Stickhandling into History

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The wild, wooly early days
of hockey in Newfoundland

With the Montreal Canadiens having just celebrated their 99th birthday, this is a good time to dust off one of my favorite articles; a historically significant piece that, until now, has never been available online.

I wrote this article in 1994 for The Telegram, based on an old manuscript that someone found buried in their files. It was a history of hockey in Newfoundland, written and published in 1935.

You need to pause and wrap your head around that a local history of the game of hockey that was written before the Herder Cup was a reality before the National Hockey League had settled on its Original Six team lineup. It begins, in fact, with the birth of the game itself.

And no, this is not a dry, historical account. Those were wild, wooly days, with some startling differences from the game we know today (the equipment back then was amazingly primitive) and some similarities too (a critic complains in 1906 about the fighting, blood and gore that taints the game). It's a fun read, even if you don't care much for hockey. (It's also a long one, at 3,400 words, so pour yourself a coffee and settle in.)


Special to The Telegram

A game of hockey without the wrist shot? Where a player can leap off the ice to evade an approaching body check? Where hockey sticks are weapons' made from catamaran runners? Where recreational skaters can swarm onto the ice and shut down a championship game during sudden-death overtime?

Welcome to the wild and wonderful early days of hockey in Newfoundland, back before the heady days of the St. Pat's-St. Bon's and Feildians-Guards rivalries, before George and Alex Faulkner knew how to skate, before the Herder Trophy had even been created.

Heck, our story begins with the birth of the game itself.

This feature is based entirely on a vintage series of articles chronicling the history of hockey in Newfoundland, plucked from the extensive sports files of The Evening Telegram. The yellowed sheaf of papers is significant from a historical and archival point of view, since it was written and published in 1935!

This is an archival gold mine: a history of hockey that was compiled seven years before the era of the Original Six teams in the NHL.

Coincidentally, this was the year that Ralph and Jim Herder presented the Herder Memorial Trophy to the provincial senior hockey league, in memory of his five hockey-playing brothers - Arthur, William, Douglas, Augustus and Hubert - who had all died prior to 1935. The series of articles, which ran under the heading "Hockey History", first appeared in the January 18 edition of The Telegram and continued until March 14, 1935.

Unfortunately, the author of the 34-page feature is not identified and there is no clue given as to his identity. A search at the Provincial Archives reveals that, in those days, bylines were never used on local copy and there is no staff listing - not even for senior management.

It may be difficult to grasp in an age when hockey is king, but recreational skating actually predates the game of ice hockey by decades, and there were recreational rinks in St. John's long before the game was popular.

The first man-made skating rink in St. John's, according to the article, dates back to 1866 in what was known as the Old Gymnasium, at the corner of Prescott and Gower streets in the downtown. Why the builders chose to construct a large, flat surface on such a steep incline is not explained.

"The lower end was overhanging and supported on shores," the article states, "to the dread of many whenever there was a large crowd, but nothing ever happened even though it was jammed to the rafters for some of the challenge races." Although the floor held firm for the life of the building, all hands were taken off guard when, in 1888, the roof fell in! No one was in the building at the time.

Around this time, rinks started popping up all over the place. One of the first in St. John's was the Fort William Rink, where the Hotel Newfoundland stands today. When the railway was built in the late 1880s, this rink was torn down to make way for a station and terminal, and the new Parade Rink was built nearby on Harvey Road.

"Many will remember," the author writes, "the unique method of scraping the snow off the ice with a horse, its hoofs wrapped in brin, tackled in to a large scraper... Many will remember the rink's sharp corners and the ringing of the bell for reversing skating direction... The Parade was the stronghold of Professor Bennett's band to the strains of which many a romance blossomed, the fruits of which are the generation of skaters today."

The precision-engineered ice skates we wear today are the product of many winters of evolution. Early skates started out as home-made contraptions, the author writes, then progressed to "woodstocks" which strapped on to boots; to "skeletons" which screwed on; to "Acmes" which clamped on; then to "tubes" and "reachers," the thin-bladed skates of "today"... today being 1935, of course.

