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Hockey in Montreal since the 19th Century

By Michel Vigneault et Annick Poussart

The Origins of Hockey

Well before the Europeans settled in New France, the Aboriginals staged ritual games as offerings to the spirits in return for a much-needed rainfall or the healing of a sick member of the tribe. One of these games would be renamed "Lacrosse" by the Jesuits, because the stick used resembled a bishop's crosier.

Between 1859 and 1867 - a time of ardent nationalistic fervour - a Montreal dentist, Dr. W. George Beers, campaigned to have lacrosse recognized as Canada's national sport in place of the British game of cricket. Taking his inspiration from the Aboriginal game, he drew up rules from which hockey would later borrow its net (two poles set 2.4 metres apart) and goaltenders.

Ice skating

The sharp blades of skates have been slicing over the icy surfaces of Nordic countries for thousands of years. Originally, the Vikings fashioned the blades from carved animal bones and strapped them to their boots. The Dutch then did the same with wooden blades. The British and the French, for their part, forged blades of iron.

In the 17th century, French colonists introduced skates to Montreal, unaware that they were paving the way for the birth of a sport destined for champions on ice.

Bandy, shinny and hurling

Three of hockey's precursors, bandy, shinny and hurling, were brought to Canada around 1840 by British soldiers. They were adapted - without rules - to winter conditions, but exactly how they were played remains unclear, as the illustrations here so eloquently attest. Over the years, Montrealers of British, Irish and French origin shared the ice on the frozen St. Lawrence River, playing their own games without, it seems, ever playing together.


Legend has it that around 1830 a young man named Thomas Brown - a student at the Rugby Public School - "invented" rugby when he caught a soccer ball and, without meaning to, ran with it. True or false? Nobody knows. What is known, however, is that rugby, a contact sport, gave hockey its hardy character, as well as: a zone behind the net and a ban on the forward pass. Its first players? The members of McGill's rugby team.

The first "real" game

On the evening of March 3, 1875, on the Victoria Rink in Montreal, two teams of nine players faced off in their first public game. The players, the sons of Montreal's elite, were or would be students at McGill University. None of them knew then that they were writing a page of history... a page that hockey historians now call the first game of ice hockey.

The first tournament

Teams from different cities (Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec) first confronted each other on the frozen river during the Montreal Carnival. The winner would receive the Carnival Cup. The week-long carnival was organized by and for Montreal's elite: its schedule was incompatible with that of ordinary labourers. The event would be staged for three years.

The first rinks

1862-1937: The Victoria Skating Rink
Located next to the Windsor Hotel, the Victoria Skating Rink is a prominent footnote in the story of hockey:

  • Its dimensions (60.9 x 25.9 metres) would set the standard for North American hockey rinks.
  • It was here that the first public hockey game was played on March 3, 1875. The fact of playing in such a confined space, rather than on a larger outdoor rink, also influenced the game: the ball was replaced by a block of wood and fewer players were used.
  • It was here that the MAAA and Ottawa faced off for the first Stanley Cup finals.
  • It was here that the first "corporate boxes" were built (in balcony form, like at the theatre).

1898-1918: The Westmount Arena
The first rink built specifically for hockey - and as a back-up for the aging Victoria rink - the Westmount Arena could hold 5,000 spectators, and possibly twice that. The four-foot-high boards (the Victoria's were only one foot high) were punctuated by columns, fortunately padded.

The first teams

McGill: The first organized team
In 1875, the students of McGill played the first hockey game. In 1877, they were the oldest active hockey team. In 1881, they posed for the oldest known photo of a hockey team, wearing their rugby jerseys. In 1883, they won the first Carnival Cup. In 1887, they participated in the founding of the first league and, in 1903, of the first university league. The story of hockey began with a group of students having a good time on the rink at McGill University.

Other teams in Montreal

  • The Victorias (Scottish team, 18801931)
  • The MAAAs (British team, 1885-1931)
  • The Shamrocks (Irish team, around 1891-1917)
  • The Nationals (first French-Canadian team. Graduates of Mont Saint-Louis, around 1895-1925)
  • The Montagnards (former students of Collège Saint-Marie, 1898-1907)

Women in hockey: Playing for charity

The first women's hockey team was created at the turn of the century. Emancipation? Not quite. The women were permitted to take to the ice to raise funds for the soldiers fighting in the Boer War (1899-1901) in South Africa. Naturally, the players wore long dresses. It would have been highly improper for a Christian lady to show her ankles.


Source: "Montreal, That's Hockey" Exhibition Text


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