As for most sports, the origins of ice hockey have long been the subject of debate. Some contend the game was borne of the transposition of imported, and already existing, sports such as hurley or field hockey onto the frozen lakes and ponds of North America during the early 1800s. Others suggest this was preceded by a form of the game played by the indigenous populations of Canada and the northern United States. Then again, some argue, pointing to paintings from seventeenth-century Europe, that even these versions of ice hockey had their antecedents.
Regardless of the contentious nature of its inception, however, ice hockey, as it is now known undoubtedly evolved in the Dominion of Canada. Indeed, ice hockey's governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), has officially recognized the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, Canada, as the birthplace of the organized version of the game. Moreover, no other country is more closely associated with the sport, in either historical or contemporary terms. And it is in Canada that the game was formalized, rationalized, and later professionalized.
As the IIHF has suggested, the earliest recorded game of organized ice hockey took place in Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink on 3 March 1875. With skates and sticks, the nine-man sides took to an ice surface of 80 by 204 feet, scoring goals not with the then customary rubber ball, but a flat circular piece of wood—the precursor of the modern puck. Eight years later, the city would also play host to hockey's first championship series when teams from Montreal and Quebec City gathered at the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival. From there, the game would grow steadily, owing much to the sponsorship of Canadian governor general Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, who was instrumental in developing hockey in Ontario, and who would donate the Stanley Cup to be awarded annually to the amateur champions of Canada—the trophy today remains ice hockey's most prestigious prize.
Much of this early growth was also fostered by touring exhibition squads, with a number of Canadian teams touring the United States in the 1890s and early part of the 1900s. The era also saw the beginnings of professionalism, when, by the middle of the 1890s, it was widely rumored that members of these teams were accepting payments to play. At the time, the game was considered to be strictly amateur—a gentleman's sport—and the supposed payment of players became the subject of controversy and debate across Canada. However, while the leagues they played in were still officially deemed to be "amateur," it was becoming increasingly clear that players were receiving regular payments at the time. It was hardly a surprise, therefore, when the sport's first officially professional league, the International Hockey League, was established only a few years later, in 1904. Throughout the first decade of the 1900s, Canada had to face the growing reality of professionalism. And, by the 1908 to 1909 season, professionalism had taken over the highest levels of Canadian hockey.
Initially, professionalism saw the advent of a series of competing regional leagues, dominated by the National Hockey Association (which, in 1917, would become the National Hockey League, or NHL) in the East, and the Pacific Coast Hockey League and Western Canada Hockey League in the West. However, from 1904 to the 1920s, a number of leagues and teams came and went—with many in the West, in particular, floundering—and, by 1926, the NHL all but stood alone as the dominant professional ice hockey league in North America. Yet even the NHL itself would struggle through much of the 1930s, with the Great Depression fiscally wounding several clubs, and the out-break of the war in 1939 further depleting rosters. And, while the league continued to play throughout the duration of hostilities, the NHL would eventually be left with only six teams by the end of the 1940s.
Though interest in hockey would grow across the continent during the next decade, and while the newly consolidated NHL became relatively well established during this time, the 1950s were nonetheless marked by plunging attendance. Much of this was owed to the advent of television, which saw many fans choosing to stay at home in favor of alternative forms of entertainment. Yet while a number of teams came close to folding (in particular, Boston and Chicago), the league survived, and later thrived into the 1960s, a decade marked by the league's expansion into Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Oakland, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. Expansion was so successful, that in 1970, the league added two more teams, the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks.
The prosperity of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s saw ice hockey, and the NHL, more specifically, become an attractive option for financial investment. Entrepreneurs seeking to profit from hockey's success soon courted expansion franchises. In 1972, one group of investors, disgruntled at the slow pace at which the league was willing to grant these franchises, formed the rival World Hockey Association (WHA), signing NHL players (most notably, Chicago Blackhawks star Bobby Hull) to large contracts with the new league. The battle between the NHL and WHA would be a feature of professional ice hockey throughout the 1970s. However, arguably because more established NHL fans saw it as an inferior or secondary league, the WHA began to struggle, and, by decade's end, the leagues would merge. In decades since, the NHL has continued to expand, and while its viewership may be proportionately low in comparison to football or basketball, ice hockey has become one of America's preeminent professional sports.
