Hockey is Canada's official national winter sport and perhaps its greatest contribution to world sport. Canada is considered the birthplace of ice hockey, and Canadians generally regard the sport as their own. Over the last century, Canadian men, women, and children have passionately participated in hockey at all levels and have avidly watched the sport with great interest nationwide. One could argue that hockey is the sport that has united Canadians the most, especially in international competitions. Canadian players form the backbone of many teams in the National Hockey League and overseas leagues, and Canadian men and women have had considerable success in international competition.
The word "hockey" is probably derived from the French hoquet ("shepherd's crook"), referring to the shape of the stick, and the nickname "shinny," for informal hockey, likely comes from the game's connections to shinty. It is unclear precisely where and when ice hockey originated, but it is doubtless connected to the stick-and-ball games of bandy, shinty and hurley, which were brought to the North American colonies in one form or another by students or the military in the 19th century. Montréal, Windsor (Nova Scotia), and Kingston (Ontario) have all claimed to be the birthplace of ice hockey, but there is little clear evidence to pinpoint the game’s origins. The first game of organized ice hockey, as we would recognize it today, was in Montréal in 1875, where J.G.A. Creighton, a McGill student, established a set of formal rules. The key innovation was the substitution of a flat, wooden disc (puck), which offered the players more control than they had over a ball, and which was less likely to bounce and injure spectators. The last quarter of the 19th century was the great period of social organization, and during this time many sports moved away from unwritten rules and widely differing local variation towards standardization. In Canada, Montréal took the lead in organizing competitive sports, including ice hockey, cycling, and lacrosse.
Organization of the Sport and Origins of the Stanley Cup
In 1879 the first organized team, the McGill University Hockey Club, was formed, and with the advent of a basic set of rules, the sport quickly spread across Canada. The first "world championship" was held in 1883 at the Montreal Ice Carnival and was won by McGill. Even though the winter carnival hockey tournament was considered a “world championship,” only teams from Eastern Canada participated, according to the Montreal Gazette. The first national association, known as the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, was formed in 1886, with representatives from Québec City, Montréal and Ottawa. A group of colleges, universities, and military and athletic clubs formed the Ontario Hockey Association in 1890. Governor General Lord Stanley donated a trophy in 1893 for the national championship, and the first Stanley Cup game was played 22 March 1893, with Montreal AAA victorious before a crowd of 5000.
Early hockey was played in rudimentary conditions, mostly outdoors on patches of natural ice, with snowbanks for boards and wooden posts for goals. There were nine players per side on the ice, and the puck could not be passed forward. The onside rule and primitive face-off ("bully") were adapted from rugby.
With speed and rough play the game had immediate attraction, and strong local rivalries developed. The sport spread to American universities, beginning with Yale in 1893. Hockey was first played in Europe in Vienna in 1885. Belgium, Bohemia, France, Great Britain, and Switzerland formed the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1908, and Germany joined in 1909.
The Winnipeg Falcons won the first Olympic gold medal in hockey (and the first international world championship) at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920. The Toronto Granites overwhelmed all opposition to win Canada’s second Olympic gold medal in hockey, at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France. The University of Toronto Grads won again for Canada in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Growth of Professionalism
The development of hockey in Canada was profoundly changed by the growth and final ascendancy of professionalism. In the prevailing climate of the late 19th century playing for money was considered immoral, but many players accepted money secretly. The first overtly professional league, the International Professional Hockey League, was formed in 1904 with teams from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; and Houghton, Calumet, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Most of the best players were Canadian; they commanded extravagant salaries, lived nomadically from one season to the next, and played for the highest bidder. At one time, Fred "Cyclone" Taylor was the highest-paid athlete in North America.
The Ontario Professional League, organized for the 1908 season, was the first openly professional league in Canada, and lasted until 1911. The Eastern Canada Hockey Association turned professional in November 1908, but folded in 1909. The rival National Hockey Association, which originally comprised seven teams in Ontario and Quebec, was formed in 1909 and reorganized in 1917 as the National Hockey League.
