Where Was Ice Hockey Invented? (Canada vs Europe)

Posted on May 9, 2022 by Dan Kent
NHL Player

There are many places that try to lay claim to being the birthplace of the popular game of ice hockey — however, it’s difficult to say for certain who’s the winner of this debate. “Canada’s game” may have actually been born on the frozen ponds of England.

History buffs have been debating for years on the topic of where hockey was first invented and who can lay claim to creating this fast-paced and exciting winter sport. The game of hockey likely was first invented and played in Europe — Nova Scotia (UK) to be more specific. There is writing that claims Windsor as the first place to have played the earliest version of the sport.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that it has certainly been Canada who has popularized ice hockey over the years, as they’re certainly synonymous with the game when people think of the NHL. Canadian rules have since dominated the game of hockey and it’s quite clear that Canadians still dominate the sport.

People have likely played with sticks and stones (as pucks) on the ice for thousands of years, but how did the modern game of hockey come about?

Where Did Ice Hockey Originate From?

It may come as a surprise to some that hockey didn’t necessarily begin in Canada. It’s most commonly accepted that the game originated in Nova Scotia — Windsor, to be specific. Though this is difficult to prove given that there are very few records, it’s a good guess by historians.

In its earliest form, hockey wasn’t even called “hockey” — it was referred to as bandy. The game itself was similar enough however and one can certainly see how the more modern version of the game blossomed out of the ball and stick game that was played on frozen European ponds in the cold and dreary wintertimes.

There are some references to the game that dates all the way back to the 1790s. There were many countries that were playing similar games and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that eventually all of the versions amalgamated to eventually form what’s now in its place.

There are many ancient paintings and letters that portray a similar game to hockey and it’s been the work of historians over the years to unveil where the game actually originate from — though there may never be a sure answer to this question. After all, the creation of a sport is rarely a straight line from A to B.

How Was Hockey Originally Played?

Depending on which country you look at, hockey was played either on the ice or in a field. Similar to today, field hockey is still a very popular sport — though less so than ice hockey depending on who you ask.

Many college students would play a similar game on frozen ponds, such as at Eton College in England. There are even letters from the famous biologist Charles Darwin to his son, Willy, who was away at college, reminiscing on his own time playing the game in the early 1800s.

Oftentimes, teams would be compromised of a significant number of players (up to 30 at times!) and they would chase after the ball and try to score goals. This was an unorganized state of the game at the time and it’s very different from what you see today, though it was surely fun for the children at the time.

There are very few records of official rules of the sport and it’s likely that students made it up as they went along — without thinking to write anything down. Over the years, associations and teams were formed and rules began to solidify.

Where Did the First Organized Hockey Game Take Place?

The answer to this question is much more straightforward to answer, as there’s no debate surrounding it. In 2008, the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) declared that the first organized game of ice hockey was put on in 1875 in the city of Montreal.

The game was organized by James Creighton, who also captained one of the two teams. The teams consisted of nine players each — which is much different from hockey teams today who often have 5 skaters and a goalie on the ice during a game.

Some consider the first rules to have been published in Montreal as well, though there is a debate that this may have been outlined in England first. The Canadians were the ones to establish the more modern-day rules of the sport and made huge contributions to ice hockey from the 1870s and onwards to the current day.

Photo by Alan Levine licensed under CC BY 2.0

Modern hockey was born in Canada and Canadians have certainly had the largest hand in creating the game fans watch on their TVs today. The NHL has a high percentage of Canadian players, which comes as no surprise.

Who Began the Very First Ice Hockey Club?

The game in Montreal was played by McGill University students — who later went on to form the first ice hockey club at the college. The team was founded in 1877 and was shortly followed by Quebec forming the Quebec Bulldogs in 1878.

At the time, players on each side ranged from seven to nine and the teams began playing for trophies — namely the “Carnival Cup” at Montreal’s Winter Carnival. The game was played in two halves lasting for 30 minutes — compared to today’s 20-minute three periods.

As time went on, the clubs formed hockey associations and continued to compete. This eventually led to Lord Stanley of Preston attending a Montreal Winter Carnival and he fell so in love with the game that he purchased and then awarded what would later become known as the Stanley Cup to the winning team.

