Where does hockey come from? Is it a cultural combination of games formed in a melting pot, or was it birthed by a single culture and gifted to the world? As professor and hockey writer Paul W. Bennett puts it, it’s a “matter of Creationism or Evolution.”
Most hockey fans accept Canada’s claim to the best sport on Earth: but when you ask Canadians how the game formed, it gets personal.
Despite the provincial differences in birthplace, most creation theories share, says Paul W. Bennett, “a Euro-centric perspective on the development of the game.” He encourages what “practicing what the Mi’kmaq call ‘two-eyed seeing.’ This is, according to Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall, when we “ learn to see” from one eye with indigenous knowledge and the best of ‘Aboriginal ways of knowing,’ and from the other eye with the ‘best in the Western (mainstream) ways of knowing’ – and ‘learn to use both eyes together, for the benefit of all.’
The Mi’kmaw Eye
A Mi’kmaw family is picking up a competing narrative first pushed forward in 1943. They are challenging the establishment notion that hockey is mainly the spawn of European games colliding with Canadian winter. The Mi’kmaq people have been on the eastern shore of the continent from the Maritime Provinces to Maine for thousands of years and are seeking to claim invention of the game.
Taking the torch is Cheryl Maloney (@Mikmaq_star), a Mi’kmaq political science professor and hockey researcher from Indian Brook, Nova Scotia. She and her sister, April, a filmmaker, produced a documentary that presents a fascinating and compelling case for the Mi’kmaq inventing ice hockey in its original form.
The documentary, The Game of Hockey: A Mi’kmaw Story, has been produced but is in the process of being submitted to film festivals. But the Maloneys gave ya boy (me) a sneak peak. We had a conversation about the documentary, their family’s ties to Mi’kmaw hockey roots, and the evidence that carries the Mi’kmaw claim. (The Morning Skate Podcast #144).
It started as an academic interest inspired by a research paper, then became a family research project when Cheryl Maloney’s son, Chase Nicholas, discovered a century-old stick at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Center.
Chase is a youth hockey player who was researching Mi’kmaw involvement in the creation of ice hockey for a school project. The stick dated back to 1917 and was carved by Alexander Cope, Chase’s great-great-grandfather.
Through their research, the family also discovered their relation to “Old” Joe Cope, who first pushed the Mi’kmaq narrative when, in 1943, he wrote a letter to the Halifax Herald. The letter stated, “long before the pale faces strayed to this country, the Micmacs were playing two ball games, a field game and an ice game.” “Old Joe” said the knowledge was passed from his father.
The Mi’kmaq are well-known for their mass production of handcrafted hockey sticks carved from trees grown on the water’s edge. The trees’ root curvature as the roots dip into the water form the angle of the stick’s blade, allowing carvers to make one piece sticks with strength at the bottom of the shaft where the blade joins.
Mi’kmaw sticks were so renowned they were used during the first indoor ice hockey game in Montreal in 1875. The 1875 Montreal game also used 9 players per side. According to the documentary, Mi’kmaw games had 9-10+ players.
Further evidence includes another soldier’s account in his diary when he was in Tuft’s Cove (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia) in 1749. He observed Mi’kmaw playing an ice game on skates.
As a writer, for me, the most pleasant and unexpected evidence is the language itself. Pre-contact language shows that the Mi’kmaq had been playing before Europeans colonized North America. There are words in Old Mi’kmaq for “slapshot,” “Oochamkunutk, “to skate,” (My favorite one, for the spealling. It’s used elsewhere as the name of the Mi’kmaq ice game).
The prevailing narratives speak to a predominantly white creation of ice hockey during colonization. They include indigenous contributions to hockey in Nova Scotia, but describe the game as an amalgamation of English field hockey, Irish hurling, and a native ice game or lacrosse.
The Windsor Eye
Another Nova Scotia theory, the “Windsor claim” excludes Mi’kmaw contributions to the early game and boasts the gaudy URL “birthplaceofhockey.com.” It’s probably the loudest specific birthplace story out there and has been peddled in the media by the website founders, even though it has been debunked by a subcommittee of the Society for International Hockey Research. The SIHL was SO fed up with the Windsor people that they specifically investigated the claim, something they don’t normally do, just to shut the Windsorites up.
Confusingly, another “Society,” Windsor Hockey Heritage Society, pushes the Windsor claim. WHHS credits the game’s origin exclusively to white, non French-Canadians. Credit goes to “ice hurley” played by the local King’s College School’s boys who love both skating and hurley so much that they started playing “ice hurley.” This supposedly became ice hockey.
A version of this narrative – the white genesis of the game with minimal indigenous input- is accepted in mainstream Canada. CBC’s History of Hockey, narrated by Kurt Russell, and including Wayne Gretzky, mentioned the Mi’kmaq people when discussing their sticks, and credits Nova Scotia in general for the development of pond hockey.
