FebFest honours first hockey game

Players from Queen’s, RMC and Petawawa find out what hockey was like in 1886

Think back to a time before the plans for the Queen’s Centre, before the Jock Harty Arena, even before the Golden Gaels were the Golden Gaels. Think all the way back to March 10, 1886 when, with only a cut down rubber lacrosse ball and a frozen lake, seven Queen’s students and seven Royal Military College cadets met on Lake Ontario for the first hockey game ever played in Kingston.

Bill Fitsell, member of the Board of Directors of the International Hockey Hall of Fame, founding president of the Society for International Hockey Research and renowned hockey historian and author, said the first game is an integral part of Kingston’s past. “I think it’s important because we should celebrate our heritage,” he said. “We should know where we come from.”

Before the game began, an RMC cadet crossed the ice holding a piece of paper stating the rules of
the game to make sure both sides were playing by the same set. “It was very rudimentary,” Fitsell said. “They were based on rugby-football rules, which did not permit forward passing. … They were based on the rules they knew.” Slapshots were also prohibited, and goalies were not allowed to
kneel or lie on the ice to stop a shot. Queen’s claimed the honour of notching the first win of the now century-old rivalry between the two schools. “Queen’s won it 1-0, which was quite a surprise because the cadets had players from Halifax and Montreal who had played the game before.”

Ninety-three years after that day, in 1969, Kingston held the first annual commemorative hockey game on the same patch of ice where the students of old first passed around the puck. “We always played in the exact same spot where Queen’s and RMC met for the first time in 1886,” Fitsell said.
In that first game, members of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Second Regiment represented RMC. A year later, the three separate teams played in a round-robin tournament. “[RCHA] represented the army … that played a form of the game as early as 1843.” Fitsell said the earliest form was closer to field hockey on ice than to modern hockey.

This year’s tournament, played last Sunday to close out FebFest, was won by RMC. It was their
third straight win and their fourth in 12 years. Fitsell said the game was born when students needed something to do to pass the winter months until summer and the rugby season returned.

“They decided they needed a game to fill the gap after rugby-football. Basketball hadn’t been invented yet and there were not winter sports, no exercise for players.”

The first puck was an Indian-rubber lacrosse ball cut into the shape of a hexagon. Fitsell said the bounce of the ball made it difficult to control. “It made a very strange game.”

The original ball used to be in a display case in the PEC alongside a stick from the 1888 game, but they
lent it to the International Hockey Hall of Fame.

Players also use replicas of the original 36” wooden sticks. Fitsell said it wasn’t until the next decade that the length of the sticks started to change. “Queen’s played a team in Montreal and were surprised that they were using longer sticks.” He said shorter sticks make for a different style of game.
“It was different game, more of a one-handed game.” Sticks increased first to 42” then to 53,” before simply being determined by the height of the player. Fitsell said the longer sticks were conducive to the development of more intricate stick handling. In 2004, the game was moved to the outdoor rink at Market Square. Warmer winters meant games were frequently being cancelled or postponed because of poor ice conditions on the lake. He said the creation of the artificial rink was the event’s saving
grace in many ways, but he added that the game lost something when it left the lake. “It’s taken away from the original because of the boards and the ice restrictions.” He also said the players appreciate
the smoothness of the artificial ice. “Students and cadets used to take terrible falls,” he said. “Players aren’t familiar with outdoor ice, with those conditions.” It’s important to continue to honour hockey tradition in Kingston, he said, especially for the younger generations. “The role of Queen’s has been
very important in the spreading of the game in North America.” He said Queen’s graduates
took the game to places such as Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in the late 19th century.

The modern game and its followers owe a lot to the first players, he said, and it’s up to new players to make sure the game continues to grow. “It’s the excitement and the energy of the players that’s exciting to me.”

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