Hockey’s Forgotten Pioneer

January 18, 2008 by D'Arcy Jenish
Hockey action at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in 1893 [PHOTO: NOTMAN AND SON/MOLSON ARCHIVES/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA139443]
Hockey action at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in 1893
PHOTO: NOTMAN AND SON/MOLSON ARCHIVES/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA139443

James Creighton—the law clerk of the Canadian Senate for 48 years and a man who has been called “the inventor of hockey”—was one of history’s forgotten figures for more than half a century after his death on June 27, 1930. And he may well have remained obscure and unknown were it not for the efforts of Bill Fitsell, a Kingston, Ont., journalist and hockey historian, who spent two decades combing through old newspapers and other aged records searching for references to the man.

Fitsell found lots—enough to devote a chapter to Creighton in his 1987 book Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings. His latest discovery may well be the most startling. Creighton is buried in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery—the resting place of one former prime minister, several celebrated poets and dozens of Canadian soldiers. But unlike them, and hundreds of ordinary citizens, Creighton lies in an unmarked grave, and no one, not even Fitsell, is exactly sure why. “There’s nothing there, just empty space,” says the 84-year-old Fitsell who visited the grave late last summer. “It gave me an empty feeling to think that this man was a pioneer of our national sport and yet has been overlooked. It was a real disappointment.”

James Creighton, as law clerk to the Senate, 1902. [PHOTO: WILLIAM J. TOPLEY/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183578]
James Creighton, as law clerk to the Senate, 1902.
PHOTO: WILLIAM J. TOPLEY/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183578

Disappointing, maybe, but after decades of digging around in archives, Fitsell has never been put off by the unexpected. Upon seeing that bare patch of grass at Beechwood, one of his first thoughts was: something has to be done. He raised the matter at the October meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR)—an organization he founded back in 1991—and convinced the membership to launch a fundraising campaign to place a marker over Creighton’s grave. “Hopefully, we’ll get some support in Ottawa and elsewhere. Support from anyone, really,” says Fitsell, a war veteran who served with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve—from 1942 to 1946—as a naval writer on frigates and destroyers in the North Atlantic and English Channel.

His appeal has struck a responsive chord with one prominent member of the SIHR—Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “It seems astonishing that a man who helped create our national sport and served the country with distinction for nearly half a century should be buried in an unmarked grave,” the prime minister told Legion Magazine. “I think SIHR should be applauded for raising our awareness of Creighton’s importance and for launching a fundraiser for a marker. I wish them well.”

Ideally, Fitsell would like to see a gravestone in place next summer, one that will acknowledge in words etched into marble or granite Creighton’s role in turning hockey from a high-energy, outdoor game into an organized sport played indoors. Fitsell can’t say for certain when Creighton first strapped on a pair of skates to play stick and ball games in his native Halifax. But such pastimes were immensely popular in Nova Scotia during the long winters of the mid-19th century when Creighton was a boy.

Creighton was born in 1850, educated at the Halifax Grammar School and graduated at age 14. His next stop was Dalhousie University where he earned a bachelor’s degree, with honours, in 1868. A tall, lean man, according to the description of one of his contemporaries, he weighed only 144 pounds, but was an enthusiastic sportsman who played rugby and skated well enough to serve in later years as a judge of figure skating competitions.

Illustrations that appeared in the newspapers and magazines of the mid-1800s—often simple pen-and-ink sketches—depict frozen lakes and bays around Halifax that are crowded with people playing a variety of games or simply enjoying the outdoors. There are curling matches. There are people out for horse-drawn sleigh rides on the ice. There are skaters galore. Invariably, there are clusters of boys with sticks, engaged in an activity that immediately strikes thecontemporary eye as pond hockey.

These games were called shinny, or hurley—after an Irish stick and ball game played on grass—or rickets, which referred to the stones that were placed three to four feet apart and served as goals. Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a lawyer, politician and the author of The Clockmaker: The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, recalled playing hurley in the early 1800s on a sheet of ice at Windsor, N.S., known as the Long Pond.

By the early 1840s, large games of rickets were being played on the lakes around Dartmouth, N.S., and an 1859 report in the British Colonist, a Halifax newspaper, describes rickets as an informal pastime with rules that could be adapted to suit the circumstances of the moment. Teams were chosen before play commenced. The playing surface could be extended or shortened depending on the number of participants. The sides would agree beforehand how many goals had to be scored to decide the contest, in the same way that matches in tennis and other racquet sportsend when one player has attained the prescribed number of points.

Creighton is credited with organizing the first indoor exhibition of hockey and he had a hand in several other innovations that transformed the fluid games of his youth into the sport of hockey. All of this took place in the mid-1870s when he was living in Montreal and working as a civil engineer on the Lachine Canal and the city’s port. In his spare time, he played rugby with the Montreal Football Club and judged skating contests at the Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond Street in downtown Montreal, the first covered ice surface in the country.

