Indigenous·Video

New documentary investigates the possible Mi'kmaq origins of hockey

A First Nations family in Nova Scotia is asking a new question about the origins on one of Canada’s favourite games: did the Mi’kmaq invent ice hockey?

'I'd love to give pride to our kids and other Aboriginal children in this country,' says filmmaker

Cheryl Maloney says she thinks ice hockey is 'a gift from the Mi'kmaq to the rest of the world.' (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A First Nations family in Nova Scotia is asking a new question about the origins on one of Canada's favourite games: did the Mi'kmaq invent ice hockey? 

Mi'kmaw political science professor Cheryl Maloney and her family, from Sipekne'katik First Nation, have been researching a Mi'kmaw origin theory since 2014 and have made a documentary The Game of Hockey: A Mi'kmaq Story about their findings. 

"My interest and passion in the Mi'kmaw contributions to the game have led me to the point, where we'll be screening our film confident that the Mi'kmaq invented hockey," Maloney said. 

She began investigating the theory after reading an article about the history of Mi'kmaw hockey sticks submitted to her by one of her students, Maloney said. 

The Mi'kmaq have long been credited with the design and original manufacturing of the first ice hockey sticks. There is evidence that throughout the 20th century their sticks had been used across North America, and even as far as Australia.

A First Nations family in Nova Scotia is asking a new question about the origins on one of Canada’s favourite games. 6:03

"The story of origins [has] been a questionable story for many years," said hockey historian David Carter of Brookfield, N.S. 

Carter, who works for the Nova Scotia Museum, has spent the last eight years researching origin theories in his free time. He calls himself "Hockey-Holmes: Heritage Detective." 

Nova Scotia origins?

Some theories promote a more European-based origin, Carter said, in places like the Netherlands and England, while others tie back to games played in Ontario, Quebec and the most well known in Nova Scotia. 

"I think the evidence supports a general Nova Scotia perspective, with pivot points that include Windsor especially and Halifax," Carter said. 

"I think the Mi'kmaq would be part of that too, I think, from a prehistoric point of view." 

Hockey historian David Carter says the pre-contact Mi'kmaw ice game could be 'the roots' of today's game of ice hockey. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Carter said while there is credible evidence that a Mi'kmaw game similar to ice hockey could have influenced the development of today's game, he's not willing to say hockey was invented by pre-contact Mi'kmaq. 

"I find invention a very difficult term," he said.

"It requires a certain amount of proof to claim invention. Today, we call that copyright. Back then ... there was no means of doing that." 

Carter said he'd be more comfortable referring to the Mi'kmaw game as the "roots" of ice hockey. 

1943 letter

Maloney said the evidence for the Mi'kmaq invention of hockey "is with the Mi'kmaq. [it's] within our language, within our legends, within our stories." 

Maloney's great-great grandfather "Old Joe" Cope was a Mi'kmaw hockey stick maker and photographer from Sipekne'katik who died in 1951.

Cope wrote a letter to a Halifax newspaper in 1943 suggesting the Mi'kmaq created the game. It has been cited in various written and online publications.

Nova Scotia author Garth Vaughan quoted Cope in his 1999 book The Puck Starts Here but did not cite the original source.

"Long before the pale faces strayed to this country, the [Mi'kmaq] were playing two ball games, a field game and an ice game," Cope wrote.

A source of pride

Maloney said she's still investigating evidence that suggests some pre-contact Mi'kmaw words describe the rules and actions used in playing ice hockey.

Maloney said there is likely research to be done that's beyond her capacity, and she's hopeful the next generation will continue to investigate the Mi'kmaw origin story.

"I think hockey is such a beautiful sport. [It's] a gift of the Mi'kmaq to the rest of the world," she said.

"There's no taking that game and keeping it for ourselves, but I'd love to give pride to our kids and other Aboriginal children in this country. To know, when they step on that ice, that that came from ... my people." 

Cheryl and April Maloney are currently screening a preview of their documentary in First Nations communities in Nova Scotia. 

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About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.