Fastest Game on Earth: Hockey’s Obscure Origins

Steve English February 21, 2014 2

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.

2 Comments »

  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.

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