The Victoria was a Quonset-shaped structure. The ice surface measured 80 feet by 204 feet and around it was an eight-inch high platform for spectators. Creighton served on a panel of three judges at a skating competition held there on Feb. 26, 1875, an event covered in full by the Montreal Gazette newspaper. By 3 p.m., some 2,000 spectators were on hand, and the number grew to 3,000 when the men skated in the evening. The smooth, hard ice “looked like an immense mirror,” according to the Gazette. The flags of many countries hung from the roof. The National Brass Band provided musical accompaniment and the scene “was much enhanced by the brilliancy of the gas jets which lighted the rink,” the newspaper reported.

Less than a week later, on March 3, 1875, Creighton served as captain of one of the teams when hockey made its debut as an indoor game. The sides had nine players apiece, most of them either members of the Montreal Football Club or students from McGill University. They wisely decided to replace the ball with a one-inch by three-inch circular piece of wood to avoid injuring spectators. Thus, the hockey puck was born. “The game is like lacrosse in one sense,” the Gazette reported, “the block (of wood) having to go through flags placed about eight feet apart, but in the main the old country game of shinny gives the best idea of hockey.”

As for the outcome, the newspaper reported that: “The match was an interesting and well contested affair, the efforts of the players exciting much merriment as they wheeled and dodged each other and, notwithstanding the brilliant play of Captain Torrance’s team, Captain Creighton’s men carried the day, winning two games (or goals) to the single of the Torrance nine.”

The same two teams played a second game on March 17, 1875. This time Creighton was described as captain of the Football Nine, and his side wore sweaters with red and black stripes while their opponents wore white shirts. Creighton’s Football Nine played only one game in 1876, but it was another significant step forward for the sport. The wooden disc was now being called a puck.

The Victoria Skating Rink hosted four games in 1877. The most important, in terms of developing the game, occurred on Feb. 26. Creighton served as captain for the team from the Metropolitan Club, an exclusive men’s organization, which had challenged another high-end men’s group, the St. James Club. In its report on the match, the Gazette published the first set of rules, which were almost identical to the newly established rules of field hockey.

It was a slender packet, with only seven clauses, but the rules included some things we now take for granted. The game began with a “bully” or faceoff in the centre of the playing field and there was an offside rule that prevented an attacking player from advancing ahead of the puck carrier. Players were prohibited from raising their stick above the shoulder and there were penalties for charging from behind, tripping, collaring (holding, presumably) and kicking the puck.

Creighton played in one more Montreal game, this one in mid-January 1879, by which time he was studying law at McGill. He graduated in June 1880 with first-class honours and practised in Montreal until March 3, 1882, when he was appointed law clerk to the Senate, a position he would hold until his death at age 80.

Creighton left Montreal just as the sport of hockey was taking hold of the city’s population. By the early 1880s, there were three organized hockey clubs in Montreal and several less formal, recreational teams and the number of players per side had been dropped to eight from the original nine. Creighton appears to have had little involvement in the sport after relocating to Ottawa.

However, in 1889, at age 39, he played briefly for the Rideau Rebels, a team made up of members of Parliament, parliamentary assistants and Edward Stanley and his brother Arthur. They were sons of the governor general, Lord Stanley of Preston, creator of the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, better known as the Stanley Cup. The Rebels, a brief-lived formation, played an important role in popularizing the game in Ontario by embarking on a barnstorming tour that included stops in Toronto, Kingston and Lindsay.

Creighton dabbled in journalism throughout his career. He served briefly as a parliamentary correspondent for the Montreal Gazette and occasionally wrote articles for magazines, but never published anything about the origins of hockey or his role in developing the sport. One of the obituaries that appeared after his death says that: “His recreations were exploration, salmon fishing, angling generally and skating,” but there is no mention of hockey.

Creighton remained employed as law clerk of the Senate until his death due to a heart attack, two weeks after his 80th birthday. “While talking casually to the hall porter at the Rideau Club at 7:30 last night,” the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported on June 28, 1930, “(he) collapsed and expired before aid could be summoned.”

Sir Robert Borden, an old friend and a former prime minister, attended the small funeral service in his honour, as did several other notable Ottawa political figures. However, his wife of 52 years, Eleanor Platt, was seriously ill and did not attend. She died a few weeks later, the couple had no children and this, says Fitsell, may explain why a marker was never erected over his grave.

Creighton appears to have been a modest and reticent man, who thought nothing of the role he had played in advancing Canada’s national sport. But in November 1943, a Montreal businessman named Henry Joseph explained to an interviewer from the Gazette that Creighton had proposed the first public exhibition of hockey at the Victoria Skating Rink after a game of lacrosse proved to be a miserable failure.

Joseph, who played in the March 3, 1875, game, also explained how Creighton had introduced the game to Montrealers. He said kids had long played shinny on grass or on ice without skates using balls and curved branches from trees. Creighton taught his friends how to play the game on ice and they took it up enthusiastically. “We started playing ice hockey in 1873,” Joseph said, “and used to play almost every day in the week and even on Sundays when we could bribe the caretaker of the Victoria Rink to let us in.”

Joseph’s recollections and Fitsell’s research place Creighton at the centre of things when a pivotal change was occurring in the evolution of hockey. Fitsell believes that the man deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame’s builders’ category and for years has lobbied on behalf of Creighton, without success. However, he is optimistic about the campaign to raise funds for a gravestone. His next challenge will be to write a fitting epitaph for a man who served his country for nearly half acentury and brought Canada’s national game in from the cold.

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