Hockey Central

Ice Hockey in Nova Scotia

From Hurley to Hockey on Frozen Ponds

Canada's official winter sport got its start in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Beginning around 1800, it developed gradually within the province. As it developed, so did all the required basic equipment. "Hockey" skates, wooden pucks, hand-made, one-piece hockey sticks, the rules of the game and the goal net all originated in Nova Scotia. The game first spread to New Brunswick in 1865, then to Montreal in 1875. Slowly and methodically, province by province, ice hockey spread until it arrived on the West Coast in 1890. Along the way it was taught to friends by players who had learned it from others. As it came to be played across the nation, the seventh player on the team was called the rover, also a Nova Scotia innovation. Unlike basketball, which was invented one day and played the next, ice hockey evolved slowly over decades, as the basic game became the game we know today.

All countries have games peculiar to their environment and climate. For the most part, ball games and stick-ball games known to America originated from a basic game called "camp" which developed following the Norman invasions of Britain in the 11th century. Townsfolk symbolically kicked out the invaders by kicking stones back and forth among themselves in fun. Played by individual neighbors at first, it was soon played by village teams. Community games thus developed which involved various objects being kicked, then hit with sticks on the ground, and finally in the air. Football, rugby, golf, field hockey, hurley, shinty, bandy, rounders and a host of variations evolved from this initial, simple game. In particular, the old English stick-ball game that combined hitting a ball in the air with the running of bases was known as rounders and later evolved into baseball in New York. Ice hockey, on the other hand, originated from stick-ball games played on the ground and then adapted to ice in Nova Scotia.

Windsor, Nova Scotia is situated on the shores of the Avon River which has the world's highest tides. The river banks were dyked by French Acadian settlers, creating prime farm land. Here the Acadians lived in harmony with the Mi'kmaq people who were indigenous to the area. The English arrived and built a military establishment in 1749. Called Fort Edward, it stood high above the town looking out over the Minas Basin. Strife led to the almost total decimation of the Mi'kmaq, and in 1755, to the expulsion of 4,000 Acadians to the eastern United States. Windsor had become an English stronghold.

Because the town was settled as early as 1684, it is natural that many things happened in Windsor before they happened elsewhere in Canada. Known as "the Little Town of Big Firsts," Windsor is the home of the first North American agricultural fair, the site of Canada's first college and the birthplace of the father of American humor, as well as the birthplace of ice hockey. Much of the initiative behind Windsor's contributions to the country came from the United Empire Loyalists. As the American Revolutionary War ended, the name of King's College, New York, was changed to Columbia University, breaking the connection with England. Many United Empire Loyalists came to Nova Scotia and settled in and about Halifax and nearby Windsor. Reverend Charles Inglis, who had been a professor at King's College, was one such Loyalist who arrived in Halifax in 1783. He became the first Anglican bishop of the province and set about organizing a Canadian college so Anglican youth could be educated without having to go to Britain. Windsor was considered the playground of Halifax; Haligonians came to hunt and fish, watch horse racing and visit their elegant estates. In winter they enjoyed horse racing on the ice of lakes between the town and city. Inglis and others picked a 69-acre lot on one of Windsor's hills, with a view overlooking a magnificent pastoral scene, and proceeded to construct a school and college.

King's College School is the oldest independent school in Canada, established in Windsor in 1788. King's College, established a year later in Windsor, is Canada's first college. The students at King's came from London, New York, Boston, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Bermuda, Ontario and New Brunswick, as well as Nova Scotia. Professors came from Oxford and Cambridge in England and other universities in Glasgow, Scotland, and Galway, Ireland. Windsor quickly became a center of culture and learning and was referred to by Halifax journalists as "the Athens of Nova Scotia." Professors brought with them the knowledge of their national field games and introduced the games to their students. English cricket and rounders, Scottish shinty and Irish hurley were favorite field games at the time. Boys at King's were the country's first group of young men affluent enough to afford time and equipment to engage in organized sport for entertainment.

America's most quoted author, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, was born in Windsor in 1796 and was educated at King's College School and King's College. With arts and law degrees, Haliburton became a judge and author of note. He wrote the first historical account of Nova Scotia in 1829 and created a fictional character named Sam Slick, a comic Yankee clockmaker noted for salesmanship and wise sayings. The first Canadian to acquire international acclaim as an author, Haliburton is commonly known as "the Father of American Humor." He also provides an important clue to the origin of ice hockey. In his writing in 1844, Haliburton reminisced about games students played at King's College School in his youth: ". . . you boys let out racin', yelpin', hollerin' and whoopin' like mad with pleasure, and the playground, with games at bass in the fields, or hurley on the long pond on the ice, or campin' out-a-night at Chester lakes to fish." This reference to ice hurley being played around 1800 is the earliest reference in English literature to a stick-ball game being played on ice.

