A Nineteenth-Century Ice Boat Crossing- Image Courtesy of the McCord Museum


One of the great, enduring questions about hockey is why it developed a culture that is so tolerant of violence comparative to other sports. Most other sports tend to regulate violent acts tightly and punish them severely. Hockey is more cavalier; rather than outright prohibiting most acts, it offers a kind of karmic trade off: do the crime if you want, so long as you’re willing to do the time. Like some other games, hockey celebrates legitimate violence within the rules; unlike other games, it tolerates even illegal violence. Every sport has its demons, but few others are quite so comfy-cozy with them.

I have my own hypothesis about this, and it is as follows: Hockey tolerates violence because hockey is a sport that evolved in Canada in the late nineteenth century. Canada in the late nineteenth century was an extremely dangerous and unpleasant place, and the people who lived in it had to be, of necessity, very tolerant of pain and danger. Not, of course, in the refined gentlemen’s sporting clubs of Ottawa. Not in on the posh playing fields of McGill. But out in the rest of the country? All those little mining towns and lumber concerns, windblown fishing villages and lonesome ranches? Life out there, from what I can tell, was #*%&ing hard. It was often dangerous, and when it wasn’t dangerous it was certainly arduous. Between the manual labor, the climate, the disease and the isolation, a man of hockey-playing age might expect to encounter rather a lot of pain, suffering, and near-death experiences in his lifetime. On the grand scale of a modern life, a punch in a hockey fight seems like a huge assault, but on the grand scale of those lives, the lives of the great-grandfathers, it would have been a relatively minor irritation. Hockey is dangerous because, once upon a time, life was dangerous.

In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, I keep a little running collection of incidents from early hockey history where we can see not just the events on the ice but something about the lives of the players off the ice- the context in which they played. The idea is to show by example that the kind of physical pain and distress occasioned by the game back then was more or less proportional to the kinds of pain and distress that took place in everyday living. Today, in belated honor of Hockey Day in Canada, I’m going to relate one of these incidents- a story about hockey players’ lives off the ice. Or rather, on an entirely different kind of ice.

Prince Edward Island is a very small place, and like most very small places, it occasionally becomes a bit claustrophobic. Certainly this was true of hockey on PEI in the early twentieth century. There were only two teams: the Charlottetown Abegweits and the Summerside Crystals, and for the most part, they only played each other. They played each other over and over and over again, until the rivalry was so intense and so thorough that referees had to be imported from New Brunswick, since there was literally no one on the island that both teams trusted. It was positively dysfunctional. And so, by February of 1907, the Abegweits had gotten so sick and tired of seeing the Crystals every single game that they packed up their gear, got on a boat, and headed to Newfoundland to play someone else for a change.

The Guardian, a PEI newspaper, mentioned this event in a recent story on hockey history in the province with the following quote: “In 1907, the Abbies travelled to Newfoundland where they defeated the St. John’s team, but bad weather delayed their return home by 32 days.” Now, I know that journalists are a people of dry wit and fond of understatement, but this is so simplified as to be plainly misleading. To say that the Abegweits were ‘delayed’ by ‘bad weather’ makes it sound as if they had to stay a bit longer at the hotel, drinking tea and watching the storm blow outside the windows saying, “Oh my, Harold, look at that squall. I fear we shan’t be able to depart today. Crumpet?” This is not what happened.

What happened is this: at some unspecified date in late February 1907, the victorious Abegweits left Newfoundland. They made it to Nova Scotia without incident, travelled overland to Pictou, and there boarded a steamer called the S.S. Stanley, which was in the habit of ferrying people across the Northumberland Strait to PEI. On board the Stanley with them were a team of mail carriers and a theatrical troupe, and it is thanks to the latter that we have a fairly detailed account of the journey, since theater people obviously can’t resist the charm of a good adventure story and took the time to send messages detailing their travails back to their manager on the mainland.

The Stanley initially tried to depart from Pictou on or about February 25th, but was turned back by a snowstorm. On the 27th, the weather cleared and the ship departed again, only to find itself some hours later, well out of sight of any kind of land and firmly surrounded by ice.

The ice in the Northumberland Strait is an especially obnoxious variety of ice. As a hockey person and a city girl, I customarily think of ice as something very smooth, flat, and uniform, something that forms in nice solid sheets in the winter and stays more or less frozen until spring, when it melts back into water. However, the ice of the Northumberland Strait is not so docile. It is constantly in flux- freezing, melting, refreezing, floating around in huge irregular chunks that come together and break up in unpredictable patterns. A boat attempting to cross the Northumberland Strait in winter might be sailing along, happy as can be, through plain water and then find itself hemmed in by sheets of ice, or worse yet, caught in the slush that forms just as the ocean is beginning to freeze. Which is, apparently, exactly what happened to the Stanley.

