When the Montreal Canadiens take to the ice in Philadelphia on Monday in their continuing long-shot bid to bring the Stanley Cup home to Canada after 17 years, another historical sub-plot will be unfolding at the Wachovia Center, located a slapshot away from the mouth of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River.
In a remarkable coincidence that devout students of hockey history will appreciate, a team from the undisputed birthplace of modern hockey (Montreal, 1875) will battle a Flyers team from the city that has just emerged as a landmark locale in the sport’s 18th-century origins.
A freshly unearthed reference to matches of the stick-and-ball game “hurly” being played by young skaters on the frozen Schuylkill in 18th-century Philadelphia — possibly as early as 1785 — is among the key findings of two Swedish historians whose discoveries are dramatically rewriting the story of hockey’s evolution.
Carl Giden and Patrick Houda, winners this month of the highest award from the Canadian-based Society for International Hockey Research, document the Philadelphia ice game in a new online chronicle of the sport’s history that challenges a host of “birthplace” boasts from various Canadian sites.
Those include a particularly contentious one from Windsor, N.S. — which claims the "birthplace" honour on a sign at the town’s entrance — based on a vague reference to “hurly” being played there in the early 1800s, about 15 years after the new-found game in Philly.
“We really don’t want to claim a new ‘birthplace of hockey’ — since the game did not evolve from a single place,” Giden told Canwest News Service. But “it is correct,” he added, that the earliest references to the sport’s seminal phase — at least until new Canadian ones can be found — are from the United States and Britain.
Hurly, shinty, bandy, wickets and other variations of field hockey rooted in the British Isles and continental Europe are now generally viewed as ice hockey’s progenitors. And various researchers in Canada and elsewhere, led by the two Swedish sleuths, are finding more and more evidence of these rudimentary games being adapted for skaters in the late 1700s and early 1800s — long before an indoor version of hockey, with standard rules and equipment, was introduced in Montreal on March 3, 1875.
That famous match was recounted in the next day’s Montreal Gazette.
One of the organizers and players in the game, James Creighton, is generally considered the “father” of the modern sport, having led the transformation of outdoor “shinny,” played for generations in his native Nova Scotia, into organized hockey.
But even the Gazette’s coverage of that momentous Montreal event in 1875 — viewed by the Society for International Hockey Research and the International Ice Hockey Federation as proof of the modern game’s birthplace in the city — highlighted the key U.S. role in the sport’s early development.
“The game of hockey, though much in vogue on the ice in New England and other parts of the United States, is not much known here,” the newspaper stated at the time.
Giden and Houda recently discovered the oldest documented proof of the game’s early U.S. roots. Along with a reference to hurly being played on skates in New York City around the same time, they found a published account of a young Stephen Decatur — a future U.S. naval hero — starring in games of hurly-on-the-ice in 1780s Philadelphia.
“In all their boyish exercises, he took the lead in agility and address,” a schoolmate recounted.
"During the winter, when the glassy surface of the Schuylkill invited the boys to skim over it on the swift skates, no one excelled him (Decatur) in hurly, prisoner’s base, and the other games of the season."
Decatur, a leading U.S. naval commander during the War of 1812, gave his name to a major city in Illinois and his image appeared on a $20 US bank note in the late 19th century.
Hockey scholarship — which also claims British naval legend Sir John Franklin among the sport’s earliest chroniclers, thanks to his 1825 reference to “hockey on the ice” being played in the Northwest Territories — could not have gained a more impressive link to U.S. history.
The Swedish historians have found an even earlier reference to a hockey-like game being played on ice in Scotland. And their research has recently produced important new findings about early hockey in Canada, including references to an 1811 game of hurly in Pictou, N.S., and an 1839 game of hockey involving both white and black soldiers near Niagara Falls, Ont.
The Philadelphia find — documenting “hockey” action in the U.S. nearly a century before Montreal became the site of the sport’s official birth — adds an intriguing historical twist to the Habs-Flyers battle for the NHL’s Eastern Conference championship.
© Copyright (c) canada.com