Did Vikings Play Ice Hockey?
And a History into the Origins of Hockey
As a Canadian medievalist, I love hockey and I love Vikings! And it’s hard for me to think ice hockey doesn’t have some kind of medieval origin when I see the Las Vegas Golden Knights facing off against the Los Angeles Kings, using highly technical stick-play that’s tantamount to the kind of technical leveraging (binding and winding) we find in medieval sword-play, with their banners and heraldry blazoning high for the cheering spectators to behold. And when players decked out in armor drop their gloves to fight, it reminds me so much of a knight in armor throwing down his gauntlet to signal a duel…
But is ice hockey more than just medieval in a metaphorical sense? If so, did Vikings really play the sport on ice? Today, we’ll be answering these questions, so don your skates and let’s hit the ice!
To begin, we’ll browse through some interesting introductory history of hockey, then we’ll delve into some primary source evidence of a Viking stick-and-ball game played on ice.
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A Brief History of Hockey
Today, most will answer the question “When and where did the sport of hockey originate from?” by telling you that hockey was invented in Montreal, Canada, in the 1800s, with the first organized indoor ice hockey game played there in 1875. Make sure to read to the end to know what I actually think about this.
FYI, the modern English word “hockey” comes from the French word for a cane, crook staff or shepherd’s hook—hoquet.
If this was a post answering the question “where did stick-and-ball games originate from?” we would be here all day and still wouldn’t get a clear answer, but I could start by referencing the following historical stick-and-ball games for your interest:
List of Historical Stick and Ball Games Similar to Modern Hockey
- Baggataway or tewaarathon (which developed into lacrosse) in presettlement Canada
- Duwarken in presettlement Canada
- Hurley or hurling in Ireland
- Shinty in Scotland
- Bandy and gambok in England
- Kolven or kolf in the Netherlands
- Keretizein in Greece
- Beikou in Mongolia
- La soule, choule or sioule in Normandy
But what about Vikings?
Viking Ice Hockey?
As Described in “Gisli Sursson’s Saga”
It’s well known that the Vikings did play a sport called knattleikr which is a stick-and-ball game very similar to modern ice hockey. Therefore, while paying respect to the French-Canadian foundations of what we universally call “ice hockey” today, the short answer to “Did Vikings play ice hockey?” is not quite, because although knattleikr might be very similar to modern ice hockey, it’s still a different sport with a different name at the end of the day, but here’s the long answer:
Vikings (or early medieval Scandinavians to be more specific) did bring their sport knattleikr to Iceland with them where they played it on frozen ponds. Evidence for this can be found in chapters 15 and 18 of Gisli Sursson’s Saga. The saga takes place from AD 940-80, recorded in writing by Christians ca. 1295. In this saga of vengeance are wonderful descriptions of the Scandinavian sport knattleikr, and by reading the following passage you’ll be able to see just how similar this medieval sport was to modern ice hockey.
“One day, a great crowd came to see the game … the more people arrived to watch, the greater the eagerness to compete … Bork made no headway against Thorstein all day, and finally he became so angry that he broke Thorstein’s bat in two. In response to this, Thorstein tackled him and laid him out flat on the ice.”— Translated by Martin S. Regal (Various, The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2001)
Doesn’t the above quote remind you of an NHL game? In modern ice hockey, sticks break all the time, and I bet the audience watching Bork and Thorstein play ball games on the ice weren’t at all surprised when Thorstein’s bat broke.
There’s even more descriptions in the saga that make knattleikr sound similar to modern ice hockey. In chapter 15, the author says, “[Gisli and Thorgrim] played ball games at Seftjorn pond and there was always a large crowd.” We can close our eyes and imagine these men sliding on the ice of the frozen pond with their bats as “Gisli brought [Thorgrim] down and the ball went out of the play.” How many times watching modern hockey have we seen the puck go out of play!
Next, “Gisli went for the ball, but Thorgrim held him back and stopped him from getting it.” In the NHL, holding a contender back would be a penalty called “holding” so we know already that the rules of knattleikr were much different than modern ice hockey, but with this said both are very physical sports. NHL players spill blood on the ice all the time. The same is true for medieval players of knattleikr. For example, “Gisli tackled Thorgrim so hard that he could do nothing to stop falling. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees.”
Reenactors try to play knattleikr today, albeit most of them don’t play on ice like mentioned in this saga, and their version of it looks more like American football than hockey. But I did find one YouTube video of reenactors playing the sport on ice, and it’s interesting to see how their “bat” (knattdrepa or knatttré) looks more like a paddle and nothing like a modern hockey stick. I’ll share the video below, but first…
To clarify, the index of The Sagas of the Icelanders (2001) describes knattleikr (although they spell it knattleikur) as follows: “A game played with a hard ball and a bat, possibly similar to the Gaelic game known as hurling, which is still played in Scotland and Ireland. The exact rules, however, are uncertain.”
Final Conclusion: Where Did Ice Hockey Originate?
For a while I was wondering if Icelanders had introduced knattleikr to aboriginals in Canada when they came here in their longships some time between AD 970 and 1030, or if aboriginals had blended their traditional sports with those of French settlers. Either way, I think the safest answer to where modern ice hockey originated is that the sport as we know it today is a blend of many different traditions and no one man or culture can claim responsibility for its development, especially when we remind ourselves that stick-and-ball games have been developing independently around the world throughout ancient history and that many of these traditions have collided in recent centuries.
If, however, we were to pinpoint where exactly Canada’s national sport came from I believe most opinions are too Euro-centric and much more research and credit needs to go to presettlement aboriginals in Canada. Check out this very interesting article on that note called The Missing Indigenous Link.
Disclaimer: As always, it’s best to remember that this is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed academic article. Also, I’m an Amazon associate so if you shop through the Amazon links I provide, even if you decide to purchase a different item in the same day, I’ll make a small referral commission at no extra cost to you! 🙂