The amazing history of ice hockey in Montréal

JP Karwacki

JP Karwacki is a Montréal-based writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Time Magazine, the Montreal Gazette, National Post, Time Out, NUVO Magazine, and more. Having called the city home for over a decade and a half, he regularly focuses on spreading the good word about the amazing things to eat, drink and do in Montréal. One half raconteur and the other flâneur (with just a dash of boulevardier), when he wasn’t working on the frontlines of the city's restaurants and bars, he spent his time thinking about, reading about and writing about restaurants and bars.

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This article was updated on June 13, 2022.

The history of Montréal and ice hockey is a long and storied one dating back more than a century and half, with the first organized game being declared to have been played here in 1875, and its first rules published by the Montreal Gazette in 1877. With deep roots like these, it’s easy to understand the excitement and passion Montréal brings to the sport. Ask any one of the fans flooding the Bell Centre or sports bars in Montréal to watch the frosty red, white and blue blur of the Montréal Canadiens racing across ice, or the Montrealers who hit the ice for a game of pick-up no matter the time of year: This city loves its ice hockey. 

Hockey’s origins in Montréal

With stick-and-ball games dating back thousands of years to many cultures around the world, and evidence of hockey both on a field and on ice going back to the 14th and 17th century respectively, the earliest origins of hockey don’t begin in Montréal. Organized ice hockey, however? That’s another story.

On March 3, 1875, the Montreal Gazette announced that “Hockey will be played at the Victoria Skating Rink this evening, between two nines chosen from among the members. Good fun may be expected, as some of the players are reputed to be exceedingly expert at the game.”

That evening was notable for a few reasons, from its use of a “flat circular piece of wood” to replace a ball and assuage fears of it “flying about in too lively a manner”, and that the night ended in a 2–1 win for the Nova Scotian James George Aylwin Creighton’s over the team captained by Charles Edward Torrance. Most notable of all, however, was that this event is regarded as the first game of organized ice hockey.

Was it the first organized game of ice hockey of all time? Yes and no, as newspapers in England also report games of ice hockey in the early 1870s, but the sport took off in Montréal after that match with more exhibitions and the introduction of uniforms. In less than a decade, the first edition of the Montréal Winter Carnival hockey tournament was introduced with a three-game round-robin played between McGill University, the Montreal Victorias and the Quebec Hockey Club (McGill took home first place).

 

 

The sport’s development continued to snowball from there, eventually leading to a season-long tournament in Montréal, which has been considered by some to be the first hockey league despite having no name and a direct elimination format. This in turn grew into the creation of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada’s league being created at the Victoria Skating Rink in 1886 and went on to last twelve seasons, with the Montreal Hockey Club as its 1893 champion and consequently the first Stanley Cup champions.

The Canadian rules of these games instigated in Montréal and elsewhere in the country began to be adopted in Europe. This eventually led to professional hockey as we know it today beginning with the National Hockey Association (NHA) in 1909, but this organization folded due to disputes between team owners. Those willing to cooperate met one fateful night on November 22, 1917 at Montréal’s Windsor Hotel to create the National Hockey League (NHL) which would grow to become the world’s premier professional league. The rest is hockey history.

 

Enter the Montréal Canadiens

Many of Montréal’s claims to hockey history fame may be contested when it comes to who put a puck to ice and bandied it around for points, but make no mistake: The oldest professional hockey team in the world begins in Montréal with its home team of the Montréal Canadiens. Their creation dates back to when the NHA was created in 1909; the team is one of the “Original Six” which have played ever since the NHL’s beginnings, and is the only existing NHL franchise to have formed prior to 1917.

Even the team’s nickname and logo speak to this long history in professional hockey. When the team was part of the NHL’s launch in 1917, they went by the name of the Club de Hockey Canadien; this origin story is still referred to today with the team’s jerseys still sporting stylized Cs with an H in the middle. That H often thought as a reference to the team being called Les Habitants (the name for land-owning settlers of New France), or the Habs for short, but this is incorrect; the nickname dates back to when the newspaper Le Devoir called them such in the description of a game against a team from Toronto on February 9, 1914.

 

 

While every Canadian city roots for their home team, the Canadiens’ victories make them monolithic. Every decade of the Canadiens in the NHL is filled with trials, tribulations and—most of all—victories: With 24 Stanley Cup championships under their belts, the Canadiens have won more than any other organization, and the team has appeared in the Stanley Cup finals for a total of 35 times to date. The team is also the source of more than 60 legendary players and personnel, from Maurice “Rocket” Richard to the late Guy Lafleur, all of whom have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

These players and a newer generation made up of local legends like goalie Carey Price and captain Shea Weber, alongside young guns like Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield, have accomplished careers that have cemented places in the annals of Montréal Canadiens’ history. Today, the franchise continues to maintain strong loyalties among Montrealers and hockey fans abroad.

 

How to experience the hockey vibe year-round

With its wealth of history and the stacked victories and struggles of the Montréal Canadiens, hockey has become downright foundational in Montréal. The sport turns the Bell Centre into a mecca for upwards of 21,000 fans every season, and sports bars in Montréal get packed to the brim when the stakes get high enough in games; bronze sculptures and statues have been erected in homage to great players and symbols; even historic remnants like the Windsor Hotel where the NHL was first founded still remain. As for everyday appreciation, dozens of community arenas and three times as many outdoor rinks (when the weather’s right) can be found around the city, and rest assured: Many have to wait their turn to get on the ice.

As Montrealers eagerly wait for when the Montréal Canadiens kick off the 2022 NHL draft lottery with the first pick overall, which allows the team to choose the rights to players within the 18- to 20-year-old range and introduce new and skilled players. Hopes are high, and the city’s passion for hockey continues to burn bright.

JP Karwacki

JP Karwacki is a Montréal-based writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Time Magazine, the Montreal Gazette, National Post, Time Out, NUVO Magazine, and more. Having called the city home for over a decade and a half, he regularly focuses on spreading the good word about the amazing things to eat, drink and do in Montréal. One half raconteur and the other flâneur (with just a dash of boulevardier), when he wasn’t working on the frontlines of the city's restaurants and bars, he spent his time thinking about, reading about and writing about restaurants and bars.

Facebook / Instagram / Twitter

 

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