According to the National Sports of Canada Act (S.C. 1994, c. 16) ice hockey is the official national winter sport of Canada. It was born in this land of ice and snow, and it defines the country unlike anything else. So many children grow up wanting to be hockey stars that a book, “The Hockey Sweater,” was written about it (by French-Canadian author Roch Carrier). The Bank of Canada featured a quote from Carrier’s story on its then newly launched $5 bill in 2002. “Hockey Night in Canada” made its national debut on CBC television in 1952 and it is still a major Saturday-night tradition during the winter for millions of Canadians.
The word "hockey" likely comes from "hook," referring to the shape of the end of the stick. What is not known is exactly when and where in Canada hockey was born. The general theory is that settlers brought the idea of stick and ball games with them (such as the Irish game “hurling”). The Society for International Hockey Research tried to get to the bottom of this mystery and “found evidence of stick and ball games played on ice on skates in Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.” It appears these games were adapted by Aboriginal peoples, who created similar games on ice using wood pucks.
The earliest recorded reference, according to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, is in the journal of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, where he notes that “on October 25, 1825, men from his party skated and played hockey on Great Bear Lake.”
Once invented, the sport quickly spread across Canada. The first organized men’s indoor game was played at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in 1875. Women embraced it as well. The official encyclopaedia of the NHL, “Total Hockey,” places the first official women’s hockey game in Ottawa in 1889, where the Government House team defeated the Rideau ladies team. By the turn of the century, women were shooting pucks on rinks all across Canada, decked out in wool skirts, turtleneck sweaters, hats and gloves.
The Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston, was such a big fan of the sport he donated a trophy, known today as the Stanley Cup. The first winner was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1893. Five thousand people attended the first Stanley Cup finals. (Exactly one hundred years later, on the Cup’s anniversary, the Montreal Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings; this was the last Cup won by a Canadian team).
By the 1890s, almost every Canadian community had its own team. The sport was then further organized with the help of the formation of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada in 1886, followed by the creation of The National Hockey League (NHL) in 1917.
Hockey debuted at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924, where Canada won gold. The Canadian team won the top spot again in 1932 at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. A historic year for hockey was 1998, when NHL players were allowed to play as members of Canada's Olympic hockey teams. Canada went 50 years without a gold medal, before winning two in 2002 (men’s and women’s), and followed it up with one more in 2010.
The debate as to who is Canada’s greatest player ever continues to this day, but names like Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky are ever-present – as is the game itself throughout each province and territory in Canada.