In their self-published 2003 book Splendid is the Sun, George and Darril Fosty (hereinafter referred to as "the Credulous Fosty Boys") purport to shed new light on the "5,000 Year History of Hockey." Of the book's 206 pages of text, only 65 pages actually apply to a period of time before the first Montreal Winter Carnival hockey tournament in 1883; so the book covers the first 4,911 years of hockey history in 65 pages, and devotes 141 to ground that has been well-covered before, culminating in 1972 with the Summit Series. That's not much of a page count to cover such an extensive period of time in the game's history which has had little written about it before. As we'll see, the authors manage to cover it in so little space by providing lots and lots of assertions, but no real evidence to support them.
The Credulous Fosty Boys are prone to making sensational claims in promoting their work. The back cover of Splendid Is The Sun states that it is one of the "greatest and profound sports [sic] histories ever told" and that "In modern annals there exists a great myth that Canadians invented hockey." They later made similar big-time claims to promote their second hockey book, Black Ice, which is the subject of another review but is similarly short of evidence. In short, the Fostys provide lots of sizzle but no steak; lots of style but no substance. If you head into their books expecting to be enlightened, you will be disappointed. They typically provide little or no evidence for their assertions, and then even when they do try to support a hypothesis, even a small amount of research will show their sources to be unreliable at best.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of even the Fosty's most basic historical knowledge of hockey. There are basic factual errors such as the one on pages 93-94 when discussing the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, as follows:
By 1911 professional hockey was being played on the west coast of Canada. With the founding of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association ("PCHL") [sic] by the Patrick Brothers [sic], Frank and Lester (hockey stars in their own right), the Canadian cities of Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster joined the list of professional hockey cities. The PCHL invigorated hockey becoming the first league to put numbers on players' uniforms for identification. They were the first to tabulate assists, and taking a lesson from a lesser-known league in Nova Scotia, the first professional league to allow goalies to flop to the ice to make saves...In time, the league would expand both east through the Canadian prairies and south into the United States. Eventually, the Canadian cities of Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg as well as the American cities of Seattle, Spokane and Portland would all become homes to the PCHL.
Why the Credulous Fosty Boys chose to use PCHL rather than PCHA as the abbreviation for the league is beyond me. There was a PCHL, a minor-pro league that operated years after the collapse of the PCHA; perhaps the authors were confused as to which league was which. They also insert their pet claims about the innovative nature of the Nova Scotia Coloured Hockey League, as discussed in their book Black Ice. Suffice it to say they present little more than claims even in that book, and there's certainly no evidence that the Patricks' decisions were influenced by this little-known league.
The PCHA never expanded east into the Canadian prairies. A separate league, not operated by the Patricks, was established as a third major league in 1921: the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). This circuit was home to Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Regina. But Winnipeg never played in this league, or any of the later minor-pro leagues that operated in western Canada before World War II. One can only guess where they got that false information. The WCHL and PCHA played an interlocking schedule for several years until the PCHA folded in 1924. Two PCHA teams (Vancouver and Victoria) then joined the WCHL. Presumably this is what is meant by the Credulous Fosty Boys' claim that the PCHA expanded into the prairies, but in fact it was simply two teams being absorbed by another league. This reveals a profound lack of understanding about what actually happened, even when dealing with well-established and oft-discussed fact.
If they get information like thiseasily obtainable in a few minutes with an internet searchwrong, how reliable can their descriptions of things that are not already well-documented be? We should of course give them the benefit of the doubt; perhaps they are simply not familiar with hockey after 1900, instead focusing on the early and ancient origins of the game. As we'll see, we won't need assumptions to conclude the Credulous Fosty Boys don't know what they're talking about when it comes to the history of the game; we have actual evidence for that.
The Definition of Hockey
Another major flaw in the work, one which the Credulous Fosty Boys share with many who discuss the origins of hockey, is that they never define what they mean when they say "hockey" in any particular context. This is importanteven vital in this contextbecause the definition of the word has changed over time. The original definition was basically a game that involved hitting something with a stick. This has changed over time to its current meaning, which is narrowly construed to mean only a specific type of that game. If you don't define your terms carefully, you risk talking past other writers, who mean something different than you do by the term in a particular context. If someone writes "hockey's origins are in Montreal in the 1870s", they clearly do not mean hockey in the sense of hitting a thing with a stick, unless they are mentally unbalanced. As such, responses like "You fool! There are illustrations of hockey in Europe from hundreds of years ago!" are invalid, because this response does use that definition of the word. The comment and the response are talking about different things.