The Chester lakes where the boys fished are 15 miles away from the school, showing they were prepared to travel some distance on foot for sport. Games at bass (base) referred to rounders from which baseball later developed. Hurley is an Irish field game played year-round on the open fields of Ireland. In winter,Windsor's fields were deep with snow so the game was confined to three seasons. When ice formed on their skating ponds, King's College School students, obsessed with hurley, cleverly adapted it to the smooth, hard surface of the largest and longest of their favorite skating ponds and created a new winter sport, ice hurley.

As King's boys began playing hurley on ice, so began the evolution of Canada's great winter game, ice hockey. Nova Scotia's newspapers document the gradual and steady development of ice hurley into ice hockey within the province prior to its eventual spread across the nation. Ice hockey became Canada's game. In April, 1898, an article on ice hockey by Dr. A. H. Beaton, secretary of the Ontario Hockey Association, appeared in the Canadian Magazine. "Nearly twenty years ago," he wrote, "hockey, as a scientific sport, was introduced into Upper Canada from Nova Scotia, the latter being the indisputable home in Canada of this game."

From King's College, ice hurley spread to Fort Edward where soldiers also took up the new game. They traveled back and forth between Windsor, Halifax, and Dartmouth and the game gained impetus in the 1820s and 1830s as it was played on the magnificent Dartmouth lakes and frozen inlets of Halifax Harbour. Thomas H. Raddall, a noted Nova Scotia historic novelist, wrote of the soldiers in Warden of the North that "When [they] were transferred to military posts along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, they took the game with them; and for some time afterwards continued to send to Dartmouth Indians for the necessary sticks." Many of the soldiers would have played cricket and the old English game of field hockey at home. Cricket was very popular among both the military stationed at Halifax and the students at King's College. They held exciting annual tournaments in which military teams traveled from Halifax to Windsor with their own band.

Both field hockey and cricket influenced ice hurley as it developed into ice hockey. Indeed, the game was sometimes called "wicket" and "cricket" as well as hurley and hockey. Mi'kmaq Natives in Nova Scotia communities, who had their own field and ice game called "Oochamkunutk," gradually joined with ice hurley players, melding their games. The Mi'kmaq referred to ice hurley as "Alchamadijik." The word hockey had been used in England as early as 1400 to describe a field game played by boys who carried produce in hock carts at harvest festivals. Since ice hockey developed in an English-dominated province, there is little reason to consider anything other than an English derivation of the name of the game. English officers by the name of Hockey (a common English family name) are known to have served in Nova Scotia in the mid-1800s. Oral history has it that one Colonel Hockey had his troops play the game in Windsor for winter exercise and that Hockey's game as later known simply as hockey. As for the derivation of the word "puck," it would appear to come directly from the game of hurley. When the ball used in hurley is struck with a hurley stick, it is said to be "pucked." Following a score, the goal tender is permitted a "puck out" from the goal mouth; when struck out of play to the side lines, the ball is returned by a "puck in." Beginners striking the ball about the field are said to be pucking around. Is it any wonder that the elusive flat wooden disc used as ice hockey evolved was called a puck? Natives preferred black cherrywood for pucks, because the dark, leathery bark adhered tightly to the wood and also showed up plainly against snow and ice.

From its humble beginning among school boys and soldiers, the new game continued to develop and gained popularity among Nova Scotians for five decades before outsiders gave it notice. The Boston Evening Gazette printed a piece in December, 1859, entitled "Winter Sports in Nova Scotia," which told of the great skating ability of Nova Scotians and described hockey as it was then played. The editor added a note to the journalist's article saying he had sent to Nova Scotia for a set of sticks so that Bostonian skaters could give the game a try. In Nova Scotia at the time, the game still was being called ice hurley by some but ice hockey by others. This tradition continued for at least another two decades and eventually, coincident with other provinces taking up the game, the old name was dropped and ice hockey prevailed.

At the time of the Boston discovery, young James George Aylwin Creighton was a nine-year-old Halifax boy learning the game of ice hockey and developing skills as a figure skater. Following his education at Dalhousie University in Halifax, he became employed as an engineer in Montreal at the age of 22. There he taught new friends how to play ice hockey. Thus began the province-by-province introduction that was to take 15 years: from 1875 when hockey was first played publicly in Montreal until 1890 when it arrived at Winnipeg and Victoria. Henry Joseph, a noted Montreal athlete who played with Creighton in Montreal's first hockey game in 1875, later told the Montreal Gazette in a 1936 interview that Creighton was the leading spirit in the introduction of hockey into Montreal and added that he could not recall seeing hockey sticks in Montreal before that time, nor anybody playing hurley on skates. Finally, Joseph said that to Creighton should go the credit for the origin of ice hockey in Montreal.

