Hockey Central

The Origins of European Hockey

While Canadian historians debate where the first ice hockey game in North America was played, the same kind of arguments are going on in Europe about the birthplace of hockey there.

Some say that in Great Britain ice hockey dates back to the 1850s when members of the Royal Family played a game on the frozen lake at Windsor Castle.

It is also said that Arthur Stanley, son of Lord Stanley of Preston for whom the Stanley Cup is named, returned to England in 1895 after his father served as Governor-General of Canada and cajoled the Royal Family into playing the game again, this time on a frozen pond at Buckingham Palace on a cold winter day. British historians do agree that the first demonstration match of ice hockey took place in Great Britain in 1895 and the first artificial hockey rink in Europe was constructed in London in 1903.

By comparison, it wasn’t until the 1880's that soccer became established as an organized game in Great Britain, and not until the 1890s that it began to be played in continental Europe through the Victorian businessmen who traded across the continent. Soccer was also introduced to Europe by teachers of English who worked in colleges in Switzerland and France.

The Irish also lay claim to ice hockey, saying it evolved from hurling or hurley, although it’s hard to figure out why it took Ireland until 1998 to join the International Ice Hockey Federation. There is even a 17th-century Dutch painting by Romein de Hooghe, showing characters zipping across ice on animal bones for skates, whacking at a flat rock with sticks formed from branches.

In all likelihood, ice hockey was being played in some form in several different European nations at the same time in the 19th century.

The Russians, it is known, had skates and sticks and a small object they tried to manipulate into a makeshift goal at either end of the ice. They used a ball instead of a puck and the ice surface was almost as big as a soccer field. But it was hockey.

Early Russian hockey was a game for aristocrats. An accident almost buried the sport forever. During a game the Arabian rubber ball was fired into a nobleman’s eye causing serious damage. Hockey was then outlawed in Russia and the sport was not heard from again until the 1890s.

The first recorded hockey game between Russians and foreigners took place on the frozen Neva River in St. Petersburg in 1899. A local team called Sport played to a tie against a group of resident Englishmen. Among the players in this informal international match were world champion figure skater Alexei Lebedev and Russian speed-skating champion Alexander Pashin.

The Russians in those days stayed with the ball, a much bigger ice surface and more players. Their game was called Russian hockey and it evolved into what is more widely known as bandy, or in Russian — hokkei s myachom (hockey with a ball). Bandy, which is still played today, although sometimes indoors and only at the top level by five nations — Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and the United States — provided a sound foundation for the Soviet ice hockey school, especially because it required so much skating and passing.

The first demonstration of Canadian hockey staged in Moscow took place in March of 1932, a few days after the Olympic hockey tournament at Lake Placid. The German team, which had won a bronze medal at the Olympics, was not very strong. The Germans lost 3-0 to the Central Army Sports Club, then 6-0 and 8-0 to the Moscow Selects. There were few spectators in the stands.

It was after a game of bandy at the Dynamo Stadium in February of 1946 that students from the Institute of Physical Education in Moscow demonstrated the game of Canadian hockey. It gained official status in December of the same year when the first USSR ice hockey championships got under way with 12 teams taking part.

Following the 1948 Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland in which Czechoslovakia narrowly missed winning a gold medal, the LTC club of Prague traveled to Moscow for three exhibition games with the Moscow Selects; its players were shocked to leave the Soviet Union with only a win and a tie. Czechoslovak players had long chats with the Soviets, shared their secrets with them, held training sessions with them and helped them master the skills of the game.

When the Soviets participated in the World Championship for the first time in 1954, there was only one artificial ice rink in the country. It was small and used primarily by figure skaters. Yet Vladimir Zabrodsky, the great Czechoslovak player, said that at the 1954 world tourney, in winning the gold medal, the Russians could not be held back unless they had the blades of their skates blunted.

In their development years the Soviets had first played with no hockey gloves and their knee pads and elbow pads were made from cotton wads. They wore soccer shin pads, wore no helmets and skated on the long blades of speed skates because that is all they had to use.

The Central Army Club had a sports camp in the Lenin Hills and because there were a lot of tall trees the ice would last a lot longer in the spring.

Anatoly Tarasov, the godfather of Soviet hockey, said workers would prepare the ice during the night, clean it and flood it so that at the coldest time of the night — 3 or 4 a.m. — the players could start training. They would have to stop when the sun came up.