So in order to discuss the origins of "modern hockey" (another term often thrown about without definition), we need to establish what elements need to be present in order for the game to be recognizably modern. These elements need to be general enough to include the current version of what we call hockey, while still also including the game from (for example) 1928 when the forward passing rules were very different, or from 1910 when the game still included the rover position. But these elements also need to be specific enough to exclude other similar games, such as bandy, shinny, or lacrosse. Bandy in its current form is recognizably different from contemporary hockey, so its definition must be distinct from that of hockey.
A definition of modern hockey could therefore be:
Modern hockey is a competitive game that is played on an ice rink by two teams made up of an equal number of players wearing skates, who play using a codified set of rules, and use sticks to try to propel a puck though their opponents' goal.
Two crucial elements in this definition are often overlooked in discussing hockey's origins: skates, and the puck. Hockey is not hockey (in the modern sense) without skates, though many writers are all too eager to call any game played on ice to be equivalent to modern hockey without qualification. The puck is equally important in the definition of modern hockey, and equally overlooked. But there must be a puck for it to be hockey; otherwise you will have difficulty differentiating the game from bandy, which uses a ball. Without the puck/ball distinction, you would need to get into more minute details to separate these games, such as the size of the rink or the sticks, or the number of players on each team. These specific aspects are not desirable, because they have changed over the life of what we want to include in modern hockey. They therefore should not be used as defining characteristics.
The Importance of Defining Your Terms
The following passage, from page 52 of the book, is an excellent illustration of why making a distinction in the meaning of the word hockey is so important:
The Nova Scotia Mi'kmaqs...played a form of ancient hockey that mirrored Scottish shinny. It was British soldiers, at the time of the founding of Halifax, Nova Scotia in c.1749 AD, reported that the Mi'kmaqs played primitive shinny. How the Mi'kmaqs, the true originators of "modern Canadian hockey on ice" came to play such a game is one of the great mysteries of history.
Notice how the Credulous Fosty Boys use hockey twice in this brief paragraph, but mean two very different things in each case. In the first case, they mean the archaic sense of a game involving hitting a thing with a stick, and then switch meanings for the second case, where they mean the current, modern game we know as hockey. They do not acknowledge this extremely important shift in meaning.
Later, on page 78, the Credulous Fosty Boys quote a 1940 letter from Joe Cope, who was an elderly Mi'kmaq native living near Truro, Nova Scotia. Cope noted that his father "who died in 1913 at the age of 93, saw...Indians of the old Ship Harbor Lake Reserve playing a skateless hockey game before the reserve was abandoned about 100 years ago." Again, the authors must rely on their lack of a definition of what constitutes modern hockey to use this as evidence that the Mi'kmaqs were the "true originators" of the game. The quote specifically states that the game was played without skates, which certainly does not sound like modern hockey to me, and would not fall under the definition arrived at above.
And again on page 76, we find a quote from Thomas H. Raddall's Halifax: Warden of the North. It notes that garrison officers found natives playing on the Dartmouth Lakes "a primitive form of hurley on ice, adopted and adapted it, and later put the game on skates." If the Mi'kmaqs were playing a game that could be called modern hockey, why would the soldiers need to then adapt it and put it on skates? Skates are a crucial part of the definition of modern hockey, and are lacking in the Mi'kmaq form of the game. If a game must be adapted and changed significantly, then it cannot be considered the same as the modern version of the game.
But from all of this the Credulous Fosty Boys claim that "[t]hese words are proof to Mi'kmaq claims to have played a form of hockey prior to the arrival of the English." (p.77) This is true, but again relies on playing semantic games with the word hockey. Clearly the Mi'kmaqs were playing a form of hockey, in the sense of a game involving hitting something with a stick. This is thoroughly unsurprising, since so many cultures around the world played games involving hitting something with a stick. But it does not mean they were playing hockey, in the modern sense, which is what the authors would have you believe. They hide behind their lack of definition to make specious points.
In Part Two of this review we'll look at the authors' standard of evidence (or lack thereof), and some of the nutty pseudohistorical claims that they use in an attempt to support their conjectures.