This is a bit off the beaten track, but the McGill Winter alumni magazine features an Adam Gopnik essay that combines sociology with the history of one of my favorite sports.
The cover of the print edition highlights “The Birthplace of Hockey”, but the online selection–from the veteran new Yorker contributor’s new book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season–is How Montreal Perfected Hockey.
(Where hockey actually started in Canada is a contentious subject for hockey history buffs.)
Gopnik, raised in Montreal, graduated from McGill in 1980, and he’s happy to claim his alma mater as the genuine birth place of the game.
The earliest records we have of a game of ice hockey come from the 1870s and ’80s around McGill, but it seems quite possible that the winter game was brought there from Nova Scotia. Certainly it was a young Nova Scotia-raised engineer, James George Alwyn Creighton, BCL1884, working in Montreal as the Grand Trunk Railroad was being built, who first consolidated the rules of hockey at McGill in 1873.
Creighton was a rugby player, and hockey for him was a way of extending the rugby season into the winter months. The scene of his invention was the old Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, the first large purpose-built rink in Canada, between Drummond and Stanley, where on a cold March day Creighton is said to have been heard hollering out rugby rules to the players of the new sport. (Lord Stanley saw his first ice hockey game at the Victoria Rink.)
Being a descendent of a collision sport like rugby, as well as a control sport, ice hockey was bound to appeal to the primary ethnic groups of Montreal at the end of the 19th century: the French, Scots, the English–and the Irish.
According to Gopnik, it’s hard to overstate how important the tribal predilections of Montreal’s Irish were to the evolution of the fast and bruising game.
For there was a kind of free-valence atomic shell at play in Montreal life at that time. between the pious French and the prosperous English stood the Irish, who occupied two positions at once, in a way that would prove potent for the making of the winter game. as English-speakers they were in one way aligned with the anglo elite. but they were also Roman Catholics, and that meant they were educated with (and sometimes married to and buried alongside) the French. To be Irish was to have a kind of double identity. on the one hand you belonged to the English-speaking minority and on the other hand you despised your masters in the English-speaking minority; you were a fellow worshipper with the French-speaking majority but at the same time you were reluctant to identify with the French underclass.
When you played hockey, you wanted to beat the Brits at McGill . . . but the way to do it might be to look for help from the francophones across the hall. And so the Irish played a central role, in some ways the central role, in the invention of ice hockey.
For Gopnik, in ice hockey the Irish and French Canadians found a way to compete with the city’s snobby elite. Whether professional Canadian historians agree with this or not, I think he is certainly right about the story’s dramatic appeal.
Indeed, it sounds like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie just waiting to be produced.