In 1911, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) was formed. The winner of the PCHA played the winner of the NHA/NHL for the Stanley Cup from 1914–1921. The PCHA had eight teams in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon throughout its league history. The Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup in 1915. Starting in 1922, teams from the Western Canada Hockey League also had a chance to win the Stanley Cup, with the Edmonton Eskimos advancing to the final in 1923 and the Calgary Tigers advancing to the final in 1924. The PCHA merged with the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) for the 1924–25 season, with the Victoria Cougars winning the Stanley Cup in 1925. As of 1926, only teams from the NHL had the chance to win the Stanley Cup. The WCHL meanwhile dissolved in 1926.
Professional hockey soon required indoor stadiums, artificial ice, and large payrolls. Successful teams in smaller centres, such as the Renfrew Millionaires, disappeared; the NHL teams were all in larger cities, for example, the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Maroons, Ottawa Senators, Toronto St. Pats and, briefly, Quebec Bulldogs and Hamilton Tigers.
Expansion and Dominance of the NHL
In the 1920s, the NHL successfully moved into the lucrative urban market of the US, adding the Boston Bruins (1924), the New York Americans (1925), the Pittsburgh Pirates (1925), the New York Rangers (1926), the Chicago Black Hawks (1926), and the Detroit Cougars (1926). However, almost every one of the players came from Canada.
The NHL dominated hockey, monopolized players, and controlled salaries and player movement. A few exceptional players were paid up to $10,000 per season, but in the 1920s the average salary had dropped to $900, despite player protests and a threatened strike. After 1945 the controversial C-Form gave NHL teams exclusive control over the future careers of boys from age 15. The sole purpose of amateur junior hockey became the development of players for the NHL — not to win titles or to represent a community, but to identify individual prospects.
Towards the Modern Game: Rule Changes
The present form of the sport took shape in the professional leagues, specifically the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Key innovations were three 20-minute periods (1910), six players (1911), and a gradual relaxation of the rule against the forward pass: allowed between blue lines (1918), within any of the three zones (1929—30), and across blue lines (1930–31). The red line was added in 1943–44. The result was a faster game and more team play.
The 1920s and 1930s
Although competition remained keen in smaller centres for the amateur trophies, the Allan Cup and Memorial Cup, the focus remained on the NHL. The Ottawa Senators dominated the 1920s, with six league titles and four Stanley Cup victories, but the team folded in 1934.
Some early exploits live on: Joe Malone scored seven goals in one game in 1920; George Hainsworth won the Vézina Trophy in its first three years; and in March 1923 Foster Hewitt broadcast a game on radio for the first time. Outstanding players of the era included Frank "King" Clancy, Charlie Conacher, Bill Cook, Aurèle Joliat, Lester Patrick, and Nels Stewart. Howie Morenz was the flashiest player, and Eddie Shore the premier defenceman.
The NHL in the 1940s and 1950s
The schedule continued to increase, from 24 games in 1919–20 to 48 games in 1931–32 and 70 games in 1949–50. The number of teams dwindled to six, however, with only the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in Canada in 1942. The Toronto Maple Leafs, led by Walter "Turk" Broda, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, and Max Bentley, were the dominant team of the 1940s, winning the Stanley Cup six times in 10 years. But Maurice "Rocket" Richard of the Canadiens was clearly the outstanding offensive player, scoring 50 goals in 50 games in 1944–45, including five goals and three assists in one game.
The outstanding team of the early 1950s was the Detroit Red Wings, led by Gordie Howe (who won the scoring championship five times and the Hart Trophy four times in the decade), Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, and Terry Sawchuk. In the mid-1950s the Montreal Canadiens built possibly the most powerful team in NHL history, with Maurice and Henri Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Béliveau, Jacques Plante, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, and others. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup six times, including a record five straight.