The writer laments that skating in 1935 is a lost art, compared to the graceful skaters of a generation ago. This, he surmises, may be due to the "milder winters of late" or maybe the fact that there were fewer "counter-attractions" in those days when "everyone in town went on the ponds and to the rinks, from the Governor's Lady to Judy O'Grady."

In 1935, the author writes, ice hockey was one of the world's newer sports. "While hurley' and shinney' on the ice were games for years back, hockey in its present form was not known until 1881, when it was played and developed for the first time at McGill University in Montreal."

The first known game of hockey in this province, albeit a scrap game, was played in February of 1896 on Quidi Vidi Pond. At this time, the article says, "Governor Sir Herbert Murray became interested in hockey. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell was staying at government house for the winter preparatory to his trip to the seal fishery... The late Capt. Walter Melvill, the governor's private secretary was also interested. This day a party was got up to have some hockey on Quidi Vidi. The pioneers visited the pond in the morning, selected a suitable area and began to clear the space with brooms. A man was later enlisted to complete the job, and the party returned in the afternoon for the game before a large crowd of spectators... Hockey rapidly spread from this start and was very popular immediately."

From the outset, a cricket ball rather than a puck was used by the players. "The sticks were walking canes used handle-down. Pickets were also pressed into use, and hockey must have been more like polo than the hockey we know today. The first regular sticks introduced were brought down from Halifax... but were of soft-wood. The whole outfit lasted but a few moments of the first game in which they were used. None survived the first few vicious cuts at the cricket ball. Carriage shafts from Oke's, Carnell's and other wheel wrights, ripped in two became the regulation' hockey stick of this earlier period. Other sticks were made from catamaran runners. These made hefty weapons as may well be imagined."

Hockey was brought to Newfoundland by Canadians who came here during the 1880s to help build the railway, our unknown chronicler writes. "Hockey was very sketchy in its early days, particularly as to equipment. Acme skates were used mostly, the sticks were very poor, shooting was tried with a lift shot' and no pads were used (later magazines were stuffed inside the stockings and still later football shin-pads were introduced). Kid gloves with the fingers cut off were sometimes used on the hands, but only to try to avoid rinding' of the knuckles. The goals were two posts stuck up on the ice until 1910, and nets were attached only in 1904. For the first six years there were no boards' and it was possible for the skaters to step off the ice onto the floor and sit right down on the rows of moveable wooden benches (and also possible for the hockeyist to be propelled in head first over the said benches as he very often was, grateful when there was a lap for him to fall into).

"Necessity being the mother of invention, the practice finally became that, when an opponent was about to charge, the man with the puck would shoot it ahead, jump ashore, run well around his man and jump down again behind his back and carry right along."

The face-off too was a different animal in those days. Rather than being dropped by a referee, the puck for the first few years was put into play flat on the ice. "The two opposing forwards placed their sticks against it and shoved with all their might upon the blowing of the whistle."

The facilities were not designed with hockey in mind so lighting was only sufficient for skating, a handicap which many shooters played to their advantage. "The trick of lifting the puck up into the darkness of the roof to fall without warning into the opposing goal-keeper's net continued down to comparatively recent years {comparative to 1935, that is}. The lifting duel between the two opposing point' defencemen was often a feature of the contests. Another interesting development was the practise of the crack-shot defencemen when a spell' would be advantageous to pick' down one of the arc lights with the puck, and wait around for the rink-men to come out and keep the ice clear of the resulting glass. It sounds incredible in these days but some of these players, notably the late Gus Herder, were almost rifle-accurate with stick and puck."

The great difference between old-time hockey and the "more modern" hockey of 1935, "is that right up to 1919 there were seven men on the team who stayed on the ice for two full 30-minute periods... There is no wonder that they were iron men in those days, for they had to be."

