While walking the snowy streets of Montreal, it’s easy to see how far our national winter sport has come. You might pass the ragged outdoor rinks of Parc Jeanne-Mance or McGill’s lower field on the way to class, and later the very same day walk by the gigantic likeness of Carey Price plastered on the downtown walls of the Bell Centre. Indeed, the current home of the Canadiens is a perfect microcosm of the modern game of hockey: commercialized, climate-controlled mass entertainment. The passion for the game is undoubtedly still there, albeit tempered since the times before helmets and safety glass. Just as the Habs themselves moved from their legendary Forum to newer comforts, the times have changed, and so has the game.
The city of Montreal has witnessed every step in the ice rink’s journey from seasonal novelty to year-round, engineered perfection. In truth, both the city and McGill have played pivotal roles in the evolution of Canada’s sport and its playing field. A mere century and a half ago, the spirit of hockey was absent from indoors, only alive in the parks and backyards of Montreal and the rest of the country in sufficiently cold weather. Despite the technological advancements elsewhere, and however primitive and makeshift they may seem, outdoor rinks today still remain one of Canada’s most cherished sporting traditions. What is more Canadian than a common space, for all to enjoy, forged through the toil and sweat of its people together with the ice and snow of winter?
It wasn’t so long ago that hockey developed and changed on a game-to-game basis at the whim of strangers playing on the rough ice of the great outdoors. Even though they are no longer at the forefront of sporting culture, outdoor rinks retain their rustic appeal and a special place in the hearts of Canadian communities across the country. They come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny a backyard patch of ice where toddlers learn to skate, to the world’s largest skating rink in the nation’s capital. They swerve around hills and trees and boulders so naturally that they often seem to be somehow integral to the icy landscape, as if they’ve always been there. Some are bordered by two-by-fours standing on edge, some by full regulation boards, and some by nothing more a hardened lip of snow. But no matter the technicalities, for young Canadians, an outdoor rink is as ideal and as perfect a surface as Madison Square Gardens. Outside, on cracked and uneven sheets of ice, is where the next generation of players still learn to play.
Even so, about halfway through the 19th century, sport enthusiasts began searching for a more permanent and controlled means to enjoy the pleasures of ice skating without going outside, and later without even the freezing help of the fierce Canadian winter. Although it was not the first in the city, the Victoria Skating Rink, opened in 1862, soon became one of the finest and most important in the world. It was this rink, situated in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile, which set the standard ice dimensions used in modern arenas, all the way to the NHL. But that was far from the rink’s only contribution to professional hockey. The very first organized indoor hockey game was contested on its ice surface in 1875 between members of the Victoria skating club, including several McGill university students. For the sake of the building’s windows, the game was played not with the then-usual lacrosse ball, but rather the one of the first pucks (then made of wood and not rubber). Later on in 1889, Lord Stanley, the future donor of his eponymous cup, watched his first hockey game in the stands of the Victoria. Fittingly, the first Stanley Cup championship game was played in the same building five years later, with the hometown Montreal Hockey Club defeating Ottawa by a score of 3-1. Up until its ultimate closure in 1925, the Victoria Skating Rink and its members were also instrumental in the developing the sport of figure skating, reducing the standard hockey team size from nine to seven to six, and pioneering the first ice hockey broadcast by telegraph.
The turn of the century saw the rise of truly professional hockey. In Montreal, two major hockey teams were founded: the Maroons and, later, the Wanderers, targeted towards the Anglophone community, and the enduring Canadiens, representing the French-Canadian Montréalais. These teams were among the best in the country in the early years of the 20th century, competing in various forming and dissolving semi-professional leagues before the founding of the National Hockey League in 1917. By 1926, the NHL was the only pro league remaining to compete for the Stanley Cup, marking the Cup’s transition from championship trophy to coveted prize of the NHL alone. In 1924, the first of the great hockey cathedrals was opened: the legendary Montreal Forum, the most famous ice rink in the world. There, the two Montreal teams between them won 24 championships, although only the Habs would survive the turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the time of the Forum’s final game in 1996, the NHL had grown to thirty teams, and the Canadiens and their home had been forever entrenched in the collective consciousness of their city and nation.
Hockey, and the ice rinks on which the beloved sport is played, still hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Montreal. The Canadiens, in their shiny new Bell Centre, remain the oldest professional hockey team in the world and the NHL’s most successful, while McGill University’s hockey program boasts being the oldest hockey club of any kind. The ice rinks and hockey teams of the glorious past, while still cherished and fondly remembered, are more faded memories than anything these days. The Victoria Skating rink, home to some of the most formative games in history, currently houses a parking garage, a slightly worn International Ice Hockey Federation plaque the sole external reminder of its storied history. The only things being played nowadays in the old Forum are arcade games, the building having been gutted and repurposed after closing its doors for the final time. Since the demise of the Wanderers, no Stanley Cup-winning team has either folded or relocated. Hockey is still played both outside and inside, although Montreal is no longer the centre of sporting innovation it was a century ago.
But the past has not been completely forgotten. In recent years, even the NHL has returned to its roots by introducing the Winter Classic and various other special outdoor games played each year. One day soon, the slopes of Mount Royal might once again echo with the scrape of skates on ice and the clap of puck on stick of the finest hockey players in the world. This time, however, they will be playing outside by choice, rather than necessity. Once more cheering crowds of fans will stand and cheer under the winter sky, egging on the heroes of our great game. Looking on, the mountain might once again witness the next step in the long and storied history of Montreal, hockey, and the ice rink.
By Nick Brunt