A review of On the Origin of Hockey
You may have seen some of the many headlines in response to the new book On the Origin of Hockey, which was launched this past weekend, declaring that “Hockey is actually an English game!” or words to that effect. The book is purported to prove that hockey, the game so long considered to be a Canadian one, was really born in England. Is this true? Have the Canadian origins of the great winter game been completely refuted?
The short answer is no, not really. But fortunately for the authors (Carl Giden, Patrick Houda and Jean-Patrice Martel, or GHM for short), that's not what they claim to prove. They are clear that the transition from the early forms of hockey to the modern version was given impetus and took place in Canada, and without the Canadian influence the sport would not be the great one that we have today. If we look at the very last paragraph in the book, for instance, we see that GHM have no interest in declaring hockey anything other than Canadian:
Today, regardless of where it is played, hockey is a truly Canadian game. That is the legacy of the first Montreal game, thanks in large part to the leadership of James Creighton, who recognized how ideally suited to Canada's climate and people the game of ice hockey was, and who masterfully gave it the impulse it needed to become the greatest winter sport that exists. (p. 267)So we apparently cannot rely on the mainstream media to provide an accurate picture of what the book it about, which is to be expected given the relatively nuanced position that the authors take. But if refuting hockey's Canadianness is not the point of the book, then what is? What conclusions do GHM actually put forth in their work? Fortunately for our purposes, they provide a concise summary of their findings in their final chapter. They are:
1. Ice hockey...was played in England for several decades before it was played in Canada.
2. There were several instances of organized hockey games played in England before the one played on March 3, 1875 in Montreal.
3. No reasonable definition of hockey could be imagined that would include all games played in Montreal since March 3, 1875, but exclude all games played in England to that date.
4. Prior to the 1890s...bandy and hockey were exactly the same activity, called by different names depending on the region.
5. The activity in which children and adults engaged on ice with skates in England in the 19th century – and even before – was not merely a variety of “stick and ball games.” It was hockey.
6. Ice hockey does not have mysterious origins. It came very naturally to English (and other British) field hockey players who took their game to the ice and put on skates when the weather provided such ice, which occurred almost every winter.None of these statements are merely asserted. Voluminous evidence and analysis is provided to lead the reader clearly to each conclusion. GHM do discuss the “birthplace of hockey” claims made about various Canadian locales, from those with almost nothing to support them (Windsor, Nova Scotia) to those with much more evidence behind them (Halifax, for example). However, the real point is that “birthplace” is an improper term to use, something that other hockey authors have argued in the past (such as Bill Fitsell in How Hockey Happened). The authors acknowledge that there is evidence that early forms of hockey were played at some of these locales in Canada, but present evidence that such hockey was played across the Atlantic before being played in Canada. Ice hockey was not first invented in Canada, but it was certainly grown and developed here. Indeed, the authors admit that they cannot say hockey was invented in England either, just that the earliest recorded evidence (which has been uncovered only recently) for hockey played on ice comes from that country.
In order to reach such a conclusion, GHM rely on a definition of hockey developed by the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) in their 2002 Report of the Sub-Committee Looking into Claim that Windsor, Nova Scotia, is the Birthplace of Hockey. This definition consists of only six points: ice surface, two contesting teams, players on skates, use of curved sticks, small propellant (a ball or puck), objective of scoring on opposite goals. (p. 31) The authors clearly demonstrate that, using this definition of hockey, the game was played in England before it was played in Canada.They also forcefully demonstrate that based on this definition, early bandy is not merely a "hockey-like game", it is in fact hockey. If one wishes to call bandy a hockey-like game, one must call the first Montreal game in 1875 a hockey-like game as well.
This is not the first work to suggest that early forms of hockey originated in Britain, ultimately. However, the general consensus has long been that “organized” hockey had its beginnings in Montreal. This is the attitude presented in the SIHR report, which went beyond its mandate of examining the Windsor claim, and put forward Montreal as the birthplace of organized hockey. This is because an organized hockey match was played in Montreal on March 3, 1875, and it is the first recorded game of its kind. Or at least, it was the earliest known recorded match at the time the SIHR report was written.