The first indoor hockey match took place February 24th, 1898, at the Victoria Rink on King's Road when, after general skating, two scratch teams took to the ice. "The game must have been doubly interesting because of the number of wooden pillars all over the ice, and there is no record of the experiment having been repeated."

In 1897 - almost 100 years ago - there were the first rumblings of forming a hockey association. One of the organizers of this association was the Hon. James S. Ayre. The Newfoundland Hockey Association was formally established on January 11th, 1898, and its first president was James P. Fox, MHA for St. John's East. Ironically, Mr. Fox died in 1899 while on his way to a championship hockey match.

One of the most significant city rinks was the Prince's Rink, which was opened in January of 1899. "Even during construction of the rink," the author writes, "longing eyes were cast by the hockeyists on the new surface, and before the interior was completed and the building open to the public, scratch games were played by the Canadians, many of whom had of course played indoors before."

The first two Newfoundlanders to play on this surface were William Higgins and James Vinnicombe, employees of the railway company who were true pioneers of the sport. Mr. Higgins went on to become a judge and his last game, in 1916, was a notable event indeed. To quote from the article: "The background of the most remembered incident of the game was the fact that the judge (by no means himself a gentle player) had often put off Jack Tobin... for well-merited infringements. This match found Jack himself in the position of referee and with his hard task-master as the under-dog. Needless to say, Jack made the most of it and loud were the howls of delight when the whistle was loudly shrilled and the judge... was in no uncertain manner directed to the penalty box..."

With the formation of the association in 1899, a seven-team senior hockey league was also formed and everything was ready for the opening game - to be played on the Prince's Rink. The rink, of course, earned its revenue chiefly from skating and hockey was not accepted immediately or without conflict. To quote: "This new puck-a-hurley indoors was suffered as a momentary fad, rather than encouraged... Typical of public attitude was the ending of the great championship match between the Bankers and the Vics, at the conclusion of the 1899 season. Before time was up, with the teams in a tie and battling excitedly for the winning goal, the skaters became so anxious to begin their evening session that, headed by one of the directors, they all jumped on the ice and broke up the game.

"Another match was played of course... The second game opened with what looked like an easy win for the strong Bankers team. They scored the opening goal in 20 seconds. The Vics held them off for the remaining part of the first 30-minute period, and came back in the last to... run in four goals to win the championship. Exactly what transpired in the dressing room between periods to bring about the great change will never be known, but base rumor has it that the captain told his men (who were all Reid Newfoundland Co. employees) that if they did not win that game they need not show up for work next day. At any rate, no highly-paid American football coach ever achieved the same result with any pep-talk."

The association's second year opened later in 1899 in very active fashion, our historian writes, with an annual meeting at the British Hall on December 12. "This lasted far into the night with a heated and prolonged discussion on the applications for admittance of the League of the Brittania Club and the Church of England Institute teams. Orators still known to us even in these days {and in 1994 too!} such as George W.B. Ayre and Mayor Andrew Carnell battled valiantly for the admissions... Questions of order, voting powers, right of speech and other knotty problems confronted Hon. William R. Howley who was in the chair. It was felt that there were enough teams already in the league to take care of the talent offering and the proposition was defeated 26 to 9. The business was taken very seriously in those days, and the question was afterwards pursued through the columns of the daily press."

School hockey was also successfully launched in 1899, with matches between Bishop Feild and the Methodist College. College hockey continued successfully up to 1935 and, of course, is still going strong in 1994.

In terms of rules and refereeing, the game was still in a formative stage at the turn of the century: "There was no provision for limited play-offs in case of a tie. In one game, it is reported that the time went to two and a quarter hours before a deciding goal was scored. In another the game continued from 7:30 Saturday night until 12:15 Sunday morning before the teams gave it up and went home without any score having been registered. This did not save them from a severe castigation from some of the city pulpits, however, for playing hockey on Sunday."

