Skip to main content
Original Issue

When Harvard Met Brown It Wasn't Ice Polo

A lot of weird games between a lot of scrub teams probably were played on ice before Jan. 19, 1898, but on that day modern intercollegiate hockey competition was officially born

On the snapping-cold morning of Jan. 19, 1898 seven young men of Brown University boarded the train for Boston at Providence carrying bulky equipment bags. On arrival, they took a trolley car to Franklin Park in suburban Dorchester, and there, on a crowded pond, played Harvard in the first college ice hockey game on firm record in the U.S.

The term "firm record" is significant because there are several claims in varied publications to a similar first. All the claims, however, are vague in setting down definite teams, dates and places; they are tales as fragile as ice shavings.

Some of them refer to a game known at the time as "ice polo." This game, which was played with a ball, was popular toward the end of the last century, but was essentially different from hockey in the number of players per side and in the equipment they used. Other claims refer to matches of one kind or the other between amateur clubs rather than colleges, and still others are unquestionably nothing more than myths.

The Brown-Harvard game at Franklin Park is thoroughly documented and pedigreed. To trace its ancestry one must go back a few more years still, to the doings of one Malcolm G. Chace, a young man from Rhode island who has been referred to as the "father" of ice hockey not only at Brown and at Yale but throughout the entire U.S.

Chace, who began his college career at Brown and later transferred to Yale, was a championship tennis player but merely a dabbler at ice polo. In the early fall of 1892 he went to Niagara Falls, N.Y. to play in an international tennis tournament. Among the participants were a number of Canadians, and they and Chace spent considerable time talking about winter sports in their respective regions. Among other things, they discovered that they were all playing different versions of more or less the same game on ice, though some of them called it ice polo, others hockey. As a result, members of the Victoria hockey team of Montreal invited Chace and Robert Duffield Wrenn of Harvard, another ice polo player (and later national singles tennis champion) to visit Montreal for a firsthand look at Canadian hockey.

The two made the visit the next winter. Chace by then was a freshman at Brown and Wrenn a junior at Harvard. About the same time George Wright of Boston, a sportsman who was later to become the Wright of the Wright and Ditson sporting goods firm, first saw the game of ice hockey as the Canadians played it. All three, each in his own fashion, were taken by its possibilities. Chace and Wrenn tried to transfer their new enthusiasm to their ice polo colleagues. The effort was not an immediate and entire success.

Wright fared little better. He came back with an armful of hockey sticks and several pucks, and early the next winter dumped the lot in Providence, where Brown University's ice polo team was practicing on Railroad Pond east of the city. He invited the players to try the equipment.

"All afternoon the polo players pushed the puck around the rough ice," an unnamed reporter wrote later of the experiment. "Darkness found not one of them enthusiastic over the new game."

By that time Malcolm Chace had transferred from Brown to Yale. And in the fall of 1894, while his ex-classmates were scoffing in Providence, he was energetically pushing ice hockey in New Haven. Indeed, from that base Chace organized the coup that probably, as much as any one incident, lifted ice hockey above ice polo at this critical stage of development. With Wright's help, Chace managed to gather together a group of college students who favored the newer game, and arranged for them to go to Canada for a series of hockey matches during the Christmas holidays of the school year 1894-95.

Chace served as the captain and also the player-coach. Wright was a sort of manager. From Yale, along with Chace, came A. C. Foote. Harvard was represented by F. H. Clarkson. From Columbia there was William A. Larned (another later tennis champion), and from Brown came three—William A. Jones, George Matteson and Alexander Meiklejohn. Also on the roster was Byron Watson of Brown, who had to withdraw before departure time, and C. M. Pope, a nonplaying New York newspaperman.

This team called itself—with some presumption—the All-Americans, and as such left for Canada on Dec. 26, 1894 for a schedule of five games that took them through Jan. 6 and carried them to Montreal, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa and back to Montreal again.

"Too much cannot be said in praise of the way the Canadians welcomed and entertained the Americans," said the Brown Daily Herald in its Jan. 12, 1895 edition. "From morning until night they did all in their power to make their visit a pleasant one, and they succeeded perfectly. Special cars met the Americans at different places to carry them about. They were invited to dinner after dinner, besides numerous receptions...they were taken on drives, sleigh rides and ice-yachting parties; in fact every attention that could possibly be shown them was given them, regardless of expense or trouble."

By agreement, they were to play a hybrid game. One period was to be played under the rules of ice hockey, the other ice polo. In the changeover this meant, essentially, that a puck would replace a ball, that the sticks used in the hockey period would be the flat-bladed variety as opposed to the curved-end sticks of the ice polo period and that there would be seven on a side for the hockey and five for the polo.

There are almost as many accounts of the outcome of the games as there were All-Americans to provide memoirs. The consensus is that the Americans lost all the ice hockey periods, though there is one soft claim that they defeated McGill University at its own game. All the Americans claim that they won all the ice polo periods.

