The Commodification of Hockey in Rupert’s Land

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This post is part of a limited series called HBC at 350, which focuses on the environmental history of the Hudson’s Bay Company in light of the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1670.

“Civilized people ate well in warm houses, wore new clothes, bought soap and books. They were enlightened by commodities…Spreading commerce spread civilization, which made the world better by allowing more people access to commerce.”

 Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast, pg. 63 

The first hockey sticks were not made, they were found. Like a good walking stick on a long hike, a stick to play hockey with was a valued object that emerged from the landscape, a gift selected from the forest as unique and individual as the person playing the game. They could be made from any type of wood: a spruce branch with a large knot at the end, a carved piece of maple, or a fallen piece of birch. 

In settler colonial narratives, hockey is often depicted as natural, an inevitable result of our ability to survive the harsh winters of this cold, inhospitable land.[1] But hockey is not natural at all. Like Canada itself, it is a human social and cultural product that has been made and remade over hundreds of years.

Early forms of hockey evolved from a combination of Indigenous and European precursors: hurley, shinny, shinty, bandy, rickets and Duwarken, a traditional Mi’kmaq game.[2] Hockey was a wild sport with many names and thousands of variations. By the early 19th century, ice-and-stick games were played across what would become Canada, including in Rupert’s Land, a territory controlled for 200 years by the Hudson’s Bay Company.[3]

“We endeavour to keep ourselves in good humour, health, and spirits by an agreeable variety of useful occupation and amusement. Till the snow fell the game of hockey played on the ice was the morning’s sport.”

Letters of Sir John Franklin, Great Bear Lake, November, 1825 

In 1870, Rupert’s Land was surrendered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to the Crown. The HBC sold the territory, for which it never acquired the Aboriginal Title and did not own, to the newly confederated Canadian government for the equivalent of over $60 million dollars today.[4]  John A. Macdonald’s new national policy, which included tariff protection for Canadian industry, prairie settlement, the building of a transcontinental railway, and the genocidal subjugation of the Indigenous peoples of the west, formed the political and economic infrastructure of Canada.[5] The survey and sale of Rupert’s Land under a land-tenure-based ownership system and the taxation of agricultural settlement would help fund this vision.

Rupert’s Land, Wikimedia Commons

Five years later, on March 3rd, 1875, the first “official” hockey game took place at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal.[6] The game had all of the modern elements of hockey, including a defined rink area, a set of rules, and standardized equipment: steel skates, a round, flat wooden puck, and imported hockey sticks, designed and made by the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia.[7] These sticks, known as the “Mic-Mac Hockey Stick,” were distributed by the Starr Manufacturing Company of Dartmouth and sold by retailers such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, which opened saleshops at its former trading posts. With this new phase of development, the HBC moved away from fur trade-based mercantilism towards commodities-based industrial capitalism.

Victoria Skating Rink, 1893, Wikimedia Commons

Organized sports such as baseball and hockey emerged in cities in the late 19th century, where recreation had to conform to the new ways of organizing time that followed industrial capitalism.[8] Urban sport and games developed the regularity, efficiency and strict scheduling of time that came with factory culture. According to sport historians, the primary difference between recreation (which is informal, loosely organized and irregularly scheduled) and sport is this formalization of rules, timed matches, and standardized equipment. 

In rural areas, hockey followed the natural rhythms of agriculture.[9] Games could occur anytime in the winter and in any open space connected to a water source. In cities there was a sharp distinction between work time and leisure time and space was at a premium, leading to the standardization of playing surfaces. For capitalists, formalizing a sport meant commercialization, turning hockey into a spectacle that could be sold and a commodity that could produce profit. 

