Was Hockey Born In Délįne?
It’s a Canadian creation myth. Kingston, Montreal, and Halifax have all fought to be recognized in hockey’s early history. But it’s two small communities—one in the North, one in the east—that most fiercely defend their self-appointed positions as the birthplace of Canada’s favourite game.
Windsor, Nova Scotia is where hockey was born. Dél̨ın̨e, Northwest Territories is where hockey was born. Both are true, and neither is correct. Maybe the question should be, who wants it more?
About 4,600 kilometres south-east of Dél̨ın̨e, in the Annapolis Valley, is the town of Windsor, NS (population 3,600). There you’ll find Long Pond, owned by the Dill family since 1878 and the purported “cradle of hockey.”
It’s quite literally fiction. Windsor’s claim originates with dialogue between two characters in an 1844 novel by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, featuring his popular Sam Slick character. The passage references a game of “hurley” being played “on the long pond on the ice.”
For Danny Dill, that’s all the proof needed.
“Without a doubt, it’s the oldest site that’s been documented of hockey first played in Canada,” says Dill, the current owner of Long Pond.
But as goes one of the many now-common aphorisms coined by Sam Slick, facts are stranger than fiction.
Five hundred and some kilometres to the north of Yellowknife rests the community of Dél̨ın̨e (population 550), also unofficially known as the birthplace of hockey.
In 1824, Sir John Franklin and his crew were wintering at what was then called Fort Franklin. In a diary entry, he mentions his men passing the time with games of hockey played on the ice.
It’s an open-and-shut case for former Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya.
“Unless Windsor can pull out something like that, we have factual evidence.”
A separate letter also describes ice skating taking place, though there‘s no direct mention of ice hockey played on ice skates. That’s a crucial distinction for historical authority figures like Library and Archives Canada.
“It is not known whether they were skating while playing ‘hockey’ or were engaging in two separate activities at different times during the day,” the federal heritage body declared in a 2017 release on the subject. “The prevailing view is that for an activity to be called ice hockey, participants must be on blades.”
But there is also an oral tradition, counters Yakeleya—ancestors and elders who spoke of men flying around the ice. “So you have a written version and you also have an oral version.”
During his time in the NWT’s legislative assembly, Yakeleya (who now serves as Dene National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations) put forward a heritage designation—unanimously approved— declaring Dél̨ın̨e to be “a significant location in the history of the development of hockey in Canada and in the circumpolar world.”
He even rewrote the lyrics to Stompin’ Tom Connors “The Hockey Song” and performed them in the Legislature: “Many will say in their own strange way, hockey was born somewhere else. Stompin’ Tom didn’t know Sir John, so I write this song myself. Ontario, even Nova Scotia, tried to say their claim was true. But they were 20 years late, I got it straight, hockey was born in the Sahtu.”
Yakeleya was inspired by research brought forward by Dél̨ın̨e Chief Leeroy Andre and government negotiator Danny Gaudet, among others, to “set history right.”
So let’s talk history.
Windsor and Dél̨ın̨e can both agree the origins of hockey extend well before its arrival in North America. Stick games were being played in Ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. Games resembling field hockey cropped up in Ethiopia (50 AD), Mongolia (500 AD) and Chile (1500 AD). Depictions of hockey players on ice skates in England date back all the way to the 1790s. Even Charles Darwin wrote in 1853, then at the age of 44, that he “used to be very fond of playing hockey on the ice in skates.”
The Society for International Hockey Research (yes, that exists) published a report in 2002 describing the history of a game that’s been called hurley, hurling, bandy, shinty, and shinny. The earliest European reference researchers found was a Scottish text from 1607 describing a game of “chamiare” (a name for shinty) played on the sea ice.
Those events are all important pieces in the evolution of the game, declared the hockey researchers, but none of them can be said to be where the sport began. The precise moment of hockey’s birth, according to that 2002 version of the story, could be said to be when the puck dropped on March 3, 1875, at the Victoria Skating Club in Montreal. It was an indoor game, featuring two teams of nine, with rules recognizably equivalent to modern ice hockey. Anything before that just doesn’t count.
(The SIHR, it should be noted, has a new constitution that rules the society should no longer take a position in debates about hockey. Former SIHR president Jean-Patrice Martel, who spoke to Up Here after the publication of this article in print, notes that the 2002 report wouldn't be published today.)
“Baloney,” was the response from the Dill family, who dismissed the report as full of Upper Canada bias. Yakeleya is in agreement there, feeling that acknowledging a small northern, primarily Indigenous community as hockey's birthplace is too hard to swallow for some Canadians.
“In their wildest imagination, who would think that Dél̨ın̨e would have a strong, factual, evidence-based claim to be framed as the birthplace of ice hockey in Canada?” he says. “Well, too bad, guys.”
So the dispute continues as something of a cold war in ice hockey commemoration. Dél̨ın̨e’s tourism website repeats the Franklin story, as does an exhibit at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, featuring a comic book, mural and table-hockey game chronicling the “pretty true” origin story. Windsor, not to be outdone, got an official highway sign from the province declaring itself the birthplace of hockey. But there’s more at stake here than bragging rights.
“I guess at the end of the day it’s like Cooperstown,” says Dill, referencing New York's National Baseball Hall of Fame that brings in substantial tourism revenue (and ironically is, itself, based on a false claim about where baseball was invented). “Everyone wants to see some economic benefit from being the birthplace of hockey.”
Call now and you too can cash in on that history—the Dill family recently put Long Pond and its surrounding six hectares of land up for sale at a price of $1.38 million.
The unpleasant truth, though, is that hockey’s origin is anything but Canadian. Military officials and European immigrants brought their games with them as they spread across a developing country. That is to say, it’s a story of colonialism. In that respect, at least, Dél̨ın̨e offers something Windsor can’t. On the ice of Greygoose River and Great Bear Lake, the game can be a story of reconciliation across cultures and across generations.
As a child, Yakeleya would dream of playing in the NHL alongside Guy Lafleur and Garry Unger. The game was an escape from the abuses at Inuvik’s Grollier Hall residential school where he grew up. “Hockey saved my life,” he says. Is it any wonder he’s tried to repay the favour?
“Why not have the world look at [Dél̨ın̨e,] and say, yeah, come to the birthplace of hockey and have a game.”
Like any good contest, it’s hard not to root for the underdog