In 1902, the city of Truro in Nova Scotia invited a Newfoundland team upalong to play for the Morris Inter-colonial Cup. A party of more than 20 made the trip, and they were royally treated by the hospitable Maritimers. Our performance on the ice, however, left something to be desired and the Newfoundland team lost all five games - one by a score of 24 to 1. "While the team brought home no victory, it did bring home something of far greater importance - the wrist shot. Previous to this all shooting had been done with the lift-motion of older Canadian hockey, but the new wrist shot revolutionized the local game and from this time on hockey progress was rapid."

The lack of respect accorded hockey started to change in 1904, when a committee was elected to negotiate concessions from the Prince's Rink. "It will be remembered that the hours of matches were at 6:30, each player had to be possessed of a $5 season ticket before he could play a game, and the hockeyists had to come back through a crowd of spectators and skaters and dress in the common dressing room. Discussions ran high and heated, until the two committees finally met and a compromise suitable to both parties was arrived at. Nine free passes to both hockey and skating were issued to each team. Fifty dollars was granted to the league for medals for the winning team. The hours were from 7 to 8 with 10 minutes extra for playoff if necessary, and a dressing room was promised next year if there was a good season."

In 1904, Sir Cavendish Boyle presented a championship trophy, intended initially as an "inter-colonial" trophy to be contested for by Newfoundland and Maritime teams. However, because "a Newfoundland hockey team cannot apparently draw a satisfactory gate on the mainland," these championships petered out and the Boyle Trophy became the perpetual senior city championship trophy for St. John's.

"Typical of the spirit of those days was the championship game of 1906 between the Feildians and Terra Novas," our anonymous author says. "A row on the ice resulted in the banishment by the referee of two of the Feildian players, refusal to go, and the declaring of the forfeiture of the game (and championship) to the Terra Novas. After heated argument by the whole rink and the starting of general skating, Captain Vinnicombe of the Terra Novas decided that they were not going to take any championship in that manner and brought his team back on the ice to finish the game. The result was a draw of 1-1 and a playoff to be decided by the first goal scored. This was achieved by Hal Hutchings of the Feildians in what was described as the goal of his career."

The controversy around fighting and violence in hockey has been heating up in recent years. But the issue has been around as long as the game itself, as demonstrated by a clipping from the February 7, 1906 edition of The Herald (not to be confused with the entertainment magazine of today):

"Many persons call boxing brutal work and prize fighting something to be decried by all good citizens, but never have we seen in all the boxing exhibitions given in this colony, as much brutality as at a hockey game. Take last night's exhibition, for instance. Morrison had his face laid open and a stream of blood ran down his cheek while he skated around the rink with a handkerchief flying from his pocket the color of a red ensign from gore. Jim Simms was charged and thrown so violently against the fence that he lay on the ice almost senseless for quite a while, had to be lifted on one of the gates and carried to the dressing room complaining of his back... There was hardly a player who had not his hands cut, shins and legs bruised, while it is nothing new to see and hear plaudits when an unfortunate, bleeding profusely, continues the game."

In 1908, the author writes, there were no special series of any sort. "The winter was a mild one throughout. The weather was so uncertain that it was not advisable to bring in a visiting team. Brigus was establishing itself on the hockey map and their team was sent an invitation. It was found however that most of their seven players were getting ready for the seal fishery, and the invitation was left over to be accepted the following year."

Finally, a note about Bright Stein, obviously a classy lad who would put any Lady Bing winner to shame. He was a Rhodes Scholar and a Major in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. He played senior hockey for 15 years, serving as captain on several teams and winning a gaggle of championships. Bright was "one of the greatest players of his day and penalized but once in his career (and that, one of the referees admitted, was a doubtful call)."

There's more to the history of hockey in Newfoundland, of course, than offbeat and humorous anecdotes. Much has happened since 1935, though that is a story for another day. The development of the sport could not have taken place without great players, appreciative fans and the toil of several generations of committed, tireless builders.

The pioneering "hockeyists" in this province displayed many of the same attributes as their fellow Newfoundlanders; they were hard-playing, robust and resourceful people who knew how to work and play.

It's nice to observe that some things never change.

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