These days, hockey is known worldwide as Canada's national pastime. In fact, hockey is so popular in Canada that many non-Canadians see it as the country's defining feature.
But it wasn't always this way. There was a time in Canada when hockey was little more than a recreational niche sport. In truth, the game didn't take on true popularity in the country until the 20th century.
So, how then did hockey grow to take over Canada? How did we get to a point where fans now clamor over composite sticks and autographed hockey memorabilia? We're going to get into that question below, diving into the specifics of hockey history.
Ready? Let's get started.
The Origins of Hockey
You may be under the impression that ice hockey sprung out of the frozen Canadian flatlands organically. However, there was actually a great deal of precursor leading up to the invention of modern hockey.
In truth, the first iteration of recreational hockey was played in the United Kingdom. Scotland, England, and Ireland produced a variety of stick-and-ball games played on ice. These resembled modern hockey in some ways but came with their own sets of rules.
For instance, Scotland produced a game called Shinty in 1608. This was played on ice but likely didn't involve the use of skates.
Skates aren't believed to have arrived in the United Kingdom until 1660. They were brought there by the Brish royal family, who had obtained them while in exile in the Netherlands.
Shortly after, skating became massively popular in the UK. By the mid-1700s, it's believed that English citizens had introduced ice skating to an already-popular sport known as bandy. With ice skating incorporated into the sport, it took on an identity that is very similar to that of modern ice hockey.
Note, though, that bandy was and is different in terms of rules and gameplay. Not only does bandy utilize a ball instead of a puck, but it also includes more players, not to mention a bigger rink.
That said, before long, the game of bandy would continue morphing into something that more and more resembled modern ice hockey. A puck was introduced, the team sizes were reduced, and an official rulebook was released. By the late 1700s, the term "hockey" was being used to describe the new sport.
It wouldn't be long before English settlers of Canada were bringing their game with them to their new home. Once it arrived, it had the chance to prosper and grow.
In 1875, the first organized game of Canadian hockey was played in the city of Montreal. In 1877, the Montreal Gazette published a set of rules for the sport. Hockey had sunk its teeth into the young country and was poised for exponential growth.
The Early Growth of Hockey in Canada
Once the first organized game of hockey was played in Montreal in 1875, it didn't take much time for the sport to gain popularity. By 1883, hockey tournaments were being played in Montreal.
By 1886, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), believed to be the first organized hockey league in the country, had formed. In 1893, the league's champion, the Montreal Hockey Club, won the first-ever Stanley Cup.
Throughout this time, Canadians were slowly implementing their own rules for the sport. For instance, they required the use of a rubber puck as opposed to a wooden wedge. Before long, their rules were being adopted by hockey leagues in other counties, including France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
The Launch of a Professional League
While there were other minor professional leagues existing in Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and while recreational hockey was popular as well, professional hockey truly took hold in Canada in the year of 1909. In particular, the National Hockey Association was formed as a conglomerate of several opposing hockey leagues. This was a precursor to the modern National Hockey League (NHL).
Though the NHA only lasted until 1917, its formation was integral to the identity of modern hockey. Four of its teams (Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators , and Toronto Arenas) would start the National Hockey League, which is still the predominant hockey league to this day.
Canadian Hockey Domination
Up through the start of the National Hockey League, hockey's popularity had been growing in Canada. However, what really launched the sport into the Canadian stratosphere was the 1920 Olympic Games.
It was at this tournament that the Winnipeg Falcons represented Canada and outscored its opponents 29-1 over a span of three games. This domination inspired the Canadian populace to a great extent, thus stoking the fire of hockey fever in the country. For the next 30 or so years, Canada was far and away the top hockey nation on the planet.
The only thing that hindered Canadian success in the Olympic Games was a rule prohibiting professional hockey players from competing. This enabled Eastern bloc countries to use their best players while Western countries like Canada were forced to send amateurs.
Nonetheless, the country continued to produce the best hockey players in the world, many of whom went on to unbelievable NHL success.
The Start of the NHL
As was noted above, the NHL was started in 1917 after the folding of the NHA. The start of this league would turn hockey into the undeniable national pastime of Canada. Its success enabled the best players in the country to showcase their skills to a massive audience on a regular basis, thereby inspiring countless Canadian kids to pursue the sport as well.
Some of the early stars of the NHL include Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadien, Cy Dennenny of the Ottawa Senators, and Cecil "Babe" Dye of the Toronto St. Pats.
