The Origins of American College Hockey
by Tom Douglis/CHN Senior Writer
One of the more greatest joys of being a college hockey fan is that you are a small part of history of a game that dates back more than 100 years. And despite the fact that college hockey fans tend to be more educated than other college sports fans, how many of us know about the origins of our game? How did we get here? Who played the first game? Who scored the first goal? What did they wear? Well, take the next few minutes of your life and read on. Then, the next time you are sitting at your favorite sports bar and showing off your hockey knowledge, you can pull out a few nuggets from this story ...
Ice hockey's origins as a sport are obscured by multiple claims and historic evidence, from 15th century Dutch paintings to rival Canadian cities claiming its invention in the 1800s. But the origins of college hockey in America can be traced more definitively to the late years of the 19th century.
Some sketchy historical records indicate that a Montreal native named M.C. Shearer studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore may have organized hockey games between Johns Hopkins and Yale students in the winters of 1893-94, but corroborating evidence for such games is unclear at best.
More clear and reliable records place the origin of American college hockey in the summer of 1894, when a group of American and Canadian college gentlemen-athletes came together for a tennis tournament on the New York side of Niagara Falls. At an off-court social function, the conversation turned to winter sports. The American contingent told the Canadian contingent about ice polo, a popular game (played with a rubber ball) that had been enjoyed on Ivy league campuses for the previous four years. The Canadians then regaled the Americans with stories about ice hockey (played with a puck), which had its Canadian college debut at Montreal's McGill University in the 1880s.
As a result of the conversation, the Canadians extended an invitation to the Americans to travel to Canada for an exhibition series of both ice polo and ice hockey against the Canadian hosts, to be played as a series of doubleheaders in four Canadian cities, set for the winter of 1894.
Organized by George Wright, an early professional baseball player, the eight-man American contingent consisted of four players from Brown University, two from Yale University, and one each from Harvard University and Columbia University. Wright went along as the U.S. manager, and fortunately for posterity, the squad also took along a correspondent from the Associated Press, C.M. Pope, to report on the series.
The games were played outdoors with no boards. Stakes partially driven into the ice served as goals. Five players played at a time for the ice polo games, while seven players played at a time for the ice hockey games. Ice polo had no offside rule, while ice hockey did.
Al Meikeljohn, one of the players from Brown, recounted his recollections in the April, 1951 edition of the Brown Alumni Monthly:
"The Canadians beat us easily at hockey, four straight games if I recall. Their game was much more developed than ours. ... Nevertheless, we managed to win two of the ice polo games and tie two others. ... It was pretty well agreed that the Canadian game (ice hockey) was better than ours."
With hockey equipment obtained in Canada, the American players went back to New England and hockey soon spread on eastern U.S. campuses, where it was played informally along with ice polo.
In 1895, ice polo was formally organized at Harvard. A few months later, in February 1896, the Crimson played Brown on nearby Spy Pond, and Harvard emerged victorious, 5-4. In 1897, Harvard traveled to Providence's Roger Williams Park to take on Brown in what was to be the last intercollegiate game of ice polo.
It was clear by this time that ice hockey was gaining greater acceptance, and soon after, the Harvard Ice Polo Association replaced the ‘Polo' part of its name with ‘Hockey'. After a four-year transition period of tinkering with both games, America was at last ready for intercollegiate ice hockey.
No one remembers exactly how the arrangement came about, but in January of 1898, an envelope containing $7 in expense money arrived on the Brown campus in Providence, Rhode Island, sent from Harvard to finance the Brown hockey team's trip northward to Massachusetts.
On January 19, 1898, a ‘large crowd' gathered on the narrow strip of natural ice on Franklin Field in the Dorchester section of Boston to watch the first intercollegiate game of ice hockey.
The players wore only crude leg pads and goalie pads were no different than the skaters' pads. They played in uniforms consisting simply of baseball trousers and turtlenecks, with leather or woolen gloves and six-dollar clamp-on skates. Hockey sticks were rounded, and despite costing only 60 cents to a dollar each, could take the punishment of many games.
The Boston Herald's account of the game noted that this was Harvard's "First game of intercollegiate hockey" although the report did not mention that it was the first game of its type in the United States.
The first intercollegiate goal was scored by Brown University at 7:30 of the first half (two 20-minute halves preceded the three-period games we enjoy today), according to the Herald, "on a pretty pass from Cooke to Day, who snapped it home." Harvard reportedly played in a disorganized fashion, and was slow to adapt to the new game. Brown went on to score five more goals en route to a 6-0 shutout victory. Although Charles Cooke finished with three goals on the day, he wasn't credited with a hat trick, as that cricket-based three-score terminology did not find its way into ice hockey until the 1940s.
Later that season, the Skating Club of Brooklyn invited teams from Brown, Yale and Columbia to compete for an ‘intercollegiate cup'. The tournament was played over several weeks, and Brown swept Yale and Columbia to win the championship, preceding the NCAA tournament by about 50 years. The first Intercollegiate Hockey League was founded in 1899-1900 with Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia; with Dartmouth and Cornell joining a few years later.
Brown played the next few years of the new century at Roger Williams Park on natural ice. But gradually, the game moved from the natural outdoor ice to indoor ice arenas. Brown dropped the sport in 1906, and it resumed again in 1926 when the Rhode Island Auditorium opened with an indoor ice surface. It would serve as the home of Brown hockey until Meehan Auditorium was built on campus in the early 1960s.
Meanwhile, Harvard built a series of outdoor rinks in the early years after hockey's debut, including one in the present Harvard football stadium. By 1909-1910, a new indoor arena was constructed on Boston's St. Botolph Street, which became known as Boston Arena. It would go on to house many Boston area hockey teams, including Harvard and the Boston Bruins, and today, is the home arena for Northeastern University under its present name, Matthews Arena.
The other great indoor arena of the early 20th century was the 2,000-seat St. Nicholas Arena, which was built at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street in New York City. It became the home arena for Yale, Columbia and Princeton, and would become famous as the home arena for Princeton legend Hobey Baker, who would become college hockey's most famous player in the years prior to World War I.
Tom Douglis is a special senior writing contributor for CHN. The former editor of College Hockey Magazine and former public relations coordinator for USA Hockey, he has also freelanced for UPI, ESPN, WFXT-TV, USCHO.com, The Sporting News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, the Milwaukee Journal, Hockey Canada and the Rocky Mountain News. Portions of this article appeared in the November 3, 1989 issue of College Hockey Magazine.