How Montreal perfected hockey

Take a dash of McGill ingenuity, add a pinch of French-Canadian flair and sprinkle liberally with Irish grit. According to bestselling author Adam Gopnik, that’s the recipe that has made hockey “the greatest of all games.”

by Adam Gopnik, BA’80
(Photo: McCord Museum)

Ice hockey is a peculiar hybrid, many sports brought together into one. Far from being a simple rural sport, a kind of pastoral child of winter and ponds, it is above all a city sport, and it’s made in the strange crucible of the growing Canadian cities. Through city pressures and city privileges, the game we know gets made, and in particular it gets forged from the melting pot of Irish, English, and French attitudes in my hometown of Montreal.

Now, I'm well aware that other towns claim hockey for their own, including Kingston and Halifax. So I assure you that it is pure coincidence, forced on me by fact, that I claim the birth of hockey for my hometown of Montreal, and also claim the particular stable of that birth to be my own alma mater, McGill University - and, more narrowly, also call the labour bed of the birth of hockey the six-square-block area between Sherbrooke and St. Catherine streets and Stanley and Drummond, where I happened to grow up. What can I say? It happens to be so, and there is nothing to be done about it. (Seriously, the persuasive, detailed account of this moment does take place there, and we owe it to the Laval University historian, Michel Vigneault, who has shown in detail how it happened. Obviously hockey grew up in many niches and in many parts of the country, but if modern hockey was born in any one place, it was in Montreal, which still bears many marks of the forceps.)

James Creighton (Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame)

Rugby on ice

The earliest records we have of a game of ice hockey come from the 1870s and ’80s around McGill, but it seems quite possible that the winter game was brought there from Nova Scotia. Certainly it was a young Nova Scotia-raised engineer, James George Aylwin Creighton, BCL1880, working in Montreal as the Grand Trunk Railroad was being built, who first consolidated the rules of hockey at McGill in 1873.

Creighton was a rugby player, and hockey for him was a way of extending the rugby season into the winter months. The scene of his invention was the old Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, the first large purpose-built rink in Canada, between Drummond and Stanley, where on a cold March day Creighton is said to have been heard hollering out rugby rules to the players of the new sport. (Lord Stanley saw his first ice hockey game at the Victoria Rink.)

As someone once said, the central point of rugby is to survive it. And that’s where an ambiguity begins. Ice hockey is a hybrid, even a freak—what botanists call in a very different sense a “sport”—seeming to belong to the association football family, it also belongs to the rugby family, while the other contact sport that feeds into it is lacrosse —also an “association” game, one in which team play in passing is paramount, and it is also the other acceptably violent sport of the time. (The hockey rule, not held in common with association football kinds of games, that there is space behind the goal is a carryover from lacrosse, and it gives hockey a distinctly strategic character.) The DNA of hockey, its combination of being the most flashily brilliant and speedy of games and at the same time the most brutal of contact sports, comes from that doubleness—from the reality that what Creighton was trying to create when he first codified the rules of hockey in 1873 was a form of rugby on ice, played according to rules inflected by lacrosse.

Hockey at the Victoria Rink in 1893 (Photo: McCord Museum)

Hockey’s rules have changed and evolved since then. When Creighton first invented (or consolidated) those rules, there were no forward passes— just like rugby, where you can carry the ball or shift it backwards but can’t pass it ahead. Not only its explicit rules but also its implicit spirit recall that brutal and yet most gallant of games. And, like rugby, hockey is (or pretends to be) a self-policing sport. Rugby is brutal, but pointed as much to the shared party after as the triumph of one team. It rewards comradeship, penalizes selfishness, and has its own unwritten internal rules to mitigate its violence. There are right ways to tackle and wrong ways, and since the point of the sport is that after-party, the rules are enforced by the social group. So hockey—both grim and graceful, brutal as much as balletic— belongs both to the family of association sports, of control sports, and to the rugby family of collision sports. Its history, in a sense, is the struggle to see which of its two parents will determine its legacy.

Hockey as hammer

Two parents . . . and two solitudes? We think of that time and that place—Montreal at the end of the 19th century —as one of two parallel encampments, of a British and a French establishment living apart from each other in a kind of gloomy splendour, the French establishment dominated by an extremely hidebound pre-Quiet Revolution Roman Catholic Church, while the English-speaking Scottish establishment, gloomier even than its counterparts back in Scotland, has McGill University at its centre.

