The study of the origin of hockey is as compelling as it is contentious. The Hockey Hall of Fame recognizes no fewer than five official locales, each of which, they say, has a legitimate claim to being the birthplace of the sport:
•Windsor, Nova Scotia
•The Halifax-Dartmouth region
•Deline, Northwest Territories
•Kingston In addition, there are other claims made by Norfolk, Virginia and even the Netherlands.
The game’s development further complicates the issue. Hockey evolved from several different forms of stick-and-ball games—such as the Irish hurley, the Scottish shinty (the source of the word “shinny”), the Dutch ice-golf game known as kolf, the aboriginal lacrosse game, and the English bandy, wickets and rickets—so the sport’s lineage is not easily traced.
As a result, any debate on where hockey was born inevitably becomes a discussion about when hockey became hockey and the sport’s defining characteristics and true precursors. “Hockey didn’t spring forth from one person or one organized game,” said Bill Fitsell, a Kingston-based author and renowned hockey historian who has been researching the sport for more than 30 years. “It evolved over a long period of years.”
“There’s no factual birth or founder, like James Naismith with basketball,” added Kevin Shea, manager of publishing and editorial services for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“There’s no actual day when somebody created hockey. That’s what makes the history so fascinating.” The debate started in the 1930s with the first plans to open a hockey hall of fame. Several newspapers suggested the hall should be located at the birthplace of hockey, which spurred debate and instigated extensive research into the sport’s foggy history.
In 1943, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association accepted one Captain James T. Sutherland’s claim that Kingston was the true birthplace of hockey. That is why, to this day, Kingston is home to the International Hockey Hall of Fame, hockey’s original hall.
Established in 1943 at York and Alfred Streets, the museum was officially opened as a hall of fame in 1965. Capt. Sutherland was himself inducted into the hall in 1947.
However, Halifax and Montreal both took issue with Sutherland’s claims, and eventually Kingston was relieved of its title.
Depending on who you ask, the most convincing claims for hockey’s birthplace these days come from Montreal and Halifax.
The Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) contends that the earliest example of an activity that would match its definition of hockey occurred in Halifax in 1859, based on an article published that year in the Boston Evening Gazette.
However, with regard to the first organized game, all of the SIHR evidence supports Montreal, which hosted a game on Mar. 3, 1875 at the Victorian Arena. SIHR tends to associate the birthplace of hockey with Montreal for this reason, but it refrains from any definitive statements because there is still a lack of uncontested information.
“Kingston has a rich hockey heritage,” Fitsell said. “But, as far as being the birthplace to the modern game, that’s sort of a myth, a legend that’s really hard to kill, and I’ve been trying for years to do just that—but it lives on.”
According to Len Kotylo, president of SIHR, hockey didn’t truly begin in Kingston until 1886, when Queen’s faced off against RMC in the first inter-university hockey game ever played.
“Essentially, what we’re saying is that the history of hockey in Kingston comes from the Montreal game and flows over into Kingston 11 years later,” Kotylo said. “But, prior to that, you do have activities such as shinny matches in Kingston Harbour and diary entries describing some activity which may or may not be hockey.” Fitsell said the legend of Kingston’s hockey origins grew from Captain Sutherland, the man behind Kingston’s bid for the hockey hall of fame and the staunchest proponent of Kingston’s claims.
“He believed that the first organized game and the first organized league was played here, but that’s just not supported by the facts,” Fitsell said.
Capt. Sutherland relied on a report of a game played on Christmas Day, 1855 in Kingston Harbour. After further research, however, several problems emerged from this assertion that put Sutherland’s claims on thin ice. Literally. “The weather did not permit ice to be frozen in Kingston Harbour on that day,” Kotylo said. “There is also the question of what activity is being described in the report. Between 1849 and 1852, Kingston Harbour traditionally featured ice activities, which would be something called ‘shinny.’ But, there is no mention of skates in any of the newspaper accounts.”
It was also later discovered that hockey sticks, originally designed by the Mi’kmaq, were imported from Nova Scotia. Moreover, while researching Kingston’s hockey history, Fitsell found reports of experienced players coming down the St. Lawrence from Montreal and Halifax.
Capt. Sutherland also reported Kingston was home to the first league in 1886, which, according to Fitsell and Kotylo, was similarly fabricated.
“He took partial reports and ran with them,” said Kotylo. “His belief was that Kingston was the centre of hockey and even if the facts weren’t there at the time, they would come along eventually to confirm his assertions.”
The early reports describe a league based in Kingston, which included Queen’s, RMC, the Athletics and the Kingstons. However, Fitsell and Kotylo both say there is no evidence to support those claims.
“Kingston didn’t have a league until the OHA [Ontario Hockey Association] was formed in 1890-91,” Fitsell said.
That league included Queen’s and RMC among other teams from Ottawa and Montreal.
Before the OHA’s birth, the earliest written reference to the word “hockey” appeared to have come from Kingston.
In 1843, Arthur H. Freeling, a British army officer stationed in Kingston, wrote: “Began to skate this year, improved quickly and had great fun at hockey on the ice.” That claim stood until a couple of years ago when a SIHR researcher stumbled across a letter written by Sir John Franklin in 1825 that made reference to hockey being played on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Franklin was on expedition for the British monarchy with the intention of finding a passage that connected Europe to Asia.
His letter, which states, “The game of hockey played on the ice was the morning sport,” is the driving force behind Deline, N.W.T.’s claim as hockey’s birthplace.
Despite losing nearly all of its claims to the origins of hockey, however, Kingston—and Queen’s in particular—still played an important role in the sport’s development.
“Kingston was pivotal to the development of the game from Montreal west into Ontario and south into the States as well,” Fitsell said. “Queen’s teams were prominent in spreading the game into Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore and New York,” he said. “Kingstonians also played prominent roles in the formation of the OHA, where hockey really took off.”
Queen’s was a powerhouse in the first decade of the OHA and even played for the Stanley Cup on three occasions, the only university team ever to do so.
Unfortunately, they lost on all three occasions—to Montreal AAA in 1895, the Montreal Shamrocks in 1899 and the Ottawa Silver 7’s in 1906—and in one case, in 1904, they had to forfeit because the championship games conflicted with medical school exams.
“McGill has been credited with creating the organized game—and certainly, McGill students were involved—but Queen’s forte was in spreading the game south and west,” Fitsell said.
Fitsell also said Queen’s would take yearly tours through the United States at Christmas time and were by far the most popular team in Pittsburgh, regularly drawing crowds of four to five thousand.
While the times when Queen’s could challenge for an opportunity to sip from Lord Stanley’s mug have long passed, somebody, at least, will be playing for it this year.