Jan. 31 marked the 144th anniversary of the first McGill men’s hockey game. Not only was this the beginning of McGill’s men’s hockey program, which now boasts 22 championships, it was also a crucial development in hockey itself: McGill men’s hockey is believed to be the first-ever organized hockey team.
In 1877, two years after the first organized indoor game of ice hockey was played at the Victoria Rink in Montreal, McGill students returned to face off against the Victorias, winning 2-1. The seven rules of this game, believed to be the first published ice hockey rules, appeared in the Montreal Gazette a month later.
While Montreal remains fiercely proud of its hockey history, hockey’s birthplace is still widely debated. Simple stick and ball games were played in ancient Greece, China, and Egypt, as well as by Indigenous peoples in North America, most notably the Mi’kmaq. Non-standardized hockey-like games like shinny, shinty, and hurly were played in Scotland and Ireland and brought to the Maritimes in the early 1800s, leading some to believe that Halifax is the birthplace of modern hockey, as these games evolved into the hockey we know today.
Others believe that these games were too far removed from modern hockey, and the “true origins” of hockey lie in those first games played in Montreal.
James Creighton, the McGill student who organized the 1875 game, was originally from Halifax, which suggests a mix of the two stories: Creighton may have brought his familiar form of hockey to McGill and refined it with the help of Montrealers.
The 1875 game was the first game in which a wooden puck was used instead of a ball. However, it was still very different from modern hockey games, namely that there were nine players per side instead of six. At the historic 1877 game, the rubber puck was introduced, as well as several other aspects of hockey that are still in place today, such as the offsides, penalties, and the faceoff, then known as the “Bully”. Elements like numbered jerseys, assists, and artificial rinks would not be used until the founding of the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1911 by brothers and McGill alumni Frank and Lester Patrick.
Other aspects of the modern NHL game were developed gradually: In 1911, teams shrank to six players. Minor, major, and match penalties were established in 1918―although fighting was not made a major penalty until 1976―and the expansion of the forward pass between 1927 and 1929 boosted offence. In addition to various evolving regulations about the colour of uniforms and length and curvature of sticks, helmets were made mandatory for players in 1979. Sudden-death overtime was re-established in 1983 after being discontinued in 1942 due to the restrictions on train scheduling during World War II. Finally, ties were eliminated with the introduction of the shootout in 2005.
Years after the first game, Montreal’s Winter Carnival hosted the first hockey tournament in 1883. McGill was victorious, beating the Victorias and tying the Quebec team. The next year, five teams entered the tournament while local and intercollegiate tournaments continued to grow until the first league, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, was founded in 1886. The first women’s hockey team at McGill played in 1896, although the existence of intercollegiate women’s hockey leagues and teams such as the Martlets were sparse until 1963.
Today, there are dozens of professional hockey leagues around the world. Thirty-seven men’s teams and 14 women’s teams have participated in Olympic hockey. While it is difficult to pinpoint precisely where and when it all started, there is no denying that McGill hockey kickstarted the sport 144 years ago.