GHM present volumes of evidence that has been uncovered in the years since the SIHR report was published. For example, the authors discuss a game of hockey that was played on December 27, 1870 in Spetchley, Worcestershire and that was reported in two newspapers. Two 10-man teams played in this match, one representing Worcester and the other, Spetchley. The latter club took the match by a score of 4-3, and we even know the identities of the goal-scorers (Tyler, Yeates and A. Everill for Worcester; Tayler, Wheeler, Dale and Francisco for Spetchley [p. 74]), which is information we are missing for the first Montreal game. As GHM point out, you may be able to develop a definition of organized hockey that would exclude this game but include the first Montreal match, however such a definition would have to be arbitrary and designed specifically to exclude the former. Such a definition would be unreasonable, since this 1870 game has far, far more in common with the 1875 Montreal game than the latter has in common with a 2014 NHL game (for example). It would therefore be silly to group the latter two together while keeping the former two separate.
In fact the authors take to task the very phrase "hockey as we know it today", since it is so often used to justify this division. Hockey before the first Montreal game was not hockey as we know it today, therefore it can be dismissed from being "true" ice hockey. But as GHM point out, the hockey played in Montreal in 1875 is also not "hockey as we know it today", so the argument has no basis. They list a number of examples of offenders in this regard, including me. So I will take this opportunity to retract my comment, with the explanation that it was more a case of lazy writing than actually making the offending argument. I intended to refer to the set of hockey games that can be shown to have evolved directly from the first Montreal game, not to suggest that the first Montreal game was indeed hockey as we know it today.
Astute readers may also notice that the definition or organized hockey that I used in On His Own Side of the Puck may appear to be just such an arbitrary definition, designed to exclude pre-Montreal hockey from consideration. To that I will say that my purpose in writing that definition is very narrow, and it is not intended for general use in the hockey origins discussion. In fact, I was never entirely happy with using the term "organized hockey" for it, but I was short on options. I was trying to describe the set of hockey games that can be shown to have evolved directly from the first Montreal game. I could have used "organized Montreal hockey", I suppose, but its later growth far beyond the borders of that city would make such a term problematic. A more precise term would be "the version of organized hockey that was first played in Montreal in 1875, and all subsequent versions of hockey that can be demonstrated to have developed directly from that version", but I think you'll agree that's more than a bit unwieldy. Ultimately my point is that nothing in GHM's work contradicts my own; they are looking at the entire spiderweb, while I was looking at only a single strand.
There was at least one other recorded game of organized hockey played in England before 1875. On February 2, 1871, the Moor Park team defeated an Oxford side by a score of 5-2. We again know the identities of the goal scorers, and Moor Park's Algernon Grosvenor (a noted sportsman in his lifetime) scored three of them (p. 72), making him the scorer of the first recorded ice hockey hat trick, contrary to what you've previously read here at Hockey Historysis (sorry, Mr. Geddes, that honour no longer belongs to you.)
These are just a few examples of the many astounding bits of evidence that GHM present to support their conclusions. As a researcher myself, the amount of information that these three historians have accumulated from a wide variety of sources is mind-boggling. The result is that there is nothing we can say about early ice hockey that has been shown to have happened in Canada that the authors cannot show happened in England even earlier, and that's the crux of the argument. If you must point at a place to be called ice hockey's birthplace, it would be England (based on the evidence currently available to us). The cradle, however, would be Canada, and that's where the game grew and matured to its heights.
If you are at all interested in the early years of hockey history, and in the development of the game, you absolutely need this book. If, however, you are more interested in holding on to cherished existing ideas about where hockey came from, then you should probably skip it (although I would encourage you to have more intellectual curiosity than that). But if you're looking for facts, this volume cannot be impugned, and it is perhaps the single most important contribution to the study of this aspect of hockey history that has ever been published. And I don't think I am exaggerating that point.