The 1960s and Expansion of the NHL
Chicago managed its first Stanley Cup victory in 23 years in 1960–61, led by the brilliant Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. Toronto won the Stanley Cup four more times before the league expanded in 1967, and Montreal began another string with five Stanley Cups in the 1960s. In 1967, the NHL expanded into six American centres: Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The Vancouver Canucks were added in 1970–71, along with Buffalo.
The sport increasingly emphasized scoring and offensive play. Scoring increased in the diluted league, and Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins set new records for goals (76) and points (152) in a season, while defenceman Bobby Orr revolutionized his position, becoming the first defenceman to win the scoring championship. The offensive emphasis of the sport was typified in the 1980s by the incredible scoring feats of Wayne Gretzky, which are perhaps unmatched in any sport, and of Mario Lemieux.
The World Hockey Association and Merger with the NHL
The NHL's monopoly of professional hockey was broken in 1971 when the World Hockey Association was organized. In the WHA’s first season, there were 135 players in the league with NHL experience, including Bobby Hull, Bernie Parent, John McKenzie and Brian Conacher. Hockey legend Gordie Howe would join his sons, Marty and Mark, in Houston the following season. The WHA began with 12 teams and grew to 14 before rising expenses and dwindling crowds reduced it to 7 in 1978–79.
In 1979 the feud between the rival leagues ended with a merger, as the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Québec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers were assimilated by the NHL. The competition for players had substantially raised salaries and finally brought NHL teams to more Canadian cities. In 1980 a team was moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to become the Calgary Flames. Further expansion in the 1990s resulted in Ottawa re-establishing the Senators.
In 1983–84 Edmonton became the first of the ex-WHA teams to win the Stanley Cup, ending a four-year reign by the New York Islanders; the high-scoring Oilers captured the cup four of the next six seasons before being dismantled by the team's owner. In the early 1990s, Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins became the dominant team.
Change and Challenge in the 1990s
However, skyrocketing salaries led to financial difficulties for several franchises. The Québec Nordiques succumbed in 1995 and were relocated to Denver. In 1996 the Winnipeg Jets were also sold, to a group in Phoenix.
The sport faced another significant event at the close of the decade when Wayne Gretzky, widely regarded as the game's greatest player, retired in April 1999.
Fiscal Challenges in the 2000s
By 2000, with the addition of the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets that year, the NHL had expanded to 30 teams. Yet Canadian teams were increasingly pressured to compete financially with American markets, and Toronto was the only Canadian team to consistently play to sell-out crowds. The NHL's Canadian Assistance Program offered aid only when teams could demonstrate their viability, and for most teams in Canada, viability was threatened by declining attendance. In 1999 the Ottawa Senators' management announced that unless the federal government was willing to offer financial support, the Senators would be the next Canadian team sold to the US. A startling announcement in January 2000 outlined how the federal government would offer annual aid to Canadian hockey teams until 2004. The proposal was vehemently criticized, however, and immediately retracted, but the Senators remained.
Player Lockout 2004-05
The pressure continued to mount as a result of the players' resistance to a salary cap, and in 2004 team owners enforced a lockout banning members of the NHL Players' Association (hockey players) from play, lasting 310 days from late-2004 to mid-2005. A salary cap of $39 million (US) per team and a significant reduction in players' salaries was the result of the strike, but it was the first time a major North American sports league had lost an entire season due to a labour dispute. It also resulted in cancellation of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and for only the second time in its history the cup was not awarded.
