A Brief History Of Ice Hockey

Balanced on steel blades, crashing at adrenaline-fueled full speed into walls and one another, hockey players have turned pursuit of the puck into a thrilling sport for spectators around the world. Hockey is played in 63 countries worldwide and has been part of the Olympics since 1924. Traditionally confined to countries with long, cold winters, hockey is finding new fans in warm-weather locales due in part to the novelty of virtual hockey at betting shops.

Known simply as “hockey” in Canada and Nordic countries, ice hockey is a descendant of simple “stick and ball” games that were played across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Games such as Ireland’s hurley, Scotland’s Shinty, and England’s bandy ball are all similar to ice hockey. Sports historians believe these games evolved into a primitive version of hockey in the 19th century.

Montreal is the birthplace of organized ice hockey. The first indoor game of league hockey took place at Montreal’s Victoria Skating rink on March 3, 1875. The match pitted two nine-player teams against each other. The puck was a flat wooden disk and the goals were eight feet wide, unlike today’s six-foot goals. 

By the 1880s, hockey teams had seven players: three forwards, two defenders, a goalie, and a rover. 

Founded in 1909, Canada’s National Hockey Association was the world’s first professional hockey league. NHA teams conformed to the modern configuration of six players: a goalie, two defenders, and forwards at the left wing, right wing, and center positions.

The NHA dissolved in 1917 and was reborn as the NHL, which took the NHA’s spot in competition for the Stanley Cup, which in those days was awarded to the winning team among numerous North American ice hockey leagues.

Early Days of the NHL

In the early days, players weren’t allowed to make forward passes. This changed in 1921 when goalies were first allowed to pass the puck to a player as long as the player was within the team’s territory.

In the first few seasons of the NHL, the league consisted of three to seven teams and there weren’t any conferences and divisions. In 1926, the league split into two divisions: American and Canadian. The split remained in place until 1938 when the Great Depression shrank the league to seven teams with no need for divisions.

Original Six Era

Old-timers remember the period between the 1942-43 season and the 1967 NHL expansion as the NHL’s golden age. For 25 years, the NHL consisted of the “original six” teams: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Six new teams joined the NHL during the 1967-68 season: the Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers. This doubled the league’s size and marked the end of the “original six” era.

The World Hockey Association 

Launched in 1972, the World Hockey Association was a North American league that was the first to compete with the NHL since the Western Hockey League collapsed in 1926.

The WHA’s strategy was to bring professional hockey clubs to major American and Canadian cities, attracting star players by paying them more than their NHL teams did. The NHL’s contract with players seemed to prohibit that. The contract included a reserve clause that bound players to their original NHL teams after their initial contracts expired. The WHA ignored the clause, treating players without active contracts as free agents, and a Philadelphia court ruled that the NHL could not use the reserve clause to prevent players from moving to WHA teams. Sixty-seven players moved from the NHL to the WHA in its first year. 

WHA teams eventually found themselves unable to afford key players, and financial woes led the league to fold in 1979. The WHA’s teams were absorbed by the NHL.

National Women’s Hockey League

The NWHL was established in 2015 with four teams. The league has since grown to six teams: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps, and Toronto Six. The NWHL is the first women’s professional hockey league to pay players.

The Isobel Cup is the NWHL’s championship trophy. The name is a tribute to the daughter of Lord Frederic Arthur Stanley. Isobel Stanley was one of the first female hockey players in Canada.