Hockey Night on Christmas
A special holiday blog from volunteer Kate Ziebinski. Photos courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
We are in the midst of another busy Christmas and Holiday season here in snow-covered Edmonton. Busybodies are finishing (or starting) their Christmas shopping, frantically running from store to store trying to locate that one impossible-to-find gift that Santa had promised would be under the tree. Others are planning their grocery list in preparation for holiday feasts, big or small, for friends and family. Some are decorating their homes in such a festive way that its lights and displays could be seen with the naked eye from as far away as Estevan, Saskatchewan. People are also enjoying the outdoors with the host of winter activities available to them such as skating, sledding, and building snowmen, and thoughts leaning towards starting that one epic snowball fight. And there are those who will give a “Bah Humbug” to the whole season, and wonder why they are still living in this arctic climate and not in some place more appealing, like Florida.
For the most part, Christmas was not that overly different in the 1890s in the Town of Edmonton. There might not have been a ‘Tickle-Me-Elmo” to buy or the 10-foot-tall inflatable Santa to adorn your front yard, but you could still buy your presents at The Hudson’s Bay Company. Other fine goods for the lady or gentleman of the house could be purchased at W.T. Henry & Co., or Larue & Picard. A choice stock of fancy groceries for your feast could be found at a W.G. Ibbotson’s or Brown & Curry. The store of Mrs. Wm. P. Evans was an excellent choice for a smaller variety of children’s toys and games.
But in 1894, there was an event that changed the festivities of Christmas Day and the winter season in one swoop. It was a phenomenon that started out east in the Dominion of Canada, and quickly made its way to the district of Alberta and the rest of the Northwest Territories. This event was hockey. This new sport was created in the 1870s and was an instant success wherever it was played in this country. The Edmonton Bulletin had some reports of the Winnipeg hockey teams playing in 1893. Calgary started playing that same year, and with the excitement of this sport being generated, Edmontonians felt it was high time that they picked up the game.
In late November of 1894, teams were in talks of being formed here, and across the North Saskatchewan River in the village of South Edmonton (which later changed its name to Strathcona). In Edmonton, Steve Garnham created a squared-off hockey rink on the river at the lower ferry crossing, which measured 150’ x 75’. This site was near the location of where the Low Level Bridge would be built in the near future. Three days later, on December 6th, The Edmonton Thistles Hockey Club was formed and plans were underway to organize a game against South Edmonton which was talking about building a rink of their own and creating their own team. However, that did not come to fruition in 1894.
Further up the river, the village of Fort Saskatchewan, with a population of 140 (give or take), had built a rink and had formed a hockey club which was made up entirely of North West Mounted Police (NWMP) officers who were stationed there.
And so a new tradition was born – the Christmas Day Hockey Match.
The historic first game was played on Edmonton’s rink on December 25th, in front of a large number of spectators. The weather was perfect, reaching 22°F (-6°C), and the play was described as “lively.” Edmonton scored the first goal and had a 2-1 lead, but the NWMP won the game 3-2.
It was decided to play a New Year’s return match. There was no strict schedule, so games were organized in a home-and-home series fashion. What better way to start the hockey season than with the two biggest festive days of winter? The return match was played at Fort Saskatchewan’s rink, and Edmonton again scored first, but the NWMP won again – this time 2-1. The two teams wound up playing 5 games against each other the first season and won two apiece, tying the last one before the warm weather put an end to frozen ice and the hockey season, without the chance of a tie-breaker game for the champions of the Edmonton District being crowned.
Hockey meshed amazingly well with the holiday and winter festivities as the games were one of the biggest social highlights of the season. As if the excitement of Christmas wasn’t anticipated well enough, so too was the first puck drop of the season later that day. The South Edmonton Shamrocks were organized the following season, which created a natural hockey rivalry between the two cross-river settlements that were rivals in everything else. Supporters from both teams would make their way across the river to cheer on their boys with their tin horns and other noise-makers they could find. Although bitter enemies on the ice and in the stands, the two teams and loyal base of supporters would mingle after games at a local hotel for a fancy dinner, or during the season attending a fancy masquerade ball or smoking concert hosted by one of the hockey clubs. They would sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” before and after the games, but during the match, they would shout at the opposition with words that were in no way tidings of comfort and joy.