While Creighton generally has received this credit, Montrealers have tended to downplay the history of hockey in Nova Scotia. Ninety years after Creighton's game was played first in Montreal, Nova Scotia provincial archivist Dr. C. Bruce Fergusson asked in June of 1965, "If Halifax Rules were used in the first game of 'true ice hockey,' which was played in Montreal in 1875, was it not reasonable to infer that those rules were evolved on ice, not solely on paper, in Halifax?"

Much of what is known of these early Halifax rules comes from Colonel B. A. Weston, a Dartmouth resident who served in the Fenian Raids and the North West Rebellion and who later became president of the Dartmouth Athletic Club. Weston played hockey in Halifax in the 1860s and, in 1937, he related "the main points of rules" followed at the time. He told of stones being first used to mark the goal, and of the wooden puck being required to remain on the ice. He also said that sticks were required to remain below the shoulder, and that teams were required to change ends when a goal was scored. Players had to remain on side, but forward passing was allowed. As ice hockey began in Montreal, it was played according to Halifax Hockey Club Rules, but the forward pass was not allowed. Not until the Dartmouth Chebuctos traveled to Quebec City in 1889 for a tournament was the excitement of the Nova Scotia forward pass tried in competition by the Montreal and Quebec players. It would be more than 30 years before forward passing was adopted by the hockey establishment.

In Montreal, Creighton helped to move the game of hockey fromfrozen lakes and rivers to indoor ice rinks. This progression was much slower in his native Nova Scotia. Settlers from the old country had brought their skates with them to the area and skating outdoors became the most popular winter sporting activity in the province. Couples courted as they skated and many ended up skating through life together. Skaters did not like having ice hurley disrupt their sessions and fought to have the game banned! Parents objected to children's intense interest in the game, detracting from study time for school lessons. They also objected to having the children skip Sunday School to play the game. Ministers preached against ice hurley from their pulpits, calling it a desecration of the Sabbath. When Nova Scotia's first indoor rink ("rink" is a Scottish word meaning racecourse) appeared in 1862, it was for skating only; ice hurley or ice hockey was not allowed to be played on Nova Scotia rinks until 1883.

Despite this setback in the advancement of their new winter game, Nova Scotia had continued and would continue to be the source of many major contributions to the sport. In 1861, the Starr Manufacturing Company of Dartmouth began making high-class skates from quality steel for the world market. Skates used in the early 1800s had been hand-made locally, or imported from Britain, but had caused skaters all manner of trouble. Called stock skates or block skates because of the wooden stock or block used to hold the metal blades, they were held to boots with ropes or leather straps. Tight straps were necessary for security but tended to cut off circulation, thus aggravating already cold feet. Because the conventional block skates were so troublesome, Starr foreman John Forbes and his assistant Thomas Bateman invented self-fastening Acme Club Spring Skates, patented in 1863. These were held securely to soles and heels of boots with the mere flick of a lever. Applying skates at pond-side or in a cold rink was now a pleasure instead of a painful chore. Next, the Dartmouth company developed the Starr Hockey Skate, patented in 1866. This model had a rocker-shaped, wider blade with a rounded front and back for quick starts and stops as well as sudden turns that was ideal for ice hockey. Nova Scotians used these blades to play hockey for nine years before the game was played in Montreal. Photos of Montreal's early hockey teams show players using both Starr Acme Club and Starr Hockey Skates — the only self-fastening skates available at the time. Starr skates revolutionized skating and ice hockey. They were world-famous and the choice of skaters and hockey players well into the next century. Indeed, Boston Bruins manager Art Ross and the entire Boston Bruins hockey team endorsed Starr skates annually until as recently as 1927.

The Boston Bruins, and all hockey players of today, would have been known as "hockeyists" in the first century the game was played, and their sticks were known simply as "hockeys." Regardless of the difference in their title, contenders in early games wanted the best sticks available, then as now. Having made sticks for their own game, "Oochamkunutk," and being wood-carvers of necessity, the Mi'kmaq craftsmen were the natural choice to provide "hockeys" for Canada's hockeyists as they learned and developed the Nova Scotia game. From hornbeam trees, also commonly known as ironwood, harvested with roots attached, the Mi'kmaq carved powerfully strong and durable one-piece sticks, the blade coming from the root and the handle from the trunk. After decades of providing such choice sticks, the supply of hornbeam became depleted and second-growth yellow birch was selected, proving to be a suitable alternative.

