RETURN to Sports History
Hockey, game in which two opposing teams attempt to drive a ball, puck, or other small object through the goal of the opponent by means of sticks that are curved or hooked at one end. The two main forms of the game are ice hockey, played indoors or outdoors, and field hockey, generally played outdoors.
Hockey was one of the earliest stick-and-ball games. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Arabs played forms of the sport. Hurling, a sport similar to hockey, is known to have been played during the 1st millennium BC in Ireland, and similar sports were adopted by other Europeans in the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century). Ice hockey was also significantly influenced by lacrosse, a stick-and-ball game developed by native North Americans. The name hockey is thought to have been adapted by the English from the French word hoquet (shepherd's crook). The name was first given to the sport in the 18th century but was not in common usage until the 19th century.
British soldiers stationed in Canada devised modern ice hockey in the mid-1850s. In 1879 rules were set by students at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, Canada, and several amateur clubs and leagues were established in Canada by the late 1880s. Ice hockey became extremely popular at northern U.S. colleges in the late 1800s, and by the beginning of the 20th century the sport had spread to Britain and other parts of Europe.
The first professional league was established in 1904 in northern Michigan. Because the four-team league included one club from Canada, it was named the International Hockey League. Several leagues followed, including the first significant Canadian professional league, the National Hockey Association (NHA), which began play in 1909. The Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) was founded in 1911. The NHA folded following the 1916-17 season, but its strongest teams then formed the NHL and competed in the 1917-18 season. The NHL remained a four-team Canadian league until the 1924-25 season, when a team from Boston (a popular supporter of amateur hockey) became the first U.S. club admitted. By 1926 there were six U.S. teams in a ten-team NHL.
During this early period, players such as forward Howie Morenz of the Montréal Canadiens, defenseman Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins, and forward King Clancy of the Toronto Maple Leafs drew crowds as the NHL’s first great stars. Several organizers were instrumental in building the NHL in its early days. The most prominent included Frank Calder, the first NHL president; Conn Smythe, who helped build and guide Toronto's franchise; and Jack Adams, a coach and general manager in Detroit from 1927 through 1962.
World War II (1939-1945) drained the league of players, and by 1942 the NHL consisted of only six teams—the Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Canadiens, the New York Rangers, and the Maple Leafs. After the war the six-team NHL era saw the rise of several dynasties. Forward Gordie Howe and goaltender Terry Sawchuk were stars on the Red Wings, who won four Stanley Cup championships between 1950 and 1955. The Canadiens, spearheaded by forward Maurice Richard, played in the Stanley Cup Finals each year from 1951 through 1960, winning in 1953 and from 1956 to 1960.
Hockey gained popularity in the 1960s, and late in the decade the NHL began to expand. The league added ten teams from 1967 to 1972. Hockey’s strength as a spectator sport was also shown by the creation in 1971 of the World Hockey Association (WHA), a rival professional league to the NHL. In the summer of 1972 the sport’s popularity received another boost with an eight-game competition between Canada’s best professionals and the top players from the USSR’s Red Army team. The heavily favored Canadians, stunned by the Soviets' prowess, barely edged the Red Army team, 4 games to 3 (with 1 tie). The series came down to the last game, which the Canadians won on a last-minute goal scored by Paul Henderson, who remains a national hero. A fierce rivalry was born, and a subsequent series took place in 1974.
Other games between Soviet teams and NHL clubs later in the decade gave more attention to international ice hockey. At the same time, the NHL continued to thrive. Notable standouts of the period included forward Bobby Hull, who scored 610 NHL goals and another 303 in the WHA; Bobby Orr, an innovative defenseman who played chiefly with the Boston Bruins; and Vladislav Tretiak, a Russian goaltender who was the first non-North American to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (1989).
The merger of the WHA and the NHL in 1979 and the entry of 18-year-old center Wayne Gretzky into professional play the same year marked the beginning of unprecedented popularity for ice hockey. Gretzky, who came to be called "The Great One," dominated the league over the next 15 years with a streak of unprecedented scoring accomplishments. Other powerful scorers such as centers Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, left wing Brett Hull, and defenseman Paul Coffey were regarded as the best hockey players of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, also helped spark the boom in ice hockey, at least in the United States. During the Games the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, a collection of college and minor-league players, defeated the powerful USSR en route to the gold medal. The victory sparked the formation of several new minor leagues and teams in the United States, plus expansion by the NHL into new American markets.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS The breakups of Communist nations such as Czechoslovakia and the USSR in the early 1990s enabled more European players to enter in the NHL, because the democratic governments in the newly formed nations did not restrict the movements of players. The change showed in the shifting national makeup of the league. Canadian players once accounted for virtually all NHL players, but by the late 1990s about 60 percent were Canadian, 20 percent American, and 20 percent from Europe. The appearance of talented NHL players such as Pavel Bure of Russia, Teemu Selänne of Finland, and Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic has boosted ice hockey’s appeal worldwide. Meanwhile, Canada continues to produce great stars such as Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya, and United States standouts include John LeClair and Mike Modano.
This growing pool of talent convinced the NHL to expand to 27 teams by 1998-99, with 3 more franchises planned by the 2000-2001 season. Teams have even thrived in warm-weather climates in Florida, Arizona, and California. The late 1990s, however, saw an imbalance emerge between smaller, less financially stable franchises and ones with deep financial backing. The newer franchises and the existing clubs in big cities tended to have more money, while those in smaller cities (usually Canadian) had less. This became an issue as the salaries of outstanding players rose and some teams could not afford to field competitive teams. Several owners were forced to sell their franchises, and the new owners often moved the teams to more lucrative locations. The Québec Nordiques franchise, for example, relocated to Colorado and became the Avalanche following the 1994-95 season, and the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix as the Coyotes a year later.
In 1998 the NHL stopped play for two weeks at mid-season to permit NHL stars to play for their respective national teams during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Inclusion of NHL players on the Olympic squads of the U.S. and Canadian national teams was a first, as these two countries had previously limited their rosters to amateur players.
The Nagano Games also hosted the first women’s Olympic competition. The Games featured six women’s teams, from Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. The United States defeated Canada to win the gold medal, and the rivalry between the two countries gave momentum to plans to form a small professional league for women in North America.