Hockey Central

Kingston, Ontario

A Special Place in Hockey History

Kingston, Ontario – the old garrison town and naval port and one-time capital of the United Canadas – has recorded a hockey heritage as rich as its multi-splendored social history. Originally named "Cataraqui" – a tribute to its native and French beginnings – and renamed King's Town after British occupation, the city has been pivotal in the early development and expansion of the game throughout Canada and the United States.

The city's hockey history has been inextricably interwoven with the progress and celebration of Canada's national winter game. This unique characteristic stems from two of its major institutions, Queen's University at Kingston and the Royal Military College of Canada, which seized on the game pioneered in eastern Canada and helped to spread it through Ontario and across the North American continent.

Queen's men and gentlemen cadets played a key role in the formation of the Ontario Hockey Association that became the forerunner of hockey administrations. Queen's was the first university in Canada to build its own covered rink on campus and introduced artificial ice in the mid-1920s, at a time when only large cities could afford such a facility. Despite McGill University's connection with the development of hockey in the 1870s, the first institution to challenge for the Stanley Cup was Queen's in 1895, and its tricolored squads made a total of three bids in the era of amateur Cup competition.

Kingstonians played a critical administrative role in the development of the game's rules and regulations. Queen's players were among the first to welcome touring ice polo players from the United States and to introduce the Canadian game to such cities as Pittsburgh, Washington and Baltimore in the 1890s. Kingston teams were also in demand for exhibition games from Detroit and Cleveland to Boston and New York. Kingston players — from Hall of Famers Marty Walsh and Bill Cook to Wayne Cashman and Doug Gilmour — have spread the city's name and enhanced its reputation throughout the National Hockey League and the world.

Appropriately for a community located at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Kingston's present Ontario Hockey League franchise, the Frontenacs — a name first used by a Kingston team in 1897 — proudly displays a K-wheel crest similar to the main logo of the NHL Boston Bruins — the Hub City of Boston, Massachusetts. Kingston is "the hub of hockey" if not its home.

Situated halfway between Canada's two major hockey cities, Montreal and Toronto, linked by waterways to Canada's capital of Ottawa and to American ports, "the Limestone City" has been at the center of the century-old debate on the origins of the game since day one. The controversy started in 1903 when that fractious phrase "the birthplace of hockey" first appeared in a Kingston newspaper.

This claim was refuted by a Kingstonian, A.B. Cunningham, who played in the 1888 game between Queen's and RMC teams. Speaking at a 1903 banquet saluting one of Kingston's Ontario Hockey Association championship teams, the young lawyer credited the game's organized introduction to Montreal a decade earlier. But the Kingston nativity myth grew and flourishes to this day.

The keystone of hockey's arch, locally and nationally, is not the highly visible and voluble Kingston-booster and broadcaster Donald Stewart Cherry (incidentally the only Kingstonian selected for Canada's 100 most influential citizens), but a venerable gentleman and hockey pioneer he reveres to this day, James Thomas Sutherland, the only Kingston-born citizen featured in the Canadian Encyclopedia of 1985. Creator of the 1903 birthplace report, Jim Sutherland was hockey's "legendmaker." He was a boy when the first organized game was played indoors in Montreal in 1875 and a teenager when the first report was published of a seven-aside game played on Kingston's harbor ice in 1886. But his memoirs erroneously claim he played in that historic game with a bandstand located at center ice.

A pioneer player and coach of champions, Jim Sutherland was a benchmark in the days before there was a bench — all seven players being on the ice. With booming voice, he pioneered the use of a megaphone to spur on his players and introduced preseason physical training to his amateur teams. A leading administrator in Ontario and Canadian hockey organizations during the 1910s and 1920s, he proposed four 15-minute periods for junior players and recommended rubberized goal posts to help eliminate injuries. Although a consummate amateur hockey advocate, he urged the reinstatement of professionals into amateur hockey and proposed a trophy in memory of players killed in the World War I — which became the OHA Memorial Cup for the Canadian junior championship.

Off the ice, the affable gentleman was a traveling shoe salesman and a hockey raconteur par excellence. He earned and retained the army rank of captain during World War I and with military determination kept the "hockey birthplace" pot boiling wherever he went. Immediately after the war, during which Capt. Sutherland served in Canada and England, the question "Where did the game start?" resurfaced. Prompting the debate was the publication of the first illustrated book on the game in 1924. Entitled Canadian Hockey Year Book, compiled by Joe King of Toronto, later of Kingston, it featured an article by Capt. Sutherland which stated: "I think it is generally admitted and has been substantially proven on many occasions that the actual birthplace of organized hockey is the City of Kingston in 1888." He offered little or no evidence in support of his argument, a feature which has bedeviled most arguments on hockey's birthplace.