In 1875, J.G.A. Creighton had two dozen Mi'kmaq sticks sent up from his friends in Halifax for Montreal's first game. In 1886, as hockey began in Kingston, sticks were acquired for games from Nova Scotia as well. In 1943, Captain James T. Sutherland, the much-revered Kingston hockey hero, made a Kingston claim for ice hockey's origin which was accepted by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Later, when it was pointed out to him that hockey sticks had been imported from Nova Scotia for Kingston's first games, he conceded that ice hockey must have been first played in Nova Scotia. Otherwise, he added, why send to Halifax for sticks?

Fifty years after Creighton had ordered his Mi'kmaq sticks for Montreal, the 1925 Eaton's Catalogue advertised that the Ontario Hockey Association continued to endorse "MicMac" brand sticks as their choice. They were sold across the nation and abroad for as little as 45 to 75 cents each, and cheaper by team lots of a dozen. MicMac "hockeys" were distributed from firms in Halifax, having been acquired from Native craftsmen in various parts of Nova Scotia. These sticks, like Starr skates, were popular across Canada into the 1930s, when both were squeezed from the market by competitors.

In addition to sticks and skates, much more of what would come to define modern hockey traces its roots to Nova Scotia. When ice hurley and ice hockey began, goals were first scored between rocks (as stated previously) which faced the sides of the ice surface to prevent scoring with long shots. In the 1880s, rocks were replaced with posts supported on wooden crosses, and moved so that they faced the ends of the ice surface as they do today. The goalkeeper, however, could be scored on from either the front or back as there was no net on the posts. Goal judges stood at the goal mouth and signaled goals with the ringing of a brass bell. Likewise, the referee used a hand bell to begin and end the play.

Ice hockey was well established across the nation by the turn of the 20th century and wooden covered rinks were built in many towns from coast to coast, often by volunteer labor, to bring ice hockey in out of the cold. On January 6, as the 1899 season got under way in Nova Scotia, the Halifax Wanderers and Crescents introduced the Nova Scotia Box Net, revolutionizing the job of the goal judge and goalkeeper. The Montreal Victorias and Shamrocks were next to use a goal net, the following season, in December 1899.

Prior to 1900, short shin pads without knee coverings were the only form of protection used by players. Mi'kmaq hockey players in Nova Scotia at the turn of the century used moose skin for shin and body protectors. Padded gloves first appeared in 1904. Knee, elbow, and shoulder pads did not appear until the 1930s and 1940s. Goalkeepers used the same stick as other players until the 1890s and were required to remain upright. Although a Dartmouth goaltender in 1889 wore shin guards to protect himself from being struck with sticks, it was not until the wrist shot was invented in Winnipeg in 1893, and the puck first was allowed officially off the ice, that larger (cricket) pads and a wider stick were required for the netminder. Both appear to have originated in Winnipeg. However, it was the black players of Nova Scotia, competing in the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes, who first allowed goalkeepers to go down on the ice to stop pucks, in 1900. Major professional leagues like the Pacific Coast Hockey Association did not follow suit until 1912. The National Hockey League adopted the rule for its first season of 1917-18.

Not only is ice hockey both contagious and addictive, it is also as Canadian as the Maple Leaf and as Nova Scotian as the Bluenose. The spread of the game from place to place in Nova Scotia occurred as a result of players learning the game and teaching it to others. The pattern remained the same as the game spread to other provinces. Aylwin Creighton of Halifax, known to his friends as J.G.A.C., moved to Ottawa after his stay in Montreal, where he and others continued to play and teach the game in the early 1880s. Indeed, Creighton played with such notables as Edward and William Stanley, sons of Governor-General Lord Stanley, on an Ottawa team called the Rideau Rebels. Roddy McColl from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, entered the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1882 as cadet number 149 and is credited with teaching fellow cadets to play ice hockey, thus introducing the game to Kingston. RMC played its first games with the newly formed Queen's University hockey team in 1886. Both teams were stacked with Nova Scotians and Quebecers. The principal of Queen's at the time was George Munro Grant of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, who had been called from his 14-year position as minister of Saint Matthew's Church in Halifax to become head of Queen's in 1877. Grant would have been well aware of wooden pucks, MicMac sticks, Starr hockey skates and the developing Nova Scotian winter game. Later, those who learned ice hockey in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec and moved west to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia taught new friends, while Ontario college teams carried the game to American colleges. Thus the organized Irish field game of hurley, adopted by students of King's College School and then adapted to ice in Windsor, Nova Scotia, developed into Canada's national winter sport, hockey, and became the world's fastest and most exciting winter game. Amazing!

Used with kind permission by author Garth Vaughan.