The Growth of the NHL
Eventually, NHL games started being broadcast on the radio. This helped spread the game's popularity throughout Canada and thus resulted in more and more hockey fervor. Whereas the game was once seen as an organized yet niche athletic endeavor, it was now being seen as a big-time enterprise, something that young kids could strive for.
The original four teams shifted, folded, and transformed. Eventually, teams started popping up in the northern United States of America. By 1942, the league had established its iconic Original Six teams, all of which are still in the NHL to this day.
While 4 of these teams were established in America, all 6 of them fielded a large number of Canadian players. Popular players throughout the 30s and 40s included Charlie Conacher, Eddie Shore, Tiny Thompson, Marty Barry, Busher Jackson, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Doug Bentley, Buddy O'Connor, and Bill Cowley.
Maurice Richard, nicknamed "Rocket", was the most popular player of this era. Known for his speed, aggression, and incredible goal-scoring ability, he was the first player ever to score 50 goals in a season, and the first player ever to score 500 goals in a career.
Few players have had the impact on hockey that Rocket did. He was far superior to his peers and was the first real phenomenon in hockey history. His otherwordly ability inspired countless kids to pursue recreational hockey, thus resulting in exponential hockey growth throughout Canada.
The NHL Becomes an Institution
The NHL become a household name in Canada throughout the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, it became an institution, something that was as much a part of Canada's culture as the moose and maple syrup.
This was spurred on, in large part, by Hockey Night in Canada, a television program that broadcasted big games across the entire country. It also offered highlights and analyses of other games throughout the league and was launched in 1952.
This program enabled TV viewers to see the action of pro hockey in real-time. It put fans into the game, forging an emotional connection far greater than radio ever could. After the launch of this program, hockey would become an integral part of Canadian culture, something that every Canadian citizen would associate with the identity of their country.
In fact, Hockey Night in Canada is so integral to the fabric of Canadian culture that it's still broadcast to this day. While there are many other ways to watch hockey games in Canada, Hockey Night in Canada is still extremely popular in the country.
The Game's Icons Are Established
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that hockey truly took over Canada, not to mention select parts of the northern United States. The Original Six teams showcased some of the greatest talents the sport has ever seen, and boys throughout Canada idolized them.
In addition to the established superstar Maurice Richard, there was Ted Lindsay, Boom Boom Geoffrian, Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Hull. However, in the 1950s (and beyond), there was one player that stood out among them all. That player was Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.
Howe is known as one of the greatest athletes in NHL history. He possessed a unique combination of size, strength, agility, and speed, not to mention grace around the goal. Plus, he was tough as nails and more than willing to fight.
Howe, who was born in Saskatchewan, was (and still is) viewed as a god by many hockey fans. He encapsulated all there was to love about the sport and undoubtedly assisted in growing the game throughout Canada.
Modern Legends Enter the Sport
The 1950s and 1960s brought hockey to new heights and essentially turned it into a Canadian cultural icon. However, the game was still open to a great deal of development. This took place from the 1970s on through the 1990s.
This presented itself in the way of a handful of revolutionary players. One of these was Boston Bruin, Bobby Orr, an athletic defenseman who was just as good offensively as he was defensively. Considered by some to be the greatest hockey player of all time, he dazzled fans with his effortless puckhandling.
And then, in 1978, the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, entered the NHL. Gretzky would go on to obliterate essentially every record in the book, scoring more points and goals than anyone else in hockey history, and by a large margin as well.
It was Gretzky who truly brought hockey to the mainstream. His outlandish ability helped hockey to reach new audiences in the southern parts of the United States, particularly during his tenure with the Los Angeles Kings.
Some of the other great players who came onto the scene during these years include Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Mike Bossy, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek.
And it wasn't just the gameplay that was evolving. It was the equipment as well. For instance, composite sticks were introduced to the sport in 1995.
Hockey's Place in Canada Today
These days, it's almost impossible to think about Canada without also thinking about hockey. Few other sports are as closely connected to a country as hockey is to Canada. And while the NHL is certainly home to more non-Canadian players than it used to be, the sport's popularity in Canada is not in question.
This can be seen in the continuous flow of Canadian hockey stars, from Sidney Crosby to Patrice Bergeron to Connor McDavid and beyond.
Hockey History Is Central to Canada's Identity
When it comes to telling the story of Canada, you can't leave out hockey history. Hockey is integral to Canadian culture and, for many, is what best represents Canada as a country. So, if you're brushing up on your knowledge of Canada, be sure to read up on the country's hockey heritage.
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