Whatever the case, they had a lot of fun and learned much about the basics of the game and its Canadian equipment. After the trip the All-Americans went back into the college world as hockey disciples. Meiklejohn fostered the game the next year at Cornell, where he went for graduate study. Chace finally got it established at Yale (a room in Yale's rink was dedicated in his name), and Wright kept at it for business purposes. Even Pope, the newspaperman, did his part. He was a leader in the drive to raise the funds that led to the construction at the turn of the century of the hockey rink at St. Nicholas Arena in New York.

In the season of 1897-98 Brown went all out for ice hockey. At the same time Harvard was changing over to the new game from ice polo. According to the Brunonian, a weekly magazine devoted mainly to Brown's literary life, the Providence team elected to practice all through its Christmas vacation "so that in spite of difficulties and disadvantages we may hope to be well represented."

Judging by subsequent results, the Bruins undoubtedly were trim and tough when on that chill Wednesday in January they headed out for Franklin Park. The temperature was 21° when they headed down College Hill to catch the train and rose only a few degrees above freezing at its highest. The cost for the round trip via the Boston and Providence Railroad was $2. Harvard had sent along a guarantee of $1 per man, or $7, to help defray Brown's expenses for the day.

At Franklin Park no dressing quarters were available, but then, except for the cold, the process of donning uniforms was quite uncomplicated. Each man wore a bulky sweater, not necessarily of the same design except for the rolled turtle neck, baseball trousers and heavy wool stockings. If a player chose to, he might wear shin pads over the stockings. Gloves were of the standard knit variety. The costume was topped off with a cap or a toque or nothing at all, according to the player's choice. The skates were comparably nonreg.

"We bought our own skates," wrote Horace Day, one of the stars of the Brown team. "They were of the clamp variety, which you attached to ordinary shoes either with a little lever to make them hold or with a key that screwed them on. Occasionally they worked loose. They cost about $6."

Hockey sticks cost from 60¢ to $1 and were expected to last. Day and his fellow forward, Charles Cooke, claimed they used only one stick apiece in all their college games. "When mine became worn," Day wrote later, "I had a piece of hardwood riveted to it to restore the original width. When playing, I could hear the rivets digging into the ice, but the stick held up."

For ice space at Franklin Park the teams simply commandeered a patch at one end of the crowded pond, bid the pleasure skaters stand aside, and set up poles to mark the goals. Two incidents occurred that underlined the informality of the affair.

First, members of the Brown team noticed that one of Harvard's players was George Matteson, Brown '96, a veteran of the Canadian campaign with Chace's All-Americans. Matteson was at Harvard studying medicine. There was no protest on Brown's part, for, as Cooke said some years afterward, he himself later played for the Yale freshmen while a medical student at New Haven. "Things were pretty flexible then," Cooke said.

The other happened when Harvard's Captain Fred Goodridge noticed that Brown had only seven players on hand.

"Where are your substitutes?" Captain Goodridge inquired of Brown's Captain Irving O. (Hoppy) Hunt.

"We don't need any," Hoppy replied tartly and, as it developed, he was right.

The Boston Herald had its man on the scene, and the lead paragraph of his story in the next day's paper noted the occasion by stating that it was Harvard's first intercollegiate game in its first season in "the favorite Canadian pastime." Considering this acknowledgment of the team's inexperience, he thereafter seemed to be peevishly concerned about the way Harvard performed. Rather waspishly, it would seem, he proclaimed that the Crimson "drew a blank," that its players "were erratic and fell over one another" and "still had a great deal to learn."

And so, it would appear, did he, for his account was run through with terms from other games until the reader, too, might well draw a blank. To wit: "As the ball was in scrimmage almost all the while, with the Harvard players all bunched, Brown University frequently secured opportunities for a run to goal by clever teamwork when the puck was knocked out of the crowd."

The "Providence collegians," as the Herald' reporter termed them, fared much better, critically. "They had speed, they supported one another finely and the passing of the forwards was clean-cut and accurate." This last facility led to the first goal in the first game of all, and it was scored by Horace Day on a pass from Charles Cooke at 7:30 of the first period. The final score was 6-0 for Brown. Cooke scored three times, in the second period, and Captain Hoppy Hunt and Jesse Pevear scored one goal apiece.

Only near the very end was Harvard able to mount an attack. Fittingly, Captain Goodridge brought it off almost singlehanded. He took the puck near his own end and made what was patently "a desperate bid for a goal." He dodged Pevear's attempted body check, eluded Hunt and then snapped a pass to William Lee Beardsell, a forward. "Beardsell connected, all right," the Herald reported, "and made a pretty shot for goal, but missed by a very narrow margin."

On that note the inaugural game was done, and all that remained was for someone of a historic bent to see that he commemorated it as such, before one of the other claimants. The race, if race it was, was slow and not really won until 1957. On Feb. 7 of that year the Brown Club of Boston presented a plaque marking the event to Harvard for installation on the wall of its new Donald C. Watson Rink. The plaque reads:

FEBRUARY 7, 1957