The debate became international when one of Capt. Sutherland's local articles promoting Kingston as the "home of hockey" was republished in a 1927 New York Ranger program. His zeal and boundless enthusiasm kept Kingston in the forefront of the hot stove league discussion by authoring a 1929 article: "Who put hockey on the map?" and crediting noted Toronto and Montreal newspaper editors and columnists, who became his unswerving friends and supporters.

American sportswriter Frank G. Menke, who attempted to unravel the mystery of hockey's origin, entered the discussion that year by contending the Canadian game derived from the Indian game of lacrosse. His first All Sports Record Book, while light on details of early hockey history, did introduce the claims of Montreal and Nova Scotia into the debate. Montreal, headed by McGill University officials, entered the verbal fray in 1930. Assistant physical education director F.M. Wagner, in a later letter to Capt. Sutherland wrote: "You will note that there is no claim here that the game was invented by anyone at McGill but we did find detailed descriptions of the game as played at McGill several years before hockey was originated in the opinion of many people at that time."

Dr. A.S. Lamb, director of physical education, recruited assistants Van Wagner and E.M. Orlick "in an effort to ferret out the secret of the beginning of ice hockey." Their findings not only documented the first games, with names of players, referees and goal judges, positions and early rules, but defined the introduction of pucks and flat-bladed sticks distinctive from the ball and short stick of shinny and field hockey.

Sutherland, now anointed by the press as "the father of organized hockey," fired back: "Kingston really is the home of hockey. A rink was formed on the ice in the harbor in front of Tete du Pont Barracks (now Fort Frontenac)." He conceded that "exhibition games" were played in Montreal but stuck to his contention that Kingston played the first organized games. Again he offered no strong evidence, relying on descriptions from a 19th century diary.

Throughout the Depression the controversy simmered. Men who played in the Montreal games of the late 1870s and early 1880s spoke up. Halifax newspapers joined the battle. Kingston sportswriters came through with a profound statement but stuck with the local legendmaker: "It is doubtful if the question of hockey origin will ever be settled to the satisfaction of everyone, but pending definite proof, we intend to string along with James T. [Sutherland]."

Kingston's claim continued to gain support from friends east and west of the city. Toronto newspaperman and OHA czar W.A. "Billy" Hewitt wrote in a 1937 Maple Leaf Gardens' program: "Kingston has generally been regarded in Canada as the birthplace of hockey and Capt. James Sutherland as the 'father of the game,' because of his long and sustained interest in the sport and the marvelous enthusiasm he has exhibited through the years." William J. Walshe, former Toronto sports columnist, after joining the Kingston Whig-Standard, cited Sutherland's ambition "to definitely establish Kingston as the home of organized hockey."

"Old-time hockey, like baseball," chimed in Montreal Star columnist Baz O'Meara, "suffers from the lack of authoritative history. There is too much obscurity about its beginnings, too little known of its early history, its great games, great personalities of the past. There are too few writers who have long experience in the sport. Too few old-time officials now active in the game, who can give it historical authority."

Ironically, baseball was instrumental in initiating a formal debate on hockey's origin. Capt. Sutherland, who had been watching with special interest the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1939, seized the opportunity for hockey. In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, he proposed to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, an organization he served for 40 years, that a study be made on the origin of hockey. The project soon became a movement to form a hockey hall of fame.

"If such a memorial is to be put on something of an enduring foundation it should be built and maintained in Montreal," wrote O'Meara. Kingston's daily responded: "Historic Kingston would be an ideal location for the shrine of the puck sport. There is a good chance the Kingston bid will be successful. A hall of fame would be lost in a large metropolis like Montreal."

Sutherland and Hewitt, plus George Slater, President of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, were named to the study committee and the race was on. Authored by Capt. Sutherland, with cursory glances from the other two members, the CAHA's report, The Origin of Hockey in Canada was blatantly pro-Kingston and provoked a storm of protest, mainly from Montreal.