In the nineteenth century, crossings had been made in light, portable boats that could be carried over the ice if necessary, but the Stanley was an inconveniently large steamer and had no such options. The only thing the passengers could do was sit and wait, hoping the ice would melt away again, or drift somehow away. And so the hockey team, and the actors, and the mailmen waited.

They waited for two days. Then the ice began to crush the ship.

Now, when you are on a boat and it begins to be literally broken by large chunks of sea ice, your options are not very many. In fact, they amount to basically one: get out and walk. The Abegweits, being from the island and therefore aware of the dangers of the crossing, managed to get the actors off the boat and walking in the general direction of Pictou island, the nearest piece of real dry ground. Walking across ice floes, though, is no easy business. The ice varied dramatically in length, height, and thickness, making for a brutal and highly mobile topography. In some places it might stop entirely at open water, and the group would have to go back. In others, it would rear up into impassible mountains, and the group would have to go back. And the actors, although bearing up well for actors under the circumstances, were not exactly all-weather people, and kept falling through. First the manager went in, and had to be rescued by the hockey team. Then the leading man fell through, and had to be similarly saved, and finally one of the musicians, who was so distraught by the experience that he had to be taken back to the Stanley to change his clothes.

Finally, about a day later, they finally made it to Pictou Island. If PEI is a small place, Pictou is a teeny tiny place, perhaps 180 people scattered across 30-some households. Throughout the winter, they would be isolated from both PEI and the mainland by the ice for long stretches, and so their stock of provisions often ran thin, but the islanders nevertheless welcomed the sixty stranded passengers and, by spreading them out in different houses and setting up bunks in the post office, managed to get a roof over everyone’s head. From there, they managed to send word to the mainland of their plight, and the S. S. Minto- the only other steamer in the area- arranged to stop by on its next crossing to pick them up. So again, the hockey team, and the actors, and the mailmen, waited.

They waited for three days. Then word arrived: The Minto had also been caught in the ice, with 100 of her own passengers to think of. There would be no rescue, and no new provisions.

Pictou Island didn’t have a lot of food and they didn’t have a lot of shelter, but they did have one useful thing: ice boats. These were long, narrow boats, maybe five meters by two meters, rather like canoes but with runners along the bottom that allowed them to be dragged across the ice like sleds. For most of the 19th century, before the advent of the steamboat, ice boats had been the only means of crossing the Strait. The idea was as simple as the execution was difficult: when there was water, you rowed; when there was ice, you pulled.

The hockey team borrowed several of these ice boats from the locals and set off. They pulled/rowed their boats across eight kilometers of icy sea to Caribou Island, then hiked overland through the woods, then crossed another two kilometers of solid ice between Caribou and the mainland, then walked another five kilometers back to Pictou (town). All told, it was perhaps a twenty kilometer journey, much of it across ice, much of it dragging a five-meter-long boat. They retrieved provisions, rested, and then returned to the island around March 11th to get the rest of the passengers. They pulled the actresses back across the ice in sleds.

Now, let’s take a minute to reflect on the sheer, unbelievable badassery of the Charlottetown Abegweits. These guys aren’t anything special, as either hockey players or Prince Edward Islanders go. They’re an amateur men’s league team. A beer league, really, or probably more accurately a whisky league because I doubt anybody back then bothered with anything under 80 proof. And these guys are not just able to hike their own bad selves over multi-kilometer stretches of treacherous sea ice, but do so with a whole group of forty-some actors and mailmen in tow. And then do it again. And again. And again. If this kind of ordeal happened to us nowadays… well, we’d probably get ourselves killed in the process, but if we survived, we would talk about nothing else until our dying day. It would be an event of life-changing scale.

And yet, in the history of maritime hockey, this story is barely even a footnote. It’s a “delay” due to “bad weather.” If it wasn’t for the actors, who took the time to tell the story, we might not even know it happened at all. As far as I can tell, the Abegweits got home some several weeks later and went about their business as if it weren’t no thing. For them, it may have been an ordeal, but it wasn’t an adventure, it wasn’t so far out of line with their expectations of life. And in a life filled with this kind of adversity, how could anything that happened on a rink, in a game, be so very difficult to endure?

Sources: I first came across this story in The Canadian Hockey Atlas, by Stephan Cole. Online, you can find the actor’s account here, which I supplemented with other accounts of ice boat crossings, such as the one found here.