Ask anybody in the world what Canada is known for, and the first thing every single person will say is “Hockey!” This is because one stereotype of Canada that remains true is that Canada is a hockey-crazed country! In hockey, Canadians of all walks of life, all genders, all ethnicities, see hockey as a pure expression of life. Teamwork coupled with moments of individual glory. Defiance and victory. Epic battles against the elements and rapacious foes. Fights for justice and the protection of the innocent. All of it happening over 60 minutes on the dazzling white of smooth ice.
Hockey’s roots go back millenia. There is evidence of ancient Egyptians playing a game not unlike ball hockey, using hooked sticks to shoot a ball into a goal. Ancient First Nations had several games involving similar rules, and it is these that have been widely credited with introducing European settlers to the idea of hockey. It took some crazy French Canadians to implement these games on ice.
Wherever hockey may first originate from, the organized sport known today as ice hockey first appeared in Canada, in three places at once, in the mid-19th Century. Montreal, Halifax and Kingston have all be credited with being the birthplace of hockey. The first organized games were under the banner of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada in 1876. In 1914, representatives from across Canada and the north-east United States met at Chateaux Laurier in Ottawa and founded the National Hockey Association, which, in 1917, became the National Hockey League. Hockey madness in Canada went from an amateur fad to a professional craze.
The National Hockey League (NHL)
The NHL has been in existence since 1917, with an original six teams (Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins). Today the league numbers 30 teams; 7 in Canada and 23 in the United States. The NHL is known as the strongest and most elite of all the hockey leagues in the world, and actively scouts and recruits the best hockey players from around the globe (most of whom hail from Canada, the USA, Russia, Sweden and Finland).
The NHL plays throughout the winter and is the most popular winter sport in North America with an average annual fan base of nearly 80 million. The end of the regular culminates in the playoffs, where the top 8 teams from the east and the top 8 teams from the west compete in a series of rounds for the championship and posession of the Stanley Cup, hockey’s most coveted trophy. The Stanley Cup was created by Lord Stanley, governor-general of Canada, in 1888. He and his family had become enthusiastic about hockey and in 1892 commissioned the cup for the local amateur Ottawa hockey team. 122 years later the names of all the championship teams who have won it are proudly emblazoned on the trophy.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is the next most popular hockey league in the world after the NHL. The IIHF hosts international matches between competing national teams and is also the governing body for Olympic hockey. The IIHF includes both men’s and women’s hockey teams.
IIHF tournaments are organized into annual round-robin events, with each team playing each other team at least once and the winners advancing while the losers are dropped out of the tournament. At the end, the one team remaining wins gold medals. IIHF games are great previews of up-and-coming NHL stars, as the IIHF World Juniors championships allows people to see the greatest under-18 players that each nation has to offer.
The 1972 Summit Series
American pop media has made a big deal of the “Dream On Ice” and the defeat of the Soviet hockey team in 1976. They have produced movies and songs and books and Americans have been taught a myth of an unbeaten Soviet juggernaut finally being brought to its knees by wily American hockey brats. This, like all myths, is not true.
By 1976 the Soviet Union’s hockey team had already lost two championships to Canada and one to Sweden. America’s 1976 victory was like pecking at the left-over meat on a rotting corpse. In 1972, it was Canada who first beat the Soviet goliath!
Canada and the Soviet Union, the two countries who both claimed hockey as their national craze, decided to battle it out and once and for in a 8-game tournament, four games in Canada and the final four games in Moscow. At first, the Russians clobbered the Canadians 7-4 but Canada won the second. Then the Soviets went on to win the next two games. Canada looked like another victim of Russian hockey greatness as her team travelled to Moscow for the final four games, but then came back and won the next three games. The final game was a nail-biter with both teams tied until, 34 seconds before the end of the final period, Canada’s Paul Henderson scored the winning goal. Canada had won the series by 1 goal!
The next year Canada went on to beat the Soviets again, followed by Sweden in 1975. America simply put the final nail in the coffin.
Junior Canadian Hockey Leagues
Canada, being a hockey-loving country, is home to three major-junior hockey leagues which is a training ground for future NHL players. Collectively under the CHL (Canadian Hockey League), these three leagues rarely interact but have huge devoted fan followings in their municipalities, much like college football in the US.
Some names in hockey are household names, even for those who’ve never watched a hockey game!
Hockey started as a hometown sport and in Canada it remains so. Despite multi-million dollar contracts and the glitz of NHL and IIHF competition, hockey is still considered a family-friendly, team-building and educational sport for boys and girls and of ages. As a result, every town has a hockey rink and many people build rinks in their own yards!