"This document is a conglomeration of contradictions and unsubstantiated statements," wrote E.M. Orlick in the McGill News. "It contains many dogmatic assertions and conclusions, but little, or nothing in the way of authentic first-source facts. It is not a report of an investigation on the origin of ice hockey, it is a poorly camouflaged presentation of the Kingston claims."

The Kingston claims proved to be successful, as on September 10-11, 1943 the NHL and the CAHA selected Kingston "as the most central site to erect a hall of fame as a memorial dedicated to perpetuate the memories of men who have done so much to develop national and internationally Canada's great winter sport — hockey."

In the 1940s, Capt. Sutherland basically ignored the Montreal claims, which were well documented with next-day newspaper reports and reminiscences of players from the early games. In his private papers, still folded in the original envelope, is the detailed presentation of McGill, with names dates and scores supporting the Montreal claim.

Kingston columnist Walshe said Kingston's selection was based mostly on account of its location for visitors. "The idea of the Hall of Fame is to perpetuate the memory of great stars and leaders of the game, not to honor any special place as the scene of the first game. Museums are established not where relics are found, but in places where they may be seen, studied or respected by the greatest numbers." Capt. Sutherland summed it up simply: "The City of Kingston was chosen as the site regardless as to where the first puck was shot."

Even following Kingston's selection as the hall of fame site, McGill Professor E.M. Orlick condemned Kingston's presentation as a "hoax" and maintained that the Ontario city had not "the slightest shred of an historical claim ... to the origin of ice hockey." Unfortunately, this argument doesn't quite stand up to later research and discoveries.

The Kingston claim was based mainly on the 1846-47 diary entry of the father of local historian Edwin Horsey, who wrote: "Most of the boys were quite at home on skates. They could cut the figure eight but 'shinny' was their delight." In the CAHA report written by Sutherland, someone with knowledge of Kingston as a garrison town had inserted "soldier" before boys and "great" before delight.

In 1843, a British army officer Arthur H. Freeling, stationed in Kingston wrote in his diary: "Began to skate this year, improved quickly and had great fun at hockey on the ice." To an amateur historian, this quotation seems to be a solid indication that skaters played a stick-ball game on ice in Kingston — 32 years before the first organized game in Montreal. But in the view of Norman Anick, a historian for Canada's National Historic Sites and Monuments Board, this diary notation is ambiguous. "It does not specifically state that hockey on the ice was played by skaters, only that Freeling learned to skate and played hockey on the ice, with or without skates we are not informed."

Similar evidence of earlier stick-ball activity is recorded in the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette of the Scottish game of shinty being played on Kingston harbor ice for the second consecutive year on New Year's Day, 1840: "At the appointed hour about 300 persons, including spectators, assembled on the ice in front of the town... The ball was flung up in the air between the two adverse chieftains as the signal to commence hostilities. A most vigorous contest was begun and maintained nearly three hours with unabated energy." Again no mention of skates is made.

At Montreal in 1842, shinty players were prevented by law from playing their recreational game on city streets, but the Halifax-Dartmouth area, with a myriad of lakes and bays, had long recorded people playing a similar game under a number of different names. In 1831 townsfolk and the military were reported in the Halifax press as playing "the spirit-stirring game of wicket" on the North West Arm.

By 1842 the game played on the Dartmouth lakes was called "ricket" and in 1859 the Boston Evening Gazette proclaimed the Nova Scotia game — "with skates on feet and hurleys or hockey (sticks) in hand" — as the most exciting game played on ice. "Whenever the ball is put through the ricket (a goal marked by two paving stones) a shout 'Game, ho!' resounds from shore to shore and dies away in a hundred echoes through the hills."

This freewheeling game, which was played in the Halifax area by 10, 15 or 20 players aside, was still called "ricket" by Haligonians as late as 1875, the year that Montrealers moved 'hockey' indoors, restricted the number of players (to nine), assigned a referee to enforce a no-forward passing rule and goal judges to determine the scores.

One of the captains of the two nine-man teams that played that historic game in Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875 and subsequent games, was Halifax-native James George Aylwin Creighton. Maritimers put great credit in the claim that he introduced "the Halifax rules" to Montreal, but newspaper reports indicate that the first games of the 1870s were played under "The Hockey Association" code as written for field hockey in 1875. In fact, Captain Creighton was cited for playing offside (ahead of the puck carrier), a style permitted in Halifax but not in Montreal.