Today, the tradition continues and the Stanley Cup (though not the original one) is awarded to the winning team every year. This is the most prized trophy in the sport and players continuously strive for the chance to make it to the playoffs and lift the cup over their heads after winning it all.

“Canadian Rules” — What Changed and Evolved?


As Canadian influence grew over the game of ice hockey, they slowly developed it into the game we have now. They downsized the roster numbers and instead of having up to 30 people on the ice at any one time, they opted for 6 players (which is what’s still in place today; 5 skaters and a goalie). This created a more manageable game and one that could grow into a professional sport over time.

Canadians also were the first to use rubber pucks instead of balls, which were being used over in Europe at the time. The sport became more physical as body checking was allowed and even encouraged. More nuanced rules such as offsides were also put in place by Canadians, many of which we still observe today.

In general, when you think about hockey — you’re thinking about the Canadian version that the rest of the world has now adapted to and adopted as the official game. After all, hockey is Canada’s official national winter sport and that’s hard to argue with.

Where Did the Name “Hockey” Come From?

It’s most likely that the name of hockey is derived from the French word of hoquet. This word translates to “shepherd’s crook” which is referencing the shape of a stick. A French game by the name of “hoque” was eventually brought to England and this became a popular ball and stick game at the time.

At the time, the sport wasn’t yet played with a rubber puck as it is today — though there is documentation that it was being played with a wooden disc as early as the 1870s. The inclusion of a puck gave players greater control and accuracy, as it didn’t roll around the same way a ball did.

Another possibility of the origination of the name hockey comes from the Dutch game of hokkie — which is shown in paintings. People are playing a hockey-like game on frozen ice and they date back to the 16th century.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that “hockey” became the official name of the game and it was then used to describe a variety of curved stick and ball games at the time. Hockey can be played on the ice or on the field, so it was used interchangeably for both versions of the sport.

When Did Hockey Become an Olympic Sport?

Photo by Fort Drum & 10th Mountain Division (LI) licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Many of the major sports are played in the Olympics these days and it’s a great platform for countries to prove who’s the best in that specific arena. The first time ice hockey was officially played in an Olympic game was in London in 1908.

That year, six countries participated — England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, and France. However, the game was dropped from the Olympics until 1920, when it was played and then dropped again until 1928 in Amsterdam.

In fact, in 1920 — ice hockey was included in the Summer Olympics before being moved to the winter program. It has been included every year since and later women’s ice hockey was added in 1980 for the Moscow games for the first time.

Unsurprisingly, Canada has dominated this sport when it comes to Olympic competitions. In total, they claim 22 medals. 13 of which are gold. In recent years, the United States has been Canada’s closest challenger in the national competition, though they haven’t surpassed Canada in total gold medals.

The Conception of the National Hockey League

The National Hockey League was founded way back in 1917. Previously, there had been a National Hockey Association (NHA) but it had demised and the NHL rose to take its place. Since this time, the NHL is the top professional hockey league and the one that players come from all over the world for the opportunity to play.

Currently, there are 32 teams in the modern NHL — but back then, there were only the original six. Of the six original teams, only the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs are still in place. However, the Maple Leafs were referred to as the Toronto Arenas during that time. The other teams have been dissolved and others took their places over the years.

Being one of the oldest teams, the Canadiens are also one of the most successful sporting franchises. They claim 24 Stanley Cups and have over 60 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is an impressive number and there are surely more names to be added to this list in the future.

The NHL looked a lot different back in 1917 and has gone through many stages since then. The development of the player’s association has gone a long way in ensuring that rules are put in place to protect the teams and to keep them safer on the ice.

The Long and Complicated Origin Story of Hockey

Though there may never have an official answer as to where ice hockey was officially invented, there are many different ideas and opinions as to who came up with it first. It’s likely that it was a combination of many different games and it eventually formed what we have today.

Whether the game began in Canada or not, Canadians have certainly earned recognition as the place where hockey became what it is today. Canada has more professional hockey players than any other country and more gold medals in the sport to prove that they develop some of the top players in the world.

Photo by Fort Drum & 10th Mountain Division (LI) licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

It doesn’t particularly matter where hockey officially began, though many people would enjoy having the bragging rights. Many young students played stick and ball games on frozen ponds during the winter and this eventually led to the development of a more regulated and organized game.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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