Hockey at McGill, 1884. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Someday you will have a question about hockey. Something that doesn’t make sense, maybe, or seems offensive. Or less than that, something that just seems somehow off, in a slight, nagging way, like a persistent itch. Why is this huge open-ice hit not considered charging? Why does the NHL still have touch icing? Why do some extremely talented players talk about dump-and-chase as though it were the height of tactical brilliance? Why do the Canadiens still have middle-aged guys in track suits shoveling their ice when every single other team has long since moved on to attractive women in halter tops? There are a lot of mysterious things in this game. Even the hardest-dying fan will sometimes have questions.

So maybe, when this question occurs, you bring it to a hockey person of long experience and great sagacity for clarification. This person might make a logical argument, or they might tell you a story, but chances are at some point you will hear the phrase that’s hockey. It may be offered with a shrug- the hockey gods move in mysterious ways- or it may be yelled- that’s the way it is and if you don’t like it go back to Florida, princess- but it will probably come up. That’s hockey is what the guardians of tradition tell to the young, the inexperienced, and the annoying. It is both the last line of defense and an obligatory disclaimer, the one phrase that explains- supposedly- everything.

The message behind that’s hockey is that there is an unchanging and eternal core to the game. An essence, if you will. Somewhere, beneath all the superficial changes, the new teams and new equipment and new tactics, are some intrinsic qualities and core values that have always been and will always be. That’s hockey is a terse, unpretentious invocation of the soul of the game.

So what is this essence of hockey? What is hockey, intrinsically, originally, from the beginning? What is its nature, and how would we find it, so that we might stop plaguing the sages with our inane questions and irritations?

Perhaps we might start at the beginning.

The game is very old, but how old exactly, we are not entirely sure. There are scattered references to it being played in various parts of Canada throughout the nineteenth century, but these are often vague. It was a different time, when sports were really just recreational pastimes to keep children busy. Literate adults were not spending their time describing the rules and practice of games- they had barns to build and beavers to kill and tuberculosis to die of. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, when Canadian cities started to spawn an aristocratic class of significant wealth, education, and leisure time, that anyone bothered to start collating and standardizing the practice of games. And so, in 1877, the Montreal Gazette published the earliest recorded rules of ice hockey. They were as follows:

1. The game shall be commenced and renewed by a Bully in the centre of the ground. Goals shall be changed after each game.

Notes: A “Bully” was the forerunner of the faceoff, but the practice was slightly different. The referee would place the puck- sorry, ball- in the appropriate spot between the two teams and yell “PLAY”. Players from either team were free to stand anywhere on the ice, so long as they were on their own side of the ball. At this time, a “game” referred not to a match but to a goal, meaning sides were switched every time a team scored.

2. When a player hits the ball, any one of the same side who at such a moment of hitting is nearer to the opponents’ goal line is out of play and may not touch the ball himself or in any way whatever prevent another player from doing so, until the ball has been played. A player must always be on his own side of the ball.

Notes: This is a very complicated way of saying, “No forward passing,” which was considered one of the fundamental rules of hockey until the 1927-8 season. All offense depends on the puck carrier.

3. The ball may be stopped, but not carried or knocked on by any part of the body. No player shall raise his stick above his shoulder. Charging from behind, tripping, collaring, kicking or shinning shall not be allowed.

Notes: I have been unable to find exact definitions for ‘collaring’ and ‘shinning’, but you can probably imagine what they meant.

4. When the ball is hit behind the goal line by the attacking side, it shall be brought out straight 15 yards, and started again by a Bully; but, if it is hit behind by any of the side whose goal line it is, a player of the opposite side shall (hit) it out from within one yard of the nearest corner, no player of the attacking side at that time shall be within 20 yards of the goal line, and the defenders, with the exception of the goal-keeper, must be behind their goal line.

Notes: Early ice had no boards and the goal line constituted the boundary of the playing surface. This rule basically calls for corner kicks, except the ball is hit rather than kicked and everybody has to line up on opposite sides twenty yards apart.

5. When the ball goes off at the side, a player of the opposite side to that which hit it out shall roll it out from the point on the boundary line at which it went off at right angles with the boundary line, and it shall not be in play until it has touched the ice, and the player rolling it in shall not play it until it has been played by another player, every player being then behind the ball.

Notes: Wow, these people really worried about the ball going out of bounds, aren’t they?