Much like the differences between Christmas celebrations, the same thing can be said about hockey. The concept was the same and positions were similar, but the game has evolved considerably since then. Each team had seven players on the ice – one goalie, three forwards, a point & cover-point (defensemen) and a rover, who could be slotted in either as an extra forward or defensemen. There might have been one or two spare players, but they could only play if any player on the ice could not finish the game due to injury. The seven players played the entire game in two 30 minute halves. There were no lines on the ice so offside worked the same way as it did in soccer. For the most part, there was no equipment.
Games being played on an outdoor rink for the early seasons were subject to the weather, so a blizzard or a warm spell could considerably shorten a hockey season. If it was -20ºC, the game would still be played, albeit with fewer spectators. Weather permitting, the season was played between December and March. Calgary’s team would regularly take the train up to the Edmonton District to play in a tournament, or a team from Edmonton would go to the southern city.
The sport also quickly spread to other parts of the town. While the Thistles and Shamrocks were the top senior teams from the area, they had in conjunction with them a junior team each – the Stars and the Capitals. Schools began to coordinate hockey teams that competed for a silver trophy, and ladies teams were soon to follow in 1899.
The players in the early era were not paid to play hockey, as it was essentially a passionate hobby for them. The teams were made up mostly of well-to-do workers in and about the city. The aforementioned W.T. Henry played the first few seasons for the Thistles and worked at the store that bore his name. R.P. Pettipiece was a forward for the Shamrocks and the editor of the South Edmonton News, who loved to play up any success his team had achieved. It was not uncommon for these men and other players to show up to work with a black eye, or the effects of a reset broken nose, fresh bruises or stitched scars. Players did eventually start to get paid around 1907 but were still considered amateur players.
Hockey slowly began to change. Edmonton dropped the “Thistles” from their name (just Edmonton Hockey Club) and their colours went from green, white, and black to black and yellow. South Edmonton’s name changed to Strathcona (Shamrocks) and their uniforms went from blue & black to scarlet & white. Both towns went from outdoor rinks to indoor arenas in 1902. The new level of intermediate hockey was created, and with that came the introduction of new teams at that level. Leagues were formed and season schedules were created. Professional hockey started up and by the 1920s, Edmonton was competing in the WCHL (a league on par with the NHL). Teams folded, others were created, but one thing that remained the same was the annual game on Christmas Day.
The hockey seasons eventually started earlier than December. Edmonton played against Strathcona on Christmas exclusively, either on its rink or Strathcona’s, even into the 1910s. Local teams started playing on the road in Regina, Medicine Hat, or elsewhere. With this longer distance to be travelled, the Christmas Hockey Game slowly faded out of tradition. These days, there are no scheduled hockey games in any league on the continent on or around Christmas Day.
The joyful anticipation of hockey on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day has resurfaced in relatively recent times. The excitement of hockey at Christmas has now moved to Boxing Day, with Team Canada playing their first game in the incredibly popular annual World Junior Championships tournament and The NHL has started playing outdoor hockey games on New Year’s Day as part of their Winter Classic festivities. These games harken back to the turn of the 20th century when Edmontonians and South Edmontonites would trim the Christmas tree, carve the Christmas turkey, and gleefully await the start of the hockey season.
O’Riordan, Terence. “The “Puck Eaters”: Hockey as a Unifying Community Experience in Edmonton & Strathcona, 1894-1905.” Alberta History, 2001.
Zeman, Gary W., Brenda Zeman, and T. A. Graham. Alberta on ice: the history of hockey in Alberta since 1893. Edmonton, AB: GMS Ventures, 1986.