Hockey's Roots Go Way Back
The National Hockey
League seasons come and go. There is always a lot of excitement due to
various changes in rules, new players, etc. But the essential nature of
the game itself is unchanged.
Many historians say the
roots of hockey go back more than 500 years ago in northern Europe where
field hockey was a popular summer sport. When the ponds and lakes froze
in winter, many athletes took to the ice to engage in another version of
their summer sport.
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 1820s.
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, and Montreal.
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
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 extra protection.
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.
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