The Montreal-Halifax games clashed in 1889, when the Dartmouth Chebuctos played four games in Montreal and Quebec City. The hosts predominated in all games whether played under the restricted passing game of Montreal or the wide-open, shinny-like Halifax regulations. Thereafter, Nova Scotia teams adopted the Montreal rules and the Halifax rules were forgotten.

As Halifax-born author J. Macdonald Oxley wrote in an 1891 magazine report on rink hockey: "As first played in Canada hockey went by various names, some of which were apparently merely local — hurley, shinny, rickets, and so forth — there was not much pretense to rules, each player taking part as best he knew how. No effort toward systematizing the game appears to have been made until the year 1875."

The centennial of organized hockey in 1975 was not celebrated in any way in the true birthplace of the organized sport — Montreal. McGill University did not display any interest in commemorating that first indoor game, but in recent years Montreal hockey historians have seized on their historic connections and taken the debate to that brash upstart — Windsor, N.S. — where the first recorded reference to "hockey" was in 1888 when King's College school team played a game against the Ramblers on Dartmouth Lakes.

Today only one city — Kingston — celebrates the game's roots in a formal and continuous way. The original local game was first commemorated at the opening of Kingston's first artificial ice rink in 1924 and Capt. Sutherland was involved in 1948 when the early military shinny game was re-enacted on Kingston harbor and captured in the first promotional hockey film ever shot.

The International Hockey Museum, once the sport's original hall of fame, has marked the first Kingston harbor game since the 1960s. Queen's and RMC, plus 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, representing the garrison soldiers who first played a form of the game, compete for the Historic Hockey Trophy. Seven-man teams wearing toques and turtlenecks, use short field hockey sticks to propel a square puck between uprights frozen in the ice in front of historic Kingston City Hall. And according to the rules first developed and printed in Montreal, the centers faced the sides of the rink as in lacrosse, forward passing was prohibited and goaltenders were barred from lying, kneeling or sitting in making a stop.

And since 1986, Queen's and RMC varsity teams meet in the Carr-Harris Cup game, representing the longest rivalry between two hockey teams in the world — 112 years by 1998 — and counting. And just for good measure, Kingston is home every second year to the longest-running international hockey series. The Black Knights of the United States Military Academy of West Point, New York and the Paladins (formerly Redmen) of RMC meet amidst pomp, pageantry and bodychecks in a game that tops the intensity and personal importance of Stanley Cup games or the Army-Navy football game. It's war on ice!

The record of the spirited games played by the two military institutions is inscribed annually on illuminated boards in RMC's hallowed halls and also in the International Hockey Museum. The latter, a mythical institution until the International Hockey Hall of Fame was built in 1961 (the year the NHL opened its own shrine in Toronto) reflects the heritage of the game in Kingston and Canada.

One of the first communities to organize and promote boys' hockey, Kingston was the appropriate choice for the first Canadian midget championship tournament involving teams from 10 provinces and two territories in Canada's centennial year, 1967. And women's hockey, played here in 1894, has produced notable stars from Marguerite Carr-Harris and Katherine "Cookie" Cartwright to Jayna Hefford of the 1998 Canadian Olympic team.

Kingston has named its youth center arenas after local hockey champions — Jock Harty, Wally Elmer and the Cook Brothers, Bill and Bun of Ranger fame. And the late Gus Marker, a journeyman hockey player but a millionaire developer, named three streets after his favorite hockey people, Lionel Conacher, Howie Morenz and Capt. Sutherland.

The Kingston heritage runs deep. In an ornate case that once displayed jewelry is displayed the tricolor striped sweater of legendary captain Guy Curtis, who captained Queen's in two Stanley Cup series (in 1895 and 1899) and retired after a record 10-year career in university hockey. At Queen's Athletic Centre is the octagonal sided puck — looking much like a lump of coal — that was used in the first Kingston match in 1886. Alongside is the field hockey-type stick from the 1888 Queen's-RMC game. And front and center is an open 1893 magazine with a Montreal writer's comment that was ignored by Capt. Sutherland but eventually killed his birthplace dream: "Hockey skated up into Ontario from the Province of Quebec. It was quite old before it left home. ... Its earliest stopping of importance seems to have been at Kingston (in the winter of) 1885-1886."

Kingston may not have been the place where hockey, as we know it, was born, but more than any other city in the world, it has done more to commemorate and celebrate hockey's early development.

Written by:
J.W. (Bill) Fitsell, Founding President, Society for International Hockey Research