Early Hockey - circa 1881

In the Beginning....

The genesis of hockey, like that of most other sports, goes back centuries. "Stick and ball" games were common around the world even in ancient cultures. The birthplace of the sport has been claimed by several locales, but the fact is that none of them can prove their claim simply because the game evolved from other, similar games over centuries. Like baseball, the quintessential "American" game, the "Canadian" game's DNA stretches back not only over the North American continent, but also to games common in Europe. Paintings showing early forms of what could reasonably called "hockey" exist going back to the 15th century in European locales such as the Netherlands and England.

What can be reasonably determined is that the current form of the sport was codified in Montreal in the 1870s. Like baseball in the United States, the sport of hockey became "organized" in the bustling second half of the 19th century when societal changes emerging from the Industrial Revolution left the common citizen in need of distractions. And also like baseball, hockey provided a great distraction both from playing the sport and from watching it being played by highly skilled athletes. Naturally, though the sport was promoted in a "gentlemanly" amateur fashion, it was inevitable that professionalism would elbow its way into the sport.

As ice skating became wildly popular with the advent of metal skates in the 1860s, it was natural that skating clubs would spring up. And though gliding over the ice was a favorite pastime of many people, it was almost certainly inevitable that the "stick and ball" games played year-round would transition to the ice. Thus hockey clubs began appearing in both Canada and the United States. That the 1870s would see the codifying of the sport was no shock - the same was happening around the world with other sports - from William Whitney and his professional baseball league in the U.S. to the British Football Association (soccer to North Americans), to intercollegiate football (of the American variety) - sports were being organized and the top-level athletes in some of those sports (baseball and soccer come to mind) began to earn a paycheck.

Play-for-pay didn't happen right away in hockey - the amateur nature of the sport was held in high regard. Nevertheless, the printing of rules in the Montreal Weekly Gazette in March of 1875 was the signal moment in the history of what would become professional hockey. The circumstances of why the notice was printed in the Gazette are somewhat murky: were the players looking to earn a bit of coin by playing for a paying crowd at the Queen's Rink in Montreal? Or were they simply promoting their sport? We'll likely never know the answer - but the impact of the first printing of the "Montreal Rules" marks the birth of the modern sport of hockey.

Hockey grew in popularity once the game's rules were codified. Clubs sprang up all over Canada and in the northern parts of the United States (the game was highly popular among secondary schools in New England, Michigan and Minnesota). In certain parts of Ontario in 1890s there gradually became a winking acceptance of the practice of paying players. The first truly "professional" league (which in this case simply means they openly admitted to it), was the Great Lakes Hockey Association. This league was born in Port Huron, Michigan where John David Moore sought - and achieved - agreement from a club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and two others in Ontario, to form a collective loop in the style of Whitney's Federally Aligned Baseball Leagues in the U.S. 

Though the GLHA did not last long (it was born in 1904 and disbanded three years later), it laid a foundation for professional hockey. While Moore and his friends were laying the groundwork for pro hockey, the ultimate talisman of the sport was born that same decade. The Challenge Cup, a gold-inlaid silver bowl donated by the British Duke of York (a hockey admirer) to the amateur Dominion Hockey Federation in 1892, would go on to become the championship trophy for professional hockey in North America. It has also become arguably the most famous trophy in the world. The Challenge Cup would not be awarded to a professional team until 1910, but was instead awarded to the "top amateur club" (determining this was often contentious) from its first awarding in 1893 through 1909.

While the GLHA did not last, it did show that people would pay to watch professional hockey. It also showed top hockey players that they, like their baseball-playing brethren, could earn a living at their sport. So just two years after the disbanding of the GLHA, not one but two successors took the stage. One was centered around the largest Canadian metropolises of Montreal and Toronto in the eastern part of the country. The other was far to the west, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean and featured two Canadian and two American clubs. These leagues would duke it out for nearly two decades.