Eventually Tarasov received permission to use the artificial ice in the figure skating practice rink, which measured only 12 meters long by 10 meters wide. Hockey players were allowed to use it from two a.m. to six a.m., but there was room for only five players on the ice at a time and the team had to be broken up into small groups.

Josef Rossler-Orovsky, an all-round athlete, brought hockey sticks and a ball from Paris to Prague in 1890 and translated the rules of a game played in France into Czech. Interestingly, the system used to award points according to those rules, by awarding one point for each goal and half-a-point for a corner shot, bears some resemblance to the existing goal-plus-assist scoring tables.

This was Czech national hockey, which soon became a good basis for the introduction of a new game of ice hockey. The spread of the new game was largely due to the efforts of Josef Gruss, a professor at Karlov University, who made the first translation of Canadian rules into Czech.

Gruss later was the chairman of the Czechoslovakian National Olympic Committee from 1929-1948 and became a member of the board of directors of the International Olympic Committee in 1946.

The first experiments in introducing Canadian hockey in Finland did not take place until the end of the 19th century when Professor Leonard Borgstrom arranged for early morning training sessions on the frozen north section of Helsinki Harbor. Interest in the new sport, however, waned and it did not appear again until 1927 in an effort backed by the management of the Finnish Speed Skating Union.

The ice skaters had for some time been unhappy about bandy, a game which required large ice rinks and thus stole the ice from the speed skaters. Ice hockey was included in the program of the Speed Skating Union, then one year later on the program of the Finnish Football Union.

The first match between teams from Finland and neighboring Sweden took place on January 29, 1928 when the Swedish champion, IK Gota, of Stockholm traveled to Helsinki and easily defeated the Helsinki Selects 8-1. In a rematch on February 26, the Swedish team won by an even larger margin of 10-1.

Finland had been part of Sweden for many years. Sweden’s king conquered Finland in the year 1155 and it wasn’t until 1809 that the two countries became separate nations again.

Today the rivalry between the two countries is so great that tickets for the Sweden-Finland game at the 1996 World Cup sold out in only 20 minutes.

Count Clarence von Rosen founded Stockholm’s first ice hockey club in 1896.

The first international match in Sweden was played on January 31, 1921 when a team from Uppsala defeated a team from Berlin 4-1 in front of 2,022 spectators.

The first official hockey game in Germany was played on the frozen Lake Halensee in Berlin on February 4, 1897. Still the German Ice Hockey Union was not formed until 1963. Initially hockey was popular only in Bavaria where the Alps provided the suitable climate. But by 1963 it was being played in industrial cities like Cologne, Dusseldorf and Krefeld.

Switzerland’s first official hockey game took place in 1902 and, with a thriving economy today, the Swiss League offers the highest players’ salaries in Europe.

Hockey in Hungary developed out of bandy. The first public game was played in Budapest in 1907. Seven years later the team of the Budapest Skating Union won international competitions in St. Moritz and Prague and was considered the best bandy team in Europe. An Englishman, John Dunlop, finally brought the game of Canadian ice hockey to Hungary in 1925 and the first matches were held between BKE and teams from Vienna.

In 1926 an artificial ice rink was built in Budapest and in the 1930s the Hungarian national team became one of the best in Europe, managing a 1-1 tie with Canada at the 1938 World Championship in Prague.

It was Stanko Bloudek, a champion discus thrower, who brought ice hockey to the Slovenian region of the former Yugoslavia. Bloudek undertook construction of the first ice rink in Ljubljana, brought the first ice hockey equipment there from Vienna and founded the first ice hockey club, Ilirija in 1928.

The quality of hockey in Poland before the Second World War improved with the help of many Polish-Canadians who had returned to their homeland.

Austria began to use transplanted Canadians heavily at the 1979 World B Pool Championships in Romania. Germany, Italy and France have also used Canadian-trained players who were able obtain passports from those respective European countries.

Over the years the Europeans have also learned a lot from North American professionals. The first tour of Europe by NHL clubs took place in 1938 when the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings traveled by steamship to play a series of postseason exhibition games. Then at the conclusion of the 1958-59 season, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers toured Europe, playing 23 exhibition games in Switzerland, England, France, Belgium, West Germany and Austria.

Since then NHL clubs like the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes) have held training camps in Europe, and in the 1980s the Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, Minnesota North Stars and the Capitals also played preseason exhibition games in the Soviet Union.