Canadian Teams and the Stanley Cup Since 1993
The last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup was in 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings. The following year, the Vancouver Canucks made it to the finals, but were beaten by the New York Rangers. Since 2004, four Canadian franchises have qualified for the Stanley Cup final, only to be defeated by an American team. In 2004, the Calgary Flames lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning; in 2006 the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes; in 2007 the Ottawa Senators lost to the Anaheim Ducks; and in 2011 the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins. The fact that Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa lost to three American Sun Belt franchises was difficult for many Canadian hockey fans to accept. However, it was nothing like the scene in Vancouver on 15 June 2011. Immediately after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Bruins in game seven of the 2011 Stanley Cup final, rioting broke out in downtown Vancouver. There had been rioting before, most notably the Richard Riot in Montréal on 17 March 1955, but nothing on this scale. Police and other cars were set on fire, and many downtown Vancouver businesses were seriously damaged. As of 14 June 2013, according to CBC News, Vancouver police had recommended a total of 1086 charges against 325 suspects.
The NHL Market in Canada
Even though the Canadian franchises in the NHL have not won the ultimate prize since 1993, they have proven to be more financially viable than a number of American teams. In 2012 the Toronto Maple Leafs were the most profitable franchise in the NHL at $81.9 million. Believing that Canada could support another NHL franchise, ambitious Canadian businessman James Balsillie, founder of the wireless technological firm Research In Motion, did his best to bring a seventh franchise north of the border. Balsillie made several bids to move American teams to Hamilton (in southern Ontario), trying to purchase Pittsburgh in 2006 and Nashville in 2007. In 2009, Balsillie tried once more to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, but the bid was rejected by the NHL and Arizona bankruptcy judge Redfield T. Baum.
Southern Ontario was not the only region in Canada that tried to acquire a NHL franchise. In 2009, True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE) made a serious pitch for the Phoenix Coyotes (the same franchise that moved from Winnipeg in 1996), but a last-minute settlement was reached between the NHL and the city of Glendale to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. However, the Atlanta Thrashers were also experiencing problems, and TNSE finalized a deal to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg on 31 May 2011. The team was renamed the Jets, the same name Winnipeg’s hockey team had during their glory years in the World Hockey Association from 1972–1979 and in the NHL from 1979–1996. The Return of NHL Hockey to Winnipeg was extremely popular with Winnipeggers. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, 5800 season tickets sold out in 17 minutes.
Labour Strife in the NHL (2012)
As in 2004, teams and players argued over money prior to the 2012–13 NHL season. Once again there was friction between the NHL and its players’ union as the sides could not come to terms on a collective bargaining agreement. The major issue this time was the percentage of hockey-related revenues the players would receive in a season. According to the existing contract, players received 57% of all hockey-related revenues, but the NHL wanted the percentage dropped significantly. Neither the players nor the NHL would budge, and the resulting lockout cancelled 510 regular season games (34 games per team), the NHL All-Star Game, and the 2013 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. An agreement was finally reached on 12 January 2013, with players and owners sharing hockey-related revenues 50-50, among other terms.
Canada in International Competition to 1993
After winning the amateur world championship 15 of 19 times from 1920 to 1952, Canada managed victories in 1955, 1958 and 1961, but then not again until 1994 and 1997. After the Soviets won the world championship in 1954 and the Olympic gold medal in Cortina in 1956, they began to dominate international hockey. From 1963 to 1973 the Soviets won 11 of 12 Olympic and world championships, but Canadians still believed that the Soviets would collapse in competition with professionals. Finally an NHL all-star team met the Soviets in the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series, perhaps the most dramatic sports event in Canadian history. Canada's narrow victory (with four victories, three losses and one tie) was tantamount to a national identity crisis. The 25th anniversary of the series (that is, Canada's victory) was widely celebrated in Canada in 1997.
Canadian teams had continued success in the Canada Cup and its successor, the World Cup, an international competition of national all-star teams held every three to four years, winning in 1976, 1984, 1987, 1991 and 2004 (losing only in 1981 and 1996). Canada's Olympic team won Olympic silver medals without NHL players in both 1992 and 1994 (see Canadian Olympic Hockey Teams), but Soviet (later Russian) teams continued to dominate the world championships until 1990 and the Olympic Winter Games until 1992, winning the gold medal again as the Unified Team in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Competition from Other Countries
The spread of hockey and growing proficiency of players in Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the US is reflected in the increasing number of players from these countries in the NHL, including many of the Russian, Swedish, Finnish, and Czech stars who emerged in the 1990s. In recent years, the number of NHL players recruited from Canadian junior hockey has dropped by 20% as an increasing number are coming from Europe and the US. Yet, several stars have emerged from Canadian rinks, including Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby.