In one way we expect sports to mirror the social arrangement of their society. But sports are a hammer as much as a mirror, breaking social conventions as they invent them. Baseball was shaped by 19th-century Irish and German immigrants to the United States, who gave the game its character, but it later acted as a conduit for Jews and Italians, who entered the game to take on Americanness. Sports preserve the pressures of the era that they’re made in, but they alter some of them too. Hockey reflected the social order of late-19th century Montreal, but it disturbed that order too, in healthy and invigorating ways.

For there was a kind of free-valence atomic shell at play in Montreal life at that time. Between the pious French and the prosperous English stood the Irish, who occupied two positions at once, in a way that would prove potent for the making of the winter game. As English-speakers they were in one way aligned with the anglo elite. But they were also Roman Catholics, and that meant they were educated with (and sometimes married to and buried alongside) the French. To be Irish was to have a kind of double identity. On the one hand you belonged to the English-speaking minority and on the other hand you despised your masters in the English-speaking minority; you were a fellow worshipper with the French-speaking majority but at the same time you were reluctant to identify with the French underclass.

When you played hockey, you wanted to beat the Brits at McGill . . . but the way to do it might be to look for help from the francophones across the hall. And so the Irish played a central role, in some ways the central role, in the invention of ice hockey.

The old flag of Montreal, which showed an impress quartered among the French, Irish, Scots, and English,was exclusivist (we would now need to include Greeks and Portuguese and Jews and Haitians) but it was not false. Ethnic rivalry, and coalitions of convenience, made a city culture.

The Shamrock hockey team in 1899 (Photo: McCord Museum)

Hockey, as we’ve seen, is first played by the students of McGill as winter rugby, and as members of the anglo elite in Montreal, they begin with a monopoly on it. But then the Irish kids down in Pointe Saint-Charles need a winter sport to play as well, and so they form an Irish hockey club called, naturally, the Shamrocks. At this time the idea of Catholics playing sports with non-Catholics is one that the Catholic Church in Quebec tries hard to discourage. Indeed, the whole idea of sport is frowned on by the Church hierarchy, who actually try to ban tobogganing in 1885. As a consequence, organized hockey is slow to spread among the francophone majority. Yet, because there is a kind of implicit alliance between the Irish and the French in Montreal, based on their common Catholic education, you begin to get French-Canadian kids playing hockey for Irish teams.

It’s not at the street level that hockey gets passed to the francophone community—the neighbourhoods are still too separate for that—but at the Catholic college level, at Collège Sainte-Marie and Mont-Saint-Louis and Saint-Laurent, and then largely through the tutelage of the Irish students. In 1894 and 1895, though the student body at Collège Sainte-Marie is heavily francophone, the hockey team at Sainte-Marie is entirely Irish, and only slowly does it begin to become more and more francophone. The first kids who come to play are from mixed marriages, and even today historians have a hard time being certain if a name represents a francophone, mixed, or Irish family background. The Kent brothers, Stephen and Rosaire, for instance, play for various teams at the beginning of the century, but Rosaire, with his French first name, seems to play exclusively for French teams, while his brother Stephen goes back and forth. The circumstances, at least the sporting ones, are more mixed than the clichés of solitude quite allow for.

Although hockey is passed from the Irish to the French in the colleges, the game seems in francophone neighbourhoods to have some of the aura of a street sport: a game played at high speed for fun with an emphasis on individual skill—much like African-American street and playground basketball in U.S. cities in the forties and fifties. An awareness grows that on the French-Canadian side people play with a particular kind of flair, and eventually two teams, the National and the Montagnards, emerge (the Montagnards began as a snowshoeing club, which gives them their name). The new clubs are successful enough to get their own rink in the East End—at the corner of Duluth and Saint-Hubert, just north of Sherbrooke Street—and become the first Québécois hockey teams.

One of the fascinating things that happen in the his-tory of hockey in Montreal through these crucial crucible years is that there is a constant awkward dance among the Shamrocks, the Montagnards, and the National for the allegiance of their players.

In 1898 the Montagnards include a Proulx and a Mercier, but also a Cummings and a Conrad. If anyone wanted to make a great Canadian movie—the great Canadian movie—it would be all about the hockey love triangle among the Montagnards, the Shamrocks, and the McGill Redmen in Montreal between 1900 and 1903. On the one hand all the prejudice and bigotry that kept these communities apart still existed, and at the same time there was an irresistible attraction, through the medium of this new sport of hockey, towards assimilation and joint effort —towards collaboration, in every sense. Sport, as I said, acts as a mirror for our divisions, but it also acts as a hammer that destroys them, if for no higher reason than that the tribal urge to defeat the enemy in surrogate warfare is stronger even than ordinary social bigotry.