Ice hockey's appeal at the collegiate level, however, is perhaps a more regionalized affair in the United States. Teams from either the Midwest or Northeast have dominated the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national tournament (now known as the "Frozen Four") since its inception in 1948—with the University of Michigan's record nine titles topping the list. The sport's roots in U.S. colleges date back at least as far as the first documented college hockey game in 1896 between Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities. In the time since, and even though the college game is perhaps more prominent in the Midwest and the Northeast, NCAA Division One ice hockey has grown to encompass six conferences spanning much of the United States: the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the Hockey East Association, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, College Hockey America, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Traditionally, though the vast majority of players in the NHL are acquired from Canada's professional "major junior" leagues, a number of top Americans playing in the NHL come from the collegiate ranks, including Chris Chelios (who played at the University of Wisconsin), Brian Leetch (Boston College), and Chris Drury (who won an NCAA Championship with Boston University in 1995). Further, U.S. Olympic hockey teams have historically been largely composed of either current or former collegiate players. Undoubtedly, the most famous moment in U.S. hockey is the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," when a U.S. team made up almost entirely of collegians beat the highly favored (and, for all intents and purposes, fully professional) Soviet team enroute to the gold medal.
Interestingly, despite its purported overall dominance of the sport, the Salt Lake Games was Canada's first Olympic gold in ice hockey since 1952. Indeed, while Canadian teams may have ruled the early years of Olympic ice hockey (beginning with its introduction as a demonstration sport at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games), since the mid-1950s the Olympics have been dominated by the Soviet Union: between 1956 in Cortina d'Ampezzo and 1992 in Albertville, the Soviets never failed to win a medal. Rationalizing their lack of Olympic success, many Canadians put the Soviet's accomplishments down to the fact that Canada's best players were in the professional NHL. Such arguments were, however, called into question during the now-famous 1972 "Summit Series," when the Soviets only narrowly lost to a Canadian team overflowing with NHL All-Stars. In many ways, the Summit Series helped to regalvanize the centrality of hockey to Canadian nationalism, with Paul Henderson's series-winning goal ranking as one of the most memorable, and oft-immortalized, moments in Canadian history.
Some have speculated that Canada's declining superiority in the sport of ice hockey, particularly at what has traditionally been perceived as the highest level of amateur competition, was a contributing factor in the NHL allowing its best players to represent their various countries at the Olympics for the first time in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 (which necessitated the NHL to suspend its regular season for three weeks). Notably, despite sending a team laden with NHL All-Stars, the Canadians failed even to win a medal at Nagano. Though being cause for concern for many Canadians, their failure to capture a medal was recognition of the growing internationalization of the sport of ice hockey. Indeed, although the NHL has expanded to thirty teams throughout North America, only six are based in Canada (the cause of much ire for many Canadian nationalists). Moreover, the league's composition is increasingly international: once almost exclusively the domain of Canadians, the NHL now also boasts players from not only the United States, but also more distant places such as Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. And, with the NHL's U.S. television rights now owned by ESPN and ABC, subsidiaries of the Disney global media conglomerate, it would seem that that such internationalization of the game is set to continue in coming decades.
See also: Field Hockey, Olympics, Professionalization of Sport
Dryden, Ken. The Game. Toronto: Macmillan, 1985.
Dryden, Ken, and Roy MacGregor. Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
Goyens, Chrys, and Frank Orr. Blades on Ice: A Century of Professional Hockey, Markham, Canada: TPE Publications, 2000.
Gruneau, Richard, and David Whitson. Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.
Stewart, Mark. Hockey: A History of the Fastest Game on Ice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
Young, Scott. War on Ice: Canada in International Hockey. Toronto: McClelland And Stewart, 1976.