Canada has increasingly faced tough competition from other countries. From 1994 to 2001 Canada won the world championship twice, while the Czech Republic won it four times, and Finland and Sweden each won once. Sweden won the Olympic gold medal in 1994 and the Czech Republic won it in 1998.
Canada's failures in international competition, particularly their losses to the Americans in the World Cup in 1996 and to the Czechs in the Nagano Olympics in 1998, set off a new round of hand-wringing in Canada. Phone-in shows, newspaper articles and television documentaries warned that Canadians could no longer dominate or even remain among the best in their national sport. While the debate focused on the lack of time spent teaching skills, the outdated emphasis on rugged individualism, and the meaningless grind of the NHL season, this outburst of angst overlooked a number of factors. Canada still had the largest number of young people playing hockey. By 1998, Canada had won the World Junior Championships 10 times since the Championships first began in 1977, and had won the prestigious title five years in a row from 1993 to 1997. Interest in women's hockey was growing fast with the sport's acceptance at the Olympic level (Canada won the silver medal in women’s hockey in Nagano).
In the ebb and flow of great players, many of Canada's greatest players were long past the apex of their careers in 1997–98. Mario Lemieux had just retired. Canadian teams still lacked the experience of the Europeans on the large ice surface and in the infamous shootout at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, which cost Canada against the Czech team. Yet Canadians were not about to lose their passion for hockey. Even the puzzling economics of the professional sport, in which owners seemed to benefit more from playing to empty stands in Carolina than to full arenas in Edmonton and Calgary, did not seem to diminish Canadians' love for the game.
2002 Olympic Winter Games
Canada's Olympic hockey gold-medal drought officially ended when the women's team defeated the Americans 3–2 at Salt Lake City in 2002. In a reversal of the circumstances at the Nagano games (when the Canadian women were heavily favoured to win, but lost), Canada came to Salt Lake City with a 0–8 record against the US in a series of games leading up to the Olympic Winter Games. Focused, intense, and fired up by rumours that the Americans had abused the Canadian flag on their dressing-room floor, the Canadians prevailed 3–2 despite an endless stream of penalties called by the American referee.
The Canadian men's team had a more difficult road, since there were at least five other teams with legitimate chances to win gold. Wayne Gretzky was chosen to manage the team in November of 2000, and he and his staff, including coach Pat Quinn of the Toronto Maple Leafs, chose skilled players who could play on the wider international surface. The team's performance in the preliminary round did not inspire confidence in the media or among fans, as Canada lost to Sweden 5–2, eked out a 3–2 victory over a weak German team, and then tied the Czechs 3–3. Stung by criticism, Gretzky delivered a diatribe against the team's detractors, especially those in the media. In the quarterfinal game against the Finns, who had beaten the Russians, Canada took a 2–0 lead and held on to win 2–1. Confidence grew as Canada had outplayed the Finns, outshooting them 34–19. Canada's route to the gold-medal game opened fortuitously when Swedish goalie Tommy Salo allowed a fluke goal and Belarus defeated Sweden. In the semi-finals, Canada beat Belarus easily, 7–1. Although Canada controlled play early in the gold-medal game against the US, the Americans scored first. Canada tied the game with a goal by Paul Kariya six minutes later and Joe Sakic fed a pass to Jarome Iginla for the lead before the end of the first period. The Americans tied the game in the second period, but Joe Sakic scored to give Canada a lead, which it nursed into the third period. Late goals by Iginla and Sakic gave Canada a 5–2 win. Sakic was named MVP of the tournament.