A six days’ wonder

At a crucial moment in 1903, two of the stars of the Montagnards, Louis Hurtubise and Théophile Viau, were incited to “cross over” and play with the Irish Shamrocks, who were in a senior, professional league while the francophone team continued to play in the intermediate league. The potential betrayal was a six days’ wonder in Montreal. Could these kids leave the Montagnards for the Shamrocks —a much more visible team, playing as they did in the Victoria Arena—and do so without betraying their national identity? True, they would help the Shamrocks beat the rival English teams, but they would also be crossing over from one allegiance to another, from east to west.

For a week or two Hurtubise and Viau, a speedy winger and a rock-solid defenceman, had the whole weight of national identity on their shoulders: if they left the Montagnards they would in effect become symbolic Irishmen; if they stayed with the Montagnards they would remain ghettoized within the narrow precincts of the French-Canadian, Church-dominated culture and remain intermediates forever. We can only imagine the pressure on these two kids — improve your lot or declare your loyalty?

If you were making this movie in anglophone Canada, you would have Hurtubise and Viau play with the Shamrocks, where they would Overcome Obstacles, and then all would band together to beat some American team. And if you were making the movie in Quebec you would have Viau and Hurtubise, after their flirtation with false Anglo-Irish glory—room here for a lovely Franco-Irish romance—go back to the Montagnards to assert their national identity in face of the temptations of assimilation.

And if you were making a real documentary about what actually happened ... they would take turns, playing on both teams at once, in the best Canadian way. For that seems to be what did actually happen: the best surmise in a murky story seems to be that they played a bit for one team and then a bit for the other. Canadianly, they found a compromise that involved never actually having to choose, keeping a dual identity and playing occasionally for both sweaters. The controversy does not so much come to a crisis and climax as just drift away in the cold winter air.

And in a broader sense, this sinuous unfolding compromise of styles and skaters sneaking back and forth across lines, never resolved but routinely companionate, is what gave hockey its identity. It was the merging of manners — the rugby-based style of the McGill team; the very rough-and-tumble and in some ways brutal style of the Shamrocks; and the increasingly pass-oriented creative style of the Montagnards (what we call river hockey, though really born on frozen back-alley rivulets)—that gave composite hockey its strong identity.

That’s how pro hockey is made, with all the elements that we can still see today. It is in part an improvisational game played on a frozen street, in part a brutal game of rugby at high speed, in part a form of soccer on ice. All these elements get mixed with residual British ideas of fair play and self-policing schoolyard justice, which produce both the long handshake lines at the end of playoff games and the sometimes ugly sense that the players should settle it themselves—a sense unknown to the supposedly more anarchic but actually more authoritarian American games, where one punch gets you thrown out by the ref. Hockey is both a city sport and a clan sport, a modern melting-pot sport that retains an archaic tang of my gang here versus your gang there. The most creative of sports that a single original mind can dominate, it is also the most clannish, most given to brutal tribal rules of insult and retribution. And it is the play—the compromise, one might say— between clan and creativity that still gives it its character now. It’s still this game, with its tightly wound strands of tripartite DNA, that we love.

Excerpted with permission from Winter: Five Windows on The Season (House of Anansi Press) © 2011 by Adam Gopnik.

In preparing this piece, the author owes a debt of gratitude to Laval University historian Michel Vigneault, whose PhD thesis, "La naissance d'un sport organise au Canada: Le hockey à Montréal, 1875-1917," offers the most persuasive account of the moment hockey was birthed at McGill University.


Winter Explorations

Over the course of 25 years of writing for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has firmly established himself as one of North America’s finest storytellers – witty, urbane and eager to examine the wide array of subjects that capture his interest.

This essay on hockey’s origins is excerpted from Winter: Five Windows on the Season, the book version of the 2011 Massey Lectures, delivered recently by Gopnik (he joins an august crowd – past lecturers include Northrop Frye, Martin Luther King and Noam Chomsky). The book covers a lot of territory – everything from the evolution of Christmas to the science of snowflakes to the “maddeningly inept and shimmeringly courageous” Arctic explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.