Organized hockey moved west, starting in Manitoba, following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. The railway extended the experience of industrial time into the hinterlands surrounding urban areas, connecting them to the structure of the railway schedule but also strengthening the two-way relationship between urban and rural life. Agricultural products and natural resources flowed into the cities with greater regularity and predictability, and commodities and goods flowed outwards.[10]

In 1893 the Hudson’s Bay Company published its first catalogue, following the trend of other Canadian retailers such as Eaton’s, Goodwin’s, and Simpson’s. Settlers in the most remote regions of Canada now had access to an increasingly large number of consumer goods, including fabric, ready-made clothing, household textiles, millinery, floor coverings, footwear, hardware, and groceries.[11] Catalogues created a shared material culture where the same hockey stick, carved from a Hornbeam tree by Mi’kmaq craftspeople in Nova Scotia, could be found on rinks coast to coast and into the arctic. Skates, pucks and hockey sticks flowed to all corners of Canada, including the newest and wildest provinces and territories.

Photograph of Mi’kmaq making hockey sticks from hornbeam trees (Carpinus caroliniana) in Nova Scotia, Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, few copies of these catalogues survive. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, held by the Province of Manitoba, has only a handful of catalogues from this early period and none are currently digitized or microfilmed. Account books for the trading posts prior to 1870 have been digitized, but don’t describe any sports equipment in their inventories. However, the Hudson’s Bay Company 1920-1911 Autumn and Winter Catalogue, republished by the University of Toronto, dedicates half a page to hockey paraphernalia, including Mic-Mac Hockey Sticks.

Extract from the Hudson’s Bay Company 1910-1911 Autumn and Winter Catalogue.

Hockey experienced an explosion of popularity in the 1890s, especially in the west where it was introduced to groups of Germanic, Ukrainian, Icelandic and Scandinavian settlers.[12] Because modern hockey was “invented” by prominent Anglophone engineer and lawyer James George Aylwin Creighton and was played by the British military and in British educational institutions, it was seen as a respectable sport.[13] Hockey was used to create a national identity tied to Great Britain and its empire and prepared these areas for settlement, industrial capitalism, and the Anglo-Canadian form of civilization. The commodification of hockey by the HBC allowed not only the spread of hockey as a sport, but the spread of Canadian identity.

Screenshot: HB350, thebay.com

The HBC continues to play this role today, after 350 years, selling nostalgia and Canadiana in the form of point blankets, mittens and hockey jerseys. 


Cover Image: Rideau Hall Rebels with Mic Mac Hockey sticks, 1889, Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Richard Gruneau and David Whitson, “Introduction,” in Artificial Ice: Hockey, Culture, and Commerce (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), pp. 1-2.

[2] Ibid.; Paul W. Bennett, “Reimagining the Creation: The ‘Missing Indigenous Link’ in the Origins of Canadian Hockey,” Acadiensis (Journal of the History of The Atlantic Region, January 7, 2020), https://acadiensis.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/reimagining-the-creation-the-missing-indigenous-link-in-the-origins-of-canadian-hockey/.

[3] Shirlee Anne Smith, “Rupert’s Land”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published February 07, 2006; Last Edited October 08, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ruperts-land 

[4] Deed of Surrender, HBC Heritage, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/fur-trade/deed-of-surrender 

[5] Colin D. Howell, “Blood,” in Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada (Toronto, Ontario: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2004), 9-10.

[6] Martel, Jean-Patrice, “Origins of Ice Hockey”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published February 01, 2019; Last Edited June 25, 2020. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/origins-of-ice-hockey

[7] “‘MicMac Hockey’ Sticks.” The Birthplace of Hockey. Accessed October 28, 2020. https://www.birthplaceofhockey.com/origin/original-equipment/micmacstx/. 

[8] Colin D. Howell, “Money,” in Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada (Toronto, Ontario: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 51-54, 66.

[9] Ibid.

[10] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.)

[11] Catalogues, HBC Heritage, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/social-history/catalogues 

[12] John Chi-Kit Wong and Robert S. Kossuth, “Chinook Country Hockey,” in Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World War (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2011), pg. 220.

[13] Colin D. Howell, “Respectability,” in Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada (Toronto, Ontario: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 28-29.

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Lauren Walker

Cultural Heritage Specialist at WSP
Lauren Walker is a Cultural Heritage Specialist with over nine years of experience working in the cultural heritage planning and conservation field. Lauren is interested in the cultural heritage landscapes of the Great Lakes region, the manufacturing of land and the role of environmental history in the environmental assessment process.

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