Ice hockey is a sport that has a passionate following throughout many countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Played on an ice surface, with six skaters side by side and physical contact permitted, the primary object of ice hockey is to direct a flat disk, known as the puck, into the opposing team's goal, using a bladed stick.
The origins of the game are not entirely clear; as with many sports that are now well established through both rules and conventions, ice hockey is derived from a number of sporting influences. It is clear that first in the Netherlands and later in England, the old game of field hockey may have been played in some adapted fashion on ice in the 1700s. The town of Windsor, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has long proclaimed itself as the birthplace of hockey; the Windsor claim is founded on a reference in a book written by noted Canadian author Thomas Haliburton (1796–1865), who made reference to seeing the game played by young men on the pond near Windsor as early as 1800. The Windsor version of hockey history links the evolution of hockey to the old sport of hurley, a field game played with a curved stick and a ball that today remains popular in Ireland.
Other ice hockey histories focus on the first organized game, one played between students from McGill University in Montreal in 1875. Although played with nine men per side, as opposed to the modern six-player rule, the McGill contest bore a reasonable similarity to the modern game. McGill has a strong connection to two other important sport developments; it claims to being the birthplace of modern American football, through the game its rugby team played against Harvard in 1874, and that the 1891 inventor of basketball, James Naismith, was a McGill graduate.
The first organized hockey league was formed in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1885. With Canada's generally long and severe winters, natural ice was readily at hand in most parts of the country, and ice hockey quickly became established as the preeminent athletic activity in Canada. In 1892, the then-Governor General of Canada donated a challenge cup to symbolize hockey supremacy in Canada; this cup later became the famous Stanley Cup.
The world's first professional hockey league was formed in the iron-mining district of the Michigan Upper Peninsula in 1904. A series of leagues followed, with professional hockey being stabilized in 1917 by the formation of the National Hockey League (NHL), with teams in eastern Canada and the northeastern and north central parts of the United States. The Stanley Cup became the championship trophy of the NHL. The NHL remains the most successful and the most competitive of the professional ice hockey leagues in the world; similar leagues in Sweden, Finland, Russia, and other northern European countries have also thrived.
Canada introduced ice hockey to England and parts of northern Europe in the late 1800s. The rising popularity of European ice hockey was the impetus to the creation of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in Paris in 1908. It is an irony of the history of ice hockey that Canada was not a charter member of the IIHF. There would prove to be significant friction between Canada and its NHL-focused game and the powers of international hockey for many years, a situation not unlike the tensions that persisted between American basketball and the international organization, FIBA. Ice hockey has been a fixture of the Winter Olympics since their inception in 1924; the use of the distinguishing modifier "ice" with hockey, curious to North American ears, results from the popularity of the earlier established field hockey in all other parts of the world.
The rules of ice hockey are essentially consistent between the North American/NHL-oriented version, and those promoted by the IIHF, which is also played at the Olympics. With the rise of the status of European players in the modern NHL, coupled with the influence of NHL players on the style of play at both the Olympics and the annual world championships, the game has become a much more homogenized product. Ice hockey is played on a surface (rink) that is 200 ft long by 85 ft wide (60 m by 25 m) in the NHL; the IIHF surface is wider, with dimensions of 200 ft by 100 ft (60 m by 30 m). The size of the respective ice surfaces generated differing styles of play as the game evolved. NHL hockey, on the smaller surface, lent itself to a more physical style of play, while the international game promoted strategies that emphasized skating and passing. The ice surface is encircled by a barrier known as the boards, topped with a plexiglass barrier, totaling approximately 8 ft (2.5 m) in height.
The puck is a disk of vulcanized rubber; the net at which the puck is directed is 4 ft high and 6 ft wide (1.2 m and 1.8 m), with a crease marked in front of it for the protection of the goaltender (goalie). The goaltender wears specialized leg pads, heavily padded pants, a chest protector, and specially constructed skates to assist in keeping the puck out of the net. The goaltender also wears a trapping glove on the catching hand, and a large rectangular blocking glove on the hand with which he or she holds the special goal stick. As hockey pucks at an elite level of play routinely are shot at the net at speeds in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h), goaltending is a dangerous position.
