Origins of Ice Hockey

The origins of ice hockey have long been debated. In 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officially declared that the first game of organized ice hockey was played in Montreal in 1875. Many also consider ice hockey’s first rules to have been published by the Montreal Gazette in 1877. However, research reveals that organized ice hockey/bandy games were first played on skates in England and that the earliest rules were also published in England. Canada made important contributions to the game from the 1870s on. By the early 20th century, “Canadian rules” had reshaped the sport.
The origins of ice hockey have long been debated. In 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officially declared that the first game of organized ice hockey was played in Montreal in 1875. Many also consider ice hockey’s first rules to have been published by the Montreal Gazette in 1877. However, research reveals that organized ice hockey/bandy games were first played on skates in England and that the earliest rules were also published in England. Canada made important contributions to the game from the 1870s on. By the early 20th century, “Canadian rules” had reshaped the sport.


Composite photo of an 1893 hockey game at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal.

Influence of “Canadian Rules”

Canadian rules for ice hockey were gradually adopted overseas. In 1908, the Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (LIHG) was founded in Paris by four nations: Belgium, France, Great Britain and Switzerland. (Bohemia, a region of the present-day CzechRepublic, had attended the founding meeting and joined later in the year.) The first set of rules were largely inspired by those used in Canadian hockey, and, significantly, mandated the use of a rubber puck, putting an end to the use of balls in hockeyin England and the rest of Europe as national federations joined the LIHG. Bandy continued to be played in several countries (still with a ball), but its popularity declined considerably, particularly in comparison to hockey.

In 1911, the National Hockey Association (precursor to the National Hockey League) reduced the number of players to six by dropping the “rover,” with other leaguesand jurisdictions following suit over approximately a decade. The offside rule was gradually made more permissive and, similarly, bodychecking went from being tolerated to being encouraged. One difference that has persisted over the years is the sizeof the rink. Those in North America are about 4 m narrower than — but about the same length as — those in Europe and all other countries playing under IIHF rules.

Canadian Dominance

By 1920, Canada had become the dominant power in ice hockey. That year, the first ice hockey world championship was held during the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. It was wonby the Winnipeg Falcons, representing Canada, who outscored their opponents in three games by a combined total score of 29–1. Canadian teams dominated Olympic hockeycompetition for over 30 years, winning six of seven tournaments between 1920 and 1952 (they settled for silver in 1936, when Britain won the gold medal with a team largely made up of players who had grown up in Canada). Canada would not win another goldmedal in Olympic hockey until 2002, due in large part to the “amateur” (or “shamateur”) rules allowing countries from the Eastern bloc to send their best players while forbidding Canadian professionals to participate. However, the country has continuedto be a powerhouse in international competition and has won the majority of the 12 “best on best” tournaments held between 1976 and 2014. While it may not be the “birthplace” of the sport, Canada has been the single biggest contributor to ice hockey’sevolution into the popular fast-action sport that it is today.


Further Reading

  • Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda and Jean-Patrice Martel, On the Origin of Hockey (2014).

  • Iain Fyffe, On His Own Side of the Puck: The Early History of Hockey Rules (2014).