Hockey 101: History

Feb 28, 2010; Vancouver, BC, CANADA; Canada forward Sidney Crosby (87) and teammates celebrate after winning the mens hockey gold medal match in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics against USA at Canada Hockey Place. Canada defeated USA 3-2 in overtime. Canada won the gold medal and USA won the silver medal. (Matthias Hangst/Witters Via Usa Today Sports)

The sport of ice hockey originated in parts of Canada in the early 19th century, it is believed to have evolved from simple stick and ball games played in Europe. Around 1860, a puck was substituted for a ball. The more modernized version of the sport that is played today was developed in eastern Canada, notably in Montreal, where the first indoor hockey game was played on March 3, 1875 between two teams of McGill University students. Some characteristics and rules used in that game, such as the length of the ice rink and the use of a puck, have been retained to this day.

By the late 1800s ice hockey began to rival lacrosse in popularity in Canada. The first national hockey organization, the Amateur Hockey Association (AHA) of Canada, was formed in Montreal in 1885, and the first league was formed during the same year, with four teams: the Kingston Hockey Club, Queen’s University, the Kingston Athletics, and the Royal Military College.

In 1893 national attention was focused on the game when the Canadian governor-general, Frederick Arthur, Lord Stanley of Preston, donated a cup to be given annually to the top Canadian team. The three-foot-high silver cup became known as the Stanley Cup and was first awarded in 1892–93. Since 1927 the cup has gone to the winner of the National Hockey League playoffs.

The sport migrated south to the United States during the 1890s, and games are known to have taken place there between Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities in 1895. In 1899 the Canadian Amateur Hockey League was formed. All hockey in Canada at the time was “amateur,” since it was considered “ungentlemanly” to being paid for athletics. The first acknowledged professional hockey team in the world was formed in the United States, in 1903, in Houghton, Michigan. The team, the Portage Lakers, was owned by a dentist named J.L. Gibson, who imported Canadian players. In 1904 Gibson formed the first acknowledged professional league, the International Pro Hockey League. Canada accepted professional hockey in 1908 when the Ontario Professional Hockey League was formed.

In the early 1900s, the Canadian rules were adopted by the Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace, the precursor of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). The IIHF's five original members were Great Britain, Bohemia, Switzerland, France, and Belgium. The first European championship was held at Avants, Switzerland, in 1910, with Great Britain the winner. From that time the federation broadened its membership, taking applicants from the world over. Canada captured the first Olympic Games title in 1920 and, concurrently, the first IIHF world championship. Canada, which also won at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924, dominated international competition until the emergence of the Soviet team in the early 1960s. The Soviets continued to be the most powerful team in international hockey until the 1990s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 1995 an agreement between the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association, and the IIHF ended amateur domination of international play as professional athletes were allowed to compete at the Olympics and World Cup championships. Although the decision had little effect on the world tournament, the Winter Games competition underwent numerous changes. Given the high visibility of professional players and their skills, selection to the Canadian, U.S., Russian, Finnish, Swedish, and Czech Olympic teams was no longer based on tryouts but rather on the decisions of hockey personnel from each country’s national hockey governing body. The six "dream teams" were automatically placed in the final round of eight; the two remaining slots were filled by the winners of a qualifying round. The NHL suspended play for a period of 16 days in 1998 so professional players could make their Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan, and it continued to temporarily stop the season for the next four Olympic Winter Games.