The other ice hockey players wear skates, protective shin guards, heavily padded pants, a combined shoulder pad and abdominal girdle that functions as an upper body armor, as well as heavily padded gloves and a helmet. In all forms of amateur hockey in North America, as well as all European hockey, the use of a face visor is mandatory. Notwithstanding the extensive protective equipment, the physical nature and the speed of ice hockey creates many opportunities for injury.
The five players stationed on the ice in front of the goaltender are typically three forwards and two defensemen. The forwards primary function is to create offensive chances in the other team's zone; the defensemen are responsible for preventing scoring opportunities from being completed by their opponents. All hockey players must have reasonable skating skills, both in terms of their ability to move quickly on the ice, as well as being agile. Body checking is the term used to describe the technique of stopping an opponent with one's body; if the opponent has possession of the puck, the rules permit that player to be knocked down.
There are rules with respect to the movement of the puck on the ice. Like soccer, ice hockey has an offside rule that is very important to the tactics employed to advance the puck toward the opposing goal. Further, if a player from his/her own side of center ice shoots the puck down the ice and across the opposing teams goal line without it being touched by an opponent, the play is called an "icing" and the puck will be returned to the end from which the puck was shot, and the result it a face-off in a designated space near the goal.
Ice hockey uses two types of officials to supervise its games. The referees are the ultimate authority on the ice. It is their responsibility to call the various infractions that might occur, known as penalties, to determine whether a goal has been legally scored. The subordinate officials are linesmen, that are responsible for determining offside calls, icing, and similar other technical matters.
Penalties are assessed in the course of play; they are one of three types: technical infractions, such as too many players on the ice or the use of illegal equipment; minor penalties, such interference with another player as they attempt to move to a particular place on the ice, holding another player, hooking an opponent with one's stick, or slashing with the stick; or major penalties, such as fighting, spearing with the stick, or deliberate attempts to injure an opponent.
One significant rule difference between international hockey and the NHL variety is the treatment of fighting between players. In the international game, fighting leads to a game misconduct, an automatic expulsion for the remainder of the contest. The same rule is in place in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sanctioned games. In the NHL, fighting attracts a five-minute penalty for the combatants. It is for this reason that there has existed in the NHL for many generations a subset of player known popularly as the team "enforcer," or less kindly as the "goon," a player whose responsibility is to protect other members of the team from any physical liberties that may be taken by an opponent.
Canada, with justification, long perceived itself as the preeminent ice hockey nation in the world. Much as the United States sent its best college players to successfully claim Olympic championships prior to 1972, Canadian hockey was represented on the international stage by various national senior level champions, whose skill level did not approach that of the stars of the NHL. Two events altered the Canadian world view. The first was the rise of the former Soviet Union as a true ice hockey power in the 1950s and 1960s; the amateur teams previously sent by Canada to win world or Olympic championships were now no match for the Soviets and their innovative approaches to the game. The 1972 Summit Series, the first-ever set of contests between the best Soviet players and the NHL-based Canadian players, narrowly won by Canada in a dramatic eight games, proved the power of Soviet hockey.
The second development was the arrival of European and American trained players to the NHL, a trickle that began in earnest with defenseman Borje Salming of Sweden in 1973. The NHL became a truly international collection of players; by 2005, over 40% of its membership was born outside of Canada.
While Canada remains the most successful of the ice hockey nations, Russia, the United States, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia all are capable of assembling very strong teams composed of players who compete for teams in the NHL.
J. A. Cannon
ice hock·ey • n. a fast contact sport played on an ice rink between two teams of six skaters, who attempt to drive a small rubber disk (the puck) into the opposing goal with hooked or angled sticks. It developed in Canada in the 19th century.