Scots skate on thin ice with hockey claim

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IT IS one of the fastest, most popular and physically demanding games on Earth.

But ministers have been left to cool their heels after their audacious bid to proclaim Scotland as the ancestral home of ice hockey was cold-shouldered by the world's leading authority on the sport.

As part of the Homecoming celebrations the SNP administration claimed ice hockey, which is played and watched by millions around the globe, had been invented by Scots emigrating to Canada.

But Bill Fitsell, a leading authority on hockey, has swept the assertion off the ice and sprinkled salt on Scottish wounds by handing the accolade to the Auld Enemy.

The official guide to the Homecoming programme makes the bold claim that the winter sport was one of Scotland's many gifts to the world and was a direct descendant of shinty.

It states: "Scottish emigrants to Canada played shinty on ice in winter, giving rise to the game of ice hockey." There is no mention of other countries contributing to the development of the sport.

Fitsell, of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR), said the Caledonian claim was wide of the mark.

Fitsell conceded that Scots did make an important contribution to the development of ice hockey, pointing out that an informal game is still referred to as a "shinny" in Canada. And the author of How Hockey Happened, widely regarded as the definitive study of the sport's origins, added: "Shinty is probably the grandfather of Canadian ice hockey."

But he added: "It will irk Scottish nationalists, but English field hockey's influence was stronger."

The North American academic said: "The Scottish shinty connection has been made in a number of Canadian centres, including the vigorous Scots community of Kingston, Ontario, where a newspaper report from 1899 states: 'Hockey is a graduate of old man shinny'.

"This is supported by other reports of sons of Scotland playing shinty on the ice in front of the town as early as January 1839."

But the founding president of the SIHR insisted the modern sport was more closely related to English field hockey, which was played on ice with skates in the Norfolk area, before being taken to North America by English soldiers in the early 19th century.

He concluded: "Hockey on the ice originated in England."

The International Ice Hockey Federation in Switzerland was also unwilling to name Scotland as the ancestral birthplace of the sport, but noted the contribution that exiles made.

Spokesman Szymon Szemberg said: "We are sure that Scottish immigrants played a role in giving rise to the game of ice hockey in Canada."

But he pointed out that the original teams in Montreal, which they regard as the sport's official birthplace, were also made up of players of English, Irish, Welsh and French descent.

However, Bert MacKay of the Canada-based Scottish Advisory Council was unwilling to cede the honour of being the historical home of ice hockey.

He said: "Scottish and Irish soldiers played field shinty in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in 1800. That is a documented fact.

"With Canada's climate it was a natural evolution to transfer the game to an ice surface."

The Caledonian claim on the sport is strengthened by the fact that the man regarded as the modern game's founding father was James Creighton, an Ottawa-born sportsman of Scottish descent.

On March 3, 1875, he organised and played in the first public indoor display of ice hockey at the Victoria Rink, Montreal, where the opposing captain was Charles Torrance.

The Camanachd Association, the governing body of shinty, is also keen to assert that the ancient Celtic game is the direct precursor of the ice sport.

Spokesman Donald Stewart said: "I have seen a lot of old pictures, paintings and photographs in North America where the sticks that are being used to play on ice are very similar to those used in shinty.

"Like in shinty, there is a distinctive curve on the bottom of the stick. It is pretty clear that the Scots went over to North America and took the game of shinty with them.

"In winter they played on ice and adapted by adding skates, and I think our claim to have given the world ice hockey is a strong one."

Torquil MacLeod, the events programme manager for Homecoming Scotland, made a more modest claim about shinty's international impact.

He said: "Scots are well travelled throughout the world and the game of shinty will have travelled with many of them, no doubt contributing to the development of games and clubs."

"It is entirely appropriate that shinty, one of Scotland's great indigenous sports, is included in the Homecoming programme and we are looking forward to welcoming visitors back to witness epic contests."

Aside from the face-off between the Scots and the English, there are claims that ice hockey was also influenced by the Irish game of hurling, the Native American game of lacrosse and the northern European stick game of bandy.

Ice hockey now enjoys enormous popularity in Canada, where it is the national sport, and is played in more than 60 countries around the globe.

In 1980 a global audience of tens of millions watched the United States and Soviet Union go head-to-head in a Cold War crunch match at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.