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Oh? Canada? Our Hockey History...

July 2, 2021, 1:08 PM ET [1 Comments]
Shawn Gates
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So I took a three and a half year break between posts. Cut a guy some slack…. (Thanks for the open door back Ek…)


Anyways, I hear yesterday was Canada Day: The day the true north strong and free enjoys a statutory holiday in the name of the passing of the Canadian Confederation Act a little over 150 years ago. Now when you have a day focused on a single country, it can unavoidably shift an increased focus onto some more stereotypical aspects of said nation. When it comes to Canada, all it takes is a quick Google search to confirm what one would certainly guess to be some more common tropes about us Canucks. A non-exhaustive list might include topics such as a love for maple syrup, our pronunciation, a single year-round shared artic climate, and being overly apologetic. For our chat today though, we’re going to look exclusively at this particular gem: the entirety of our population are fanatical about hockey. While not always the case, stereotypes can at times come from a place of some truth, and in fairness this is probably one of these. Sure, the Canadian embrace of the support is such that it is engrained in our national identity to a degree not seen in other countries. At the same time, this has oftentimes led people, both of Canadians and not, to make some broader assumptions of exactly how intense and definitive our link to the sport is, particularly around its history. Given we still have Canadians citizens who are unaware that hockey is NOT our official national sport (that would be lacrosse), it should not be surprising that this is the case (FYI: no judgement inferred for not knowing as it is exceedingly trivial in the broad scheme of life). If not for anything else other than checking off the “learned something new today” on our daily checklists, why don’t we pull the curtain back a bit on the relationship between Canada and hockey and get a better sense of exactly where we stand…


Who’s Your Daddy/C’est qui ton Papa?:

The debate has been ongoing in “The Great White North” for decades: which city can lay claim to the title of the true birthplace of the game. Primarily fought between three cities (Kingston, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec; Windsor, Nova Scotia), each with their share of supporters and historically driven arguments, this debate has always had an essential underlying premise: the foregone conclusion that hockey is a Canadian born sport. Absent this assumption the argument around cities is moot as the original scope of the question has been blown to pieces. But why spend anytime thinking about this right? I mean, the debate has been so city-centric to date that one just inherently accepts the bloodline to be as has been repeated across the generations: My name is Hockey, and Canada is my Daddy…

…until mommy went all Maury on papa….




To be fair, this is a more nuanced discussion than “black or white”. Hockey as we know it was not so much created, but rather evolved. Historical records suggest that the sport has its roots in other games and activities played by those of the First Nations, and/or were brought to Canada by European settlers. The common assumption, however, had been that the bulk of this evolution occurred on Canadian soil. The time frame for this commonly ranged anywhere from the early (the variant played by the Mi’kmac First Nations in Nova Scotia), mid (the derivative of the First Nations sport of lacrosse and English field hockey carried across the country by British soldiers) to late 1800’s (with the playing of the first organized hockey game in Montreal by McGill University students). More recent academic research, however, has revealed pre-1800’s descriptions of, and references to, the game that seemed less like the potential inspirations for the game of the mid to late 1800’s, and more like a very similar version of it. Played as early as the mid-1600’s in Britain, Scotland and Ireland, games of shinty, shinny, chamaire, hurley or hurling were occurring in a regular and organized manner across western Europe, and in forms closer to the game of the 1800’s than perhaps previously recognized. Of note, compared to the first recorded game in Canada in 1875, there are likewise records of organized games in Britain as early as the 1790’s, a solid decade before the first noted derivatives were recorded on Canadian shores.

Nothing definitive by any stretch, but the more we learn, the less certain we continue to be about the whole “birth child of Canada” narrative. That’s before we even get to the more cosmetic pieces such as…


Say my name!
…the actual word “hockey”. The actual name pre-exists anything in Canada by a longshot, and has roots in at least three European countries. Take France for a start. The word Hoquet refers to a shepherd’s staff that could be described as a “bent stick” (nothing familiar here, eh?). There was also a field-based sport called Hoque that made its way to England in the year 1066, just a few hundred years before hockey had any relevance to Canada. In England, that game evolved over the next 800 years, referenced under names including Hawkey, Hawkie, Hooky, Hoky, and, drum roll, Hockey. This was pre-ice, 100% played on fields, but solidly in the sporting vernacular. Jumping outside the England and France bubble, we also have the Dutch, where in paintings from as early as the 1600’s people are observed playing an on-ice sport bearing resemblances to the greatest game, which the Dutch called Hokkie. So even in name, our grasp can be a bit tenuous.


Playing the puck
Conventional wisdom has predominantly spoken to the use of cow dung by First Nations players in the early 1800’s, with subsequent evolutions including the use of lacrosse balls with the rounded top/bottom sliced off and increasingly solid rubber pucks at the close of the 1800’s. Interesting point of fact though? Pucks resembling our rubber ones were actually developed in England in the mid-1700’s, albeit made from cork stoppers used on beer kegs. The most popular beer at the time? Hock Ale. Coinicidence?


Final One…
How about the Zamboni? So synonymous with Canadianna. The cold, frosty rink on an early weekend morning with the whirl of the beast around the rink clearing a fresh sheet for the kids. Certainly this beautiful, graceful machine could have only originated in…Paramount, California? Yup, Mr. Frank Zamboni developed the first ice resurfacing machine there in 1949, mounting the scraping and flooding mechanism he created onto an army surplus jeep to make the tedious task of maintaining the surface of the ice in his rink far more efficient. Of all the locations, the city of Paramount, part of the greater Los Angeles area, was the birthplace of one of the most iconic pieces of equipment related to cold weather sports! Also right next door to Compton, so some gangster cred by-proxy pre-dating Scott Oake dropping in on Snoop?



Meh. Maybe a stretch. As for Canada? We didn’t get into the game until 1967 when Olympia machines began production in Elmira, Ontario.


Look, we Canadians love our hockey, and by no means is this about taking away from that. At the same time, it’s always great to appreciate and understand the things we celebrate and love, and I feel there’s a real beauty in the complexities, history, and development of this game, particularly the idea that so many cultures and creative minds have had a hand in it. The roots of this sport are entangled in the histories of so many! Europeans at home and as immigrants, melding with the traditions of our First Nations people, and being refined and advanced by the ingenuity of many, including our friends in the warm and sunny suburbs of LA. If nothing else this is quite reflective of the idea this country holds up as one of a mosaic: coming together and celebrating difference and diversity without the expectation of losing these in the process. That being said, it would be insanely tone deaf to presume that this ideal of the mosaic is something we have flawlessly, or even effectively, lived and implemented in our history. The horrors of our historical and ongoing maltreatment and traumatization of the First Nations population, highlighted in gut wrenching fashion by recent discoveries of over 1000 unmarked graves of children, taken from their families, placed in residential schools, and striped of their culture and language, vividly illustrate that we have a long way to go. While in no way suggesting this light-hearted hockey discussion has any equivalency in importance, I do embrace the shared idea of growth in both. The idea that appreciating the beauty and potential in something challenges us to recognize “big picture” ideas. It involves sharing and valuing everyone’s roles and contributions, not engaging in an “all or none” approach about who can lay claim. And most importantly, the idea that part of moving forward and evolving necessitates looking behind, even when we may not like, or feel shame in, what we see in doing so, so we can become something better, together, by righting wrongs.

Positive vibes to you all, and lets look out for each other…

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Shawn Gates

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