With almost 200 years of history behind the sport, many ice hockey fans are undoubtedly curious as to how it has developed over time. In this article, we take a look at how technology has influenced the sport’s equipment, how various aspects of ice hockey culture have changed, and how it became the game we all know and love today.
The Ice Hockey Stick
The basic shape of the iconic ice hockey stick has remained fairly unchanged over the years. However, the materials and methods that are used to make one have changed dramatically. Originally hockey sticks were made from a single piece of wood, such as hornbeam, birch, or ash. In the 1940s this changed and laminated sticks, made from multiple layers of wood, became the new standard. This method of production not only resulted in a lighter, but also more flexible hockey stick.
By the 1950s, fiberglass was added to the blade, followed by the addition of fiberglass to the shaft in the 1970s. Aluminum became the next popular synthetic material used in hockey stick production in the following decade. It was far more durable than wood or fiberglass sticks but was also much heavier.
The 1990s saw the introduction of composite shafts, and by the 2000s sticks were being made from a single piece of composite material. These changes offered players a lighter, more durable, and more consistent way to play the game. Today, every professional player uses a composite stick.
The puck as we know it today hasn’t always been a part of ice hockey. The first games of ice were actually played with a ball. However, as you can expect, it was incredibly hard to control on ice. This led to the development of the flat, square puck in the 1870s.
This was still not ideal and a few years later, the puck was again changed to its iconic round shape, and this time it was made from a rubber material. However, there were problems with this new version. This rubber puck often broke, and it bounced too much on the ice. Thankfully, the use of vulcanized rubber helped make the puck far more durable, and players discovered that freezing the puck helped to counteract the natural bounce of rubber.
There have been attempts to replace the traditional round, rubber puck, such as the Firepuck and FoxTrax smart puck. Both of these pucks tried to spice up the experience for TV viewers, but neither really took off, resulting in both being discontinued.
The skates used in ice hockey predate the game by thousands of years, with the first version of ice skates dating back to around 3000 BC. These skates were made from bone and strapped to the wearer’s feet. Unfortunately, this design meant that skaters couldn’t move on their own and a pole or stick was required to help the skater move along the ice.
There were a number of developments in ice skates after that, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that we saw a shift towards metal blades. These blades were designed in such a way that skaters no longer needed poles to help propel themselves forward. Instead, movement was possible simply by pushing with your feet and gliding along the ice.
Fast forward to the 1900s and we see the introduction of the modern ice skate design: a boot with long-screwed in blades. Like earlier strap-on skates, these skates were adapted to specific sports. For example, ice hockey skates are characterized by a shorter, narrower, and deeper blade that has a slightly rounded edge at the front and back of the blade. The boot of an ice hockey skate also used leather, light plastic, and foam padding to provide additional protection and last longer than ice skates used in other sports.
The modern game of ice hockey is known for being rough, but protective gear has a complex connection to the sport. Hockey helmets were only made mandatory in the NHL in the 1979 – 1980 season. Prior to that, players rarely used them, despite an incident in 1933 which saw pro player Ace Bailey suffer a near-fatal head injury. Even goalies, who were tasked with stopping pucks that flew nearly 100 miles per hour, were initially hesitant to use masks because of the stigma around them.
However, other types of protective gear were more readily accepted, with players adopting rudimentary shin guards and gloves as early as the 1880s. Goalies made use of leg pads as early as 1896, with Winnipeg Victorias’ goalie George Merritt taking his team to victory thanks to a pair of cricket pads. Knee pads, elbow pads, back and shoulder padding, as well as more advanced forms of shin protection grew in popularity throughout the early 1900s.
Unfortunately, while these new forms of protective gear were more effective at protecting the wearer, they were also more effective at injuring other players. The 1937-1938 season saw the introduction of new rules that prevented the use of materials that could be used to cause injury to others. New plastic and fiberglass protective gear was introduced in 1945 to alleviate this issue, but it only resulted in more injuries.
Over time, new rules, designs and materials, such as nylon and padded materials, were introduced to help deal with the growing number of injuries in the sport.
One can’t discuss ice hockey without taking a look at the iconic hockey jersey (or hockey sweater, depending on which part of North America you come from.
The hockey jersey was originally made from warm wool and was designed to protect players against the cold when the sport was mostly played outdoors. They had simple designs and lacked much of the branding that we recognize today. Usually, teams would buy a single type of jersey to ensure their team had a consistent look, and then attach their number to the back and, if they had one, a simple team logo to the front.
There were many factors that led to the changes to the hockey jersey over the years, such as the shift indoors, the introduction of television, NHL regulations, and team merchandising. But one of the recent changes that led to the hockey jersey as we recognize it today is the standardization of manufacturing across all NHL teams.
The first company to be responsible for the designing and creation of team jerseys under this new system was The Hockey Company between 2000 and 2007. After Reebok bought out The Hockey Company in 2007, they introduced the Reebok Edge. The Edge introduced changes to the sweater’s visual design. New materials were also used to make the jersey more waterproof and flexible. In 2008 minor changes were introduced to the jersey after players complained about a number of issues.
Reebok lost the manufacturing license to Adidas, who took over jersey manufacturing in 2017. While new materials were introduced to reduce the weight of the jerseys, make them cooler and more durable, there were very few changes made to the overall visual design.
In the past, ice hockey has traditionally been associated with two countries: Canada and the United States. But is that changing?
The short answer is yes. Unsurprisingly, regions that have suitable environments have taken a growing interest in the sport. European countries such as Finland, France, Germany, and Sweden all have highly skilled players who are taking part in the NHL. Even Britain, which many people associate with sports like cricket and rugby, is seeing growing interest in ice hockey. A glance at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) membership listing also indicates a growing interest in the sport.
But the exact reason why this is taking place isn’t clear cut. Some have attributed this to the rise of global video streaming services, while others say it might be generally improved access to information online, or the growing number of resources being provided for the sport.
Where there’s a competitive sport, you can be sure there’s sports betting. While many sports have shied away from this side of sporting culture, the NHL is no stranger to sports betting. In his article, How The NHL Has Embraced Sports Gambling And Why It’s Working, Ant Barberio unpacks how the NHL has succeeded with sports betting. He highlights how this popular pastime has grown thanks to:
- Early experimenting with venues in Las Vegas
- The creation of the Vegas Golden Knights
- The legalization of sports betting in the US, and
- Partnering with sportsbook and betting operators
Depending on where you live, there are different types of sports betting channels that allow you to get in on the NHL action, including online sports betting sites like BetMGM. Some of these channels even help you understand the latest sports betting trends, so you can calculate your next bet.
There’s no doubt that this part of ice hockey culture may have started small, but thanks to the official support of the NHL, it undoubtedly has a lot of potential.
The Past, Present and Future of Ice Hockey
Whether we’re discussing the rules, equipment or culture around ice hockey, the sport has evolved and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But what exactly does the future of ice hockey hold? We’ll just have to wait and see.