Hockey 's Roots Go
Way Back - Part II
All kinds of romantic and fanciful stories exist about the early days
of hockey. Back in the 17th century, an ice game known as "kolven"
was popular. It spread to the English marshland community of Bury Fen in
The game there was called "bandy." Local players scrambled
around the town's frozen meadowlands and swatted a wooden or cork ball,
known as a "kit"or "cat," with sticks made from
willow tree branches.
The earliest North American games were played in Canada in the 1870s.
British soldiers stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, allegedly organized
contests on frozen ponds. At about that time in Montreal students from
McGill University began skating against each other in a downtown ice
rink. North America's first hockey league, a four-team affair, was
launched in Kingston, Ontario in 1885, and the hockey boom was on. Games
soon were played on a regular basis among teams from Toronto, Ottawa,
A very interested onlooker was the English Governor General of
Canada. In fact, Lord Stanley of Preston was so impressed that in 1892
he purchased a silver bowl with an interior gold finish and announced
that it would be presented each year to the best amateur team in Canada.
And that was how the Stanley Cup - awarded today to the franchise that
wins the National Hockey League playoffs - came to be.
When hockey was first played in Canada, the teams had nine men per
side. But by the time the Stanley Cup was introduced, it was a seven-man
game. The change came about due to a late 1880s miscue. A club playing
in the Montreal Winter Carnival showed up two men short. Its opponent
was obliging enough to drop the same number of players on its team to
even the match. In time, the smaller squad was preferred.
That number became the standard for the sport. Each team had a
goaltender, three forwards, two defensemen, and a rover, who could move
up ice on the attack or fall back to defend his goal. In the beginning,
skates consisted of blades that were attached to shoes; sticks were made
from tree branches. The first goalie shin and knee-pads were derived in
design from cricket.
As the years moved on the primitive quality of gear improved to some
degree. Players wore protective gloves. Shin guards were used but the
early ones were not that effective in softening blows from a puck or
stick. So some players stuffed newspapers or magazines behind them for
For many years the blades on sticks were completely straight, but New
York Rangers star Andy Bathgate began experimenting with a curve in the
late 1950s. The idea caught on around the league. Players didn't begin
wearing helmets with any sort of uniformity until the early 1970s. In
the years before only players recovering from a head injury or those
embarrassed about being bald wore helmets. A NHL rule passed prior to
the start of the 1979-80 season mandated that anyone who came into the
league from that point on had to wear a helmet. By the early 1990s there
were only a few players left who went unprotected. The last one was
Craig MacTavish, who retired after the 1996-97 season.