the modern game in the USA was 1856.It shows that st.pauls high school in Concord New Hampshire opened that year.They were playing shinny to ice field hockey to ice polo.James Conover a schoolmaster there visited Montreal in 1881 discovered the montreal rules and brought back sticks, pucks,and rules from there.

    Early 6 on 6 version of game was played at Washington Park Brooklyn in 1908.The Brooklyn Crescents beat Yale 4-1.

    Hockey net.1890-91 first goal nets were invented from ice polo at Storrs Agricultural School now Uconn.Early goalie like pads were worn same time there.

    Helmet was first worn by Frank Goheen from Minnesota in 1915.

    Modern goalie pads worn at Duluth central high school in 1903-04.Maybe earlier there.

    The goalie trapper was invented out of a baseball mitt by Mike Karakas from Minnesota in the mid-1930′s.

    Blocker invention Lorne Chabot from Canada 1920′s.

    Early hockey pants were worn in 1896-97 at Detroit Medical College.

    1959 Jacques Plante invents full face mask.

    Harvard has had a rich history to the development of the game.In 1911-12 coach Alfred Winsor would change the defense positions. Instead of having one in front of the other, he switched to a parallel formation.Called the Winsor System.

    In 1923 coach William Claflin and George Owen invents the full 3 man line change.

    Thank you.

  3. James Laverance June 2, 2014 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Did  you know that the Iroquois native american tribe was reported to play one of the earliest hockey games in 1740?

    Probably played on bone skates on the St.Lawrence river in between Canada and the Us.

    An early form of hockey was first documented in 1740 when French explorers sailing up the St. Lawrence River observed Iroquois Indians hitting a hard ball with sticks and, as legend has it, punctuating their action with shouts of
    “Hogee” (it hurts!).(1)

     French explorers in 1740 described a group of Iroquois playing a game with sticks and a ball on a frozen pond.(2)

    Early Canadian records state that the Iroquois Indians chased deer across the
    ice on bone skates.(3)

    Early explorers of North America were amazed to see members of the Iroquois nation gliding across frozen lakes and rivers on blades fashioned of bone.This suggests that they had been skating for quite a while, as do the many ancient
    bone-and-shoe combination that have been unearthed by archaeologists.(4)

    In Canada early French explorers copied the Iroquois Indians in the use of bone skates for hunting deer during the winter.(5)


    (1) Labor Relations in Professional Sports – Page 202
    Robert C. Berry, ‎William B. Gould, ‎Paul D. Staudohar – 1986

    (2) Reading Tutor, Grades 4 – 8: Sports – Page 17
    Cindy Barden – 2009

    (3) The Best of the Best in Figure Skating – Page 1983
    Rachel Rutledge – 1998

    (4) The fine art of ice skating: an illustrated history and … – Page 57
    Julia Whedon – 1988

    (5) Figure skating – Page 7
    Elizabeth Van Steenwyk – 1976

  4. Dave Works June 6, 2014 at 11:36 am - Reply

    Hey, thank you for the info! Good job sir James! :-)

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