2006 Olympic Winter Games
Canada's men's team did not repeat their gold medal performance at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin. In all, 12 teams were seeded into round-robin pools, with Canada considered one of the best. Consisting of the cream of the NHL, players with more than 320 goals among them to that point in the season, the team suddenly lost its touch and direction and went out in the quarter final round, settling for a disappointing seventh place with Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic winning gold, silver and bronze respectively.
It was the Canadian women's team who emerged victorious once again in 2006. Canada and the US were again widely considered to be the gold and silver medal contenders, but Sweden managed to eke out the US to play the final match with Canada. Team Canada claimed gold with a 4–1 victory. It was the first time that both Canada and US had faced serious contenders in international women's hockey besides each other.
2010 Olympic Winter Games
Canada brought strong, cohesive teams to the international stage at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and, as a result, secured gold medal victories in both the men's and women's tournaments. The men's team was selected from a highly successful group of Canadian NHL players, managed by the legendary Steve Yzerman and coached by Mike Babcock. The team secured two victories against the Norwegians and Swiss, before they were defeated by the US 5–3. In a renewed effort, which included replacing goalie Martin Brodeur with Roberto Luongo and adjusting several lines, the team was able to rally with a score of 8–2 against Germany. They defeated Russia and then Slovakia, advancing to the final round and leaving Finland to take the bronze against Slovakia. The media hype leading up to the final gold medal game on 28 February focused on the Americans’ attempt to repeat their gold medal victory on the 30th anniversary of their "miracle on ice" win against the Soviet Union at Lake Placid in 1980. In one of the most closely contested games in Olympic history, Canada defeated the US 3–2 in overtime when centre Sidney Crosby, assisted by Jarome Iginla, scored against US goalie Ryan Miller. Crosby's goal is considered one of the greatest in the history of Canadian hockey.
As in 2002 and 2006 Canada's women's team dominated Olympic competition on its way to the gold medal against the US on 25 February. Coached once again by Melody Davidson, the slightly younger team began the tournament with a shutout against Slovakia, and went on to defeat the Swiss and Sweden before achieving another shutout against Finland. In the gold medal match the women once again secured a shutout, this time against the US with a score of 2–0, winning their third Olympic gold in as many Olympic showings. The team was later chastised by the media for taking its victory party on to the ice after the fans had left the building.
International Record Since 2010
After the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada struggled to win important elimination games on the international stage. At the World Hockey Championships (2010-2013), the Canadian men’s team lost in the quarterfinals; moreover Canada has not won a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships since 2009. In women’s action, Canada won the gold medal at the 2012 Women’s World Hockey Championship in Burlington, Vermont with a 5–4 victory over the United States in the gold medal game, but lost in the gold medal game to the Americans at the 2013 Women’s World Hockey Championship in Ottawa by a score of 3–2.
Though Canada had been considered a hockey nation for nearly a century, Canada's success at Paralympic sledge hockey did not come as easily as it had in the traditional sport. Sledge hockey, played by athletes with a lower extremity disability, was developed by three Swedish players on a frozen outdoor rink in Stockholm in 1961. The sport grew rapidly, with Canada first participating in international competition in 1976. Canada sent a team to the inaugural sledge hockey tournament at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer and won the bronze medal. The team again won bronze at the world championships in 1996, and followed that success with a gold medal performance in 2000. Still, Paralympic gold eluded them until 2006 when, at Torino, Italy, Team Canada emerged victorious in the men's sledge hockey tournament against Norway. After a difficult time in round robin play, the team qualified for the gold medal round, where they defeated Norway 3–0. The team repeated its gold medal performance against Norway at the world championships in 2008.
Canada was unable to repeat this success on home soil at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Though they began the tournament in a strong position with victories over Italy, Sweden and Norway, their loss to Japan in the semi-finals placed them in the bronze medal game against Norway, where they were defeated 2–1.
See Stanley Cup Champions 1892-1944; Stanley Cup Champions 1944-Present.