6. On the infringement of any of the above rules, the ball shall be brought back and a Bully shall take place.

Notes: You know what these people weren’t worried about? Punishments. This is the only punishment specified anywhere, for anything, and it’s basically neutral zone face-off. No two-minute minors, no five-minute majors, no misconducts, ejections, fines, or suspensions.

7. All disputes shall be settled by the Umpires, or in the event of their disagreement by the Referee.

Notes: An Umpire is a goal judge, more or less. One would stand behind each goal line and raise a flag when the ball crossed within the appropriate zone. Seems sane enough, until you consider that the Umpires for a game were chosen from among the spectators. The Referee, the guy on skates who dropped the puck and whistled forward passes dead, was often a non-playing volunteer from one or the other of the participating clubs.

Now, as an observant modern fan, you might have noticed something about these rules, which is that the game they describe is not hockey. Or, at least, nothing that would be familiar to us as hockey. If you brought this game before the philosopher Milbury and the hierophant Cherry, they would not nod approvingly and say, yeah, that’s the real old-time hockey. This game has no nets and no creases, no face-off dots or circles, no lines blue or red, no glass, no boards, no forward passes, no penalties, no clock even. It is played (although the rules do not specify this) nine men to a side. It is officiated by spectators. My God, this game is played with a ball. Just about the only thing it has in common with the modern game are ice, skates, sticks, and no-tripping. This isn’t hockey. It’s slidey-soccer.

And yet, somehow, we got from there to here, thinking all along that we’ve been playing the same game. Every generation makes tiny revisions- a line here, a penalty there, one more official, one less player- and each of those revisions leads to others, and then others, and then others. The blue line contains within it the possibility of the red line, the net anticipates the crease, the face-off dot implies the face-off circle implies the hash marks. Eventually they accumulate to create major shifts in the core of the game. Early hockey was primarily defined by disputes over the structure of play: where/how to put the ball in play, where different sides could attack the puck from, what spaces of play were permissible and not. Over time, the introduction of lines and boards shifted these concerns, and now they’re peripheral issues- occasionally subject to a brief flurry of debate, but not a matter of great concerns. The bulk of modern rules, and the bulk of modern rule-anxiety, centers on contact, violence, and penalties.

Every new generation sets out to reform some small things, the things their elders would have dismissed with a shrug and a that’s hockey, and every generation eventually ages into conservatism, imagining that the problems they solved and the reforms they made somehow represent the perfection of the game. The old guard in the 30s lamented how the game had changed from the 10s, and those in the 50s lamented all that was lost from the 30s, just as the disgruntled in the 70s looked back with warm nostalgia on the 50s. We all begin our relationship with the game as activists and end it as traditionalists, blind to the transformations- the corruptions- we ourselves introduced.

That’s hockey. We always refer back to this notion, like the frustrated parents of inquisitive toddlers. Why? Because that’s hockey. But there is no essential spirit of hockey, no single tradition to refer to, there is only the hockey we knew as children and the hockey we know now. It is not one thing. It has never been one thing. It evolves, in ways technological, cultural, and wholly accidental. It adapts- slowly, sometimes, but inexorably- to the needs and desires of the new age. Our sense of authenticity and tradition isn’t about historical reality, it has nothing to do with the true past and the things old James Creighton did on the playing fields of McGill. It’s a creative synthesis of the history we were given, the interpretive stories we tell about that history, and the new elements that make sense for us. It’s a dialogue, enough of then to feel consistent and enough of now to feel relevant, that slowly pulls the game along.

So, the next time you ask a question and someone resorts to that’s hockey, remember that what they’re really saying is: That is a historically contingent condition that was prevalent in hockey when I learned it, when I was young and new and my generation was defining our sense of the sport, and I am so deeply attached to it on an emotional and psychological level that it is painful for me to consider that it might not be necessary, because I fear that change implicitly devalues the customs I have been playing the game with my whole life.

And you say: Changing the game isn’t an affront to it, it’s a sign of affection for it, and moreover it is my birthright as a player and a fan, and while I respect the traditions of the past I also know that the game cannot stand still or it will fade into irrelevance and die with the inflexible ancestors. No, my friend, that’s not hockey, that was hockey. This new thing, this new line, this new penalty, this new custom: This is hockey.

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Sources: The best source, by far, on the evolution of hockey rules is The Annotated Rules of Hockey, by James Duplacey. The 1877 rules were transcribed from Lords of the Rinks: The Emergence of the National Hockey League, 1875-1936, by John Chi-Kit Wong.