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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Canada’s climate is well suited to ice hockey. Winter throughout the country is quite cold and many of its numerous water bodies freeze over, creating ideal conditions for skating, hockey and other ice games. Nineteenth century European immigrants brought various hockey-type games to Canada, such as bandy, shinty, hurling and field hockey. The local Mi’kmaq people were already playing their own hockey-type game.

The first games were played on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers, or on iced over streets or parks, using hockey sticks and a hard rubber ball. There were few rules and no set number of players, so long as the sides were reasonably balanced. The goal was a line scratched into the ice and the goal posts were drums, chairs, sticks or whatever items were available. Early players soon realized that changes were needed to make the game more practical. The rubber balls were too erratic and traveled too far on the ice. Teams were too large and the goal areas were not satisfactory. Enthusiasts wanted to arrange games with other teams, but a lack of rules meant that every area played the game differently.

Students at McGill University in Montreal in the 1870s were the first to come up with a set of rules, limiting the number of players to nine a side, and using a flat disk called a ‘puck’ instead of a round ball. Matches were soon organized between various centers and the game quickly gained in popularity. The first indoor match was arranged by McGill University student James Creighton at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal and included several McGill University students. The inside venue provided more comfort for players and spectators, especially on very cold days.

The popularity of ice hockey increased so rapidly that by 1883 a ‘world championship’ was included in Montreal’s Winter Carnival. There were some more rule changes and in 1885 players set up the Montreal City Hockey League in order to play a series of regular matches. In the following year, they established the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada league. Other leagues were formed in various cities. The speed of the game and the rough play were attractions, and local rivalries soon developed, ensuring large numbers of enthusiastic players and spectators.

Ice hockey soon attracted sponsors, including Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s governor-general. He purchased a sterling silver bowl as a trophy to be awarded to the winning team of the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, which soon became known as the Stanley Cup. It was first won in 1893 (and is still presented to the champion team of the National Hockey League). By this time, there were numerous leagues and teams throughout Canada. Montreal alone had almost 100 teams.

The sport became very competitive and by the early 1900s, clubs wanted to attract larger crowds and began to hire players. It had been an amateur game until then. Initial protests soon evaporated as the US was hiring many players from Canada, so it had no option but to pay its best players to keep them. The first professional league in Canada was the Manitoba Professional Hockey League in 1905. Others were formed over the following few years. Ice hockey was fast becoming a business and its operators did all they could to make sure it succeeded.

Ice hockey’s first world championship was held at the 1920 Olympic Games at Antwerp, Belgium. Canada, represented by the Winnipeg Falcons, dominated the event and won the gold medal. This gave the game a further boost at home, not that it needed it. Success continued for Canadian ice hockey. The Toronto Granites easily won the gold at the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix, France in 1924. The U of T Grads team won gold for Canada at the 1928 St Moritz Games, Switzerland, scoring 38 goals and conceding none in its three matches in the medal round. The success of ice hockey in Canada was assured.

The popularity of the game meant it was broadcast extensively on radio by the 1930s and on television from the 1950s. ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ started in 1952 with Esso as sponsor and is one of the highest rating television shows in Canada. The (US) National Hockey League, formed in 1917, includes six teams based in Canada, although most players in the league come from Canada. The two teams to have won the most Stanley Cup championships are the Montreal Canadiens with 24 and the Toronto Maple Leafs with 13.

The National Sports of Canada Act 1994 declared ice hockey as the country’s official winter sport. There are more than half a million registered players, including men, women and children. Many boys and young men aspire to play in the National Hockey League. Youth idolize and want to emulate the professional players. Ice hockey is Canada’s most prevalent winter sport, its most popular spectator sport, and its most successful sport in international competition.

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