The fundamental irony of this claim is that Anglo-Canadians borrow the Irish game, hurling, as their copyright to “ice hurley” and therefore hockey. The documented history dates back about 3000 years to a Celtic legend and is not part of English heritage. So how does playing an Irish game on a Canadian pond make hockey an Anglo-Canadian invention?
The Irish issue aside, the development of European field hockey-ish games into similar ice games was already happening in Europe. Scottish shinty was played on ice in the 1600’s when a sea froze over. Stick and balls games in Egypt and Mesoamerica predate Jesus (by a lot). If the games from the Old Countries get credit for ice hockey’s development when there is a modern ice hockey precursor found in Nova Scotia, oochamkunutk, why is the local game not credited? If we are going to go to the origins of all stick and ball games, maybe Egypt invented ice hockey.
Finally, there is already an “ice hurley” or ice field hockey – it developed in Europe and is called bandy. It seems a lot lamer than ice hockey because, you know — it’s field hockey on skates with a ball. Still looks fun though.
Additionally suspect, the main evidence the Heritage Society offers for Windsor’s claim is a reference to “hurley on a long pond of ice” from a 1844 fictional novel. The Society describes the author, Thomas Chandler Haliburton as the “Father of American Humor” and the “most quoted North American author.” I’ve never heard of him, but I guess he’s better than Margaret Atwood, William Faulkner, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Haliburton was born in Windsor in 1796, 47 years after the soldier at Dartmouth saw the Mi’kmaq playing their ice game. Winsdor was founded in 1764.
The real questions are: did the Mi’kmaq just carve sticks because the game was created when European stick games were played in Canadian winter? Or did white people take a game played by indegenous people, influence the game (like by adding the face-off from field hockey), then claim creation, only to leave Mi’kmaw people as glorified equipment managers in the story?
I put my stock in the stick. I’ve played ice hockey since age 6 and hurling since age 26. Although the games are both incredibly fast and fun, it doesn’t seem to make sense that hurling and field hockey became ice hockey. The size of the stick and the gameplay are not at all suited for hitting a piece of wood, the original puck, on the ice.
The hurley, the stick used in hurling, is about 35 inches long versus about 50 inches for a hockey stick. Imagine playing hockey with a stick that came up to your hip instead of your chin; it would be impossible on your back. The hurley does have an elongated blade for puck control.
The narrative just strikes me as arrogance for white people to claim invention of the game when a precursor was played in Canada. Stick and ball games are nearly culturally universal. Claiming the invention of a sport as a settler culture is colonizing a nation is just an extension of theft.
Aboriginal people in North America played stick games for generations without white people.
There is documented history of European ice sports developed in Europe, but the addition of the hockey stick happened in the Canadian Maritimes. Those games – bandy, shinty, hurling, field hockey – all use small sticks. The big Mi’kmaq stick is the difference; it’s the main factor that makes it hockey instead of bandy. Wouldn’t those who know how to make the best sticks for the game also know the game the best?
Whenever I’ve played hockey in my life, the one piece of indispensable equipment was the stick. I’ve played on foot, skates, and knees. I’ve played with a puck, tennis ball, rubber ball, tin foil, and a trash bagel (JK this isn’t the Mighty Ducks). I’ve used cones, sweatshirts, shoes, and manufactured nets as the goal. You can change a lot about hockey, but you really need a hockey stick to enjoy the game.
The Reality of Racism
It would be kind of bush league for me to write about race and my game without exposing my own allegiances. I’m a white guy, so looking hard at colonialism is uncomfortable. But if you want to stop the narrative at a skin deep level, you’ll miss the truth.
My mom is Irish. Our ancestors came to New York in the 1800’s, her dad’s family probably with the Famine. They were poor and served in the military for generations — I have an ancestor who died in the Civil War in Mississippi.
My dad is Cuban. His parents are from Cuba. My grandpa has a story about carrying a wasted Ernest Hemingway up the hill in his hometown.
Although I’ve always been a little jealous of people who have a more homogenous background, I’ve never felt the need to pick one side over the other. I’m lucky – I grew up in Queens, New York, where you’re allowed to be Irish and Cuban, and also American.
That’s because when you grow up in New York, you are, first and foremost, a New Yorker.
But as tolerant as New York is, racism is an issue I still witnessed as a kid. Even the Russian kids on my youth hockey teams were treated badly by some people. During high school, someone in hockey gave a girl I dated the nickname “Sacajawea.” These things happen even in the best places.
The saddest part of my conversation with Cheryl was learning that young Mi’kmaw players experience racism when playing hockey. They sustain taunts like “we pay for your housing” and worse. Part of Cheryl’s motivation in telling the Mi’kmaw hockey story is giving the youth confidence in playing the game in interacting with Canadian society at large.
Cheryl’s opinion on the Mi’kmaw claim to hockey is not that it’s a jewel to be hoarded, but that it’s “our gift to the world.”