Very Early Russian Hockey

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A bandy game in the Yusupov Gardens, St. Petersburg, in February of 1913. The Gardens team, first champions of Russia back in 1903, are wearing the arm patches. The team with the diagonal stripe is the Narva club, also from St. Petersburg. (Image Source)

It is a well-known fact that hockey in Russia began in December of 1946 (we have discussed it at this very blog).  And it is a true fact (leaving aside a couple of exhibition games between the Dynamo Moscow club and a German team in the 1930s).  But it is only a true fact if we remember that we are talking here about “Canadian” hockey, or “puck” hockey — the sport played by six people per side chasing a rubber disk.  Organized “Russian” hockey, aka “bandy” (11 players per team chasing a ball on a large ice surface), goes back much further.  It had its origins in the late 19th century, at about the same time that the puck game was making inroads in Canada and the United States.  Bandy’s Russian heartland was St. Petersburg, and it was a team from that city that won the country’s first official championship in 1903.  Bandy remained Russia’s sole form of ice hockey right up until the full adoption of the “puck” variety in 1946.

However, I recently tripped over a fascinating article that suggests a certain amount of interest in the “Canadian” game in Russia much earlier than I had thought…

In addition to this site, I also write a local history blog about Peterborough, Ontario, where I live.  The research for that project involves a fair amount of poking through old newspaper archives — a wonderful activity that occasionally yields unexpected treasures.  And so it was that I came across this little piece in the pages of the May 4th, 1903, Peterborough Examiner, reprinted from the Montreal Witness.  Here is the text in full:

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“There is a possibility of a Russian hockey team visiting Canada within the next year or two, if negotiations now under way are successfully carried through.  This will be interesting news to the hockey loving public of the Dominion, and Canadians will doubtless be pleased to welcome a team from the land of the bear.  About two months ago Mr. Louis Rubinstein received a letter from Mr. Lebeudff [sic, presumably “Lebedev” –ed.], of St. Petersburg, requesting full particulars as to the playing of the game in this country, and regarding rules, rinks and other features surrounding the sport as played by Canadian teams.  Mr. Rubinstein in reply, sent the information desired, and at the same time he mailed to Mr. Lebeudff, a picture of the team, ex-champions of the senior hockey league.  On Friday Mr. Rubinstein received an acknowledgment, and enclosed were several interesting souvenirs, one showing a picture of the St. Petersburg players in the heat of a contest, while on an engraved card the names of the officers and players of the club were signed.

Mr. Lebeudff thinks that the Canadian game is all right and he intimates that the St. Petersburg seven are anxious to meet our boys at some future date.  

Mr. Rubinstein believes that such a meeting could be brought about if the different, senior hockey clubs throughout the Dominion would come together and encourage the idea.”

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Louis Rubenstein. (Image Source)

It is no surprise that the prospect of a Russian team visiting Canada would be of interest to people in Peterborough — hockey was wildly popular in the town at that time, and you could barely toss a puck onto the ice without a reporter showing up to write about it.  Most local businesses had their own teams, and there was even a squad, nicknamed the “Abstinines,” representing the Peterborough chapter of the Temperance Union.

Louis Rubinstein (or “Rubenstein,” as it is more usually spelled) was a well-known name in early Canadian sport, one of pioneers of figure skating in the country.  He had St. Petersburg connections, too — in 1890, he competed there in an unofficial competition, a fore-runner to today’s World Figure Skating Championship.  Despite coming in for some unpleasant attention from the police (Rubenstein was Jewish, and anti-semitism was a serious problem in Russia at the time), he was eventually allowed to skate, and he may have won, too — at least, he did so according to Western sources.  Russian sources, on the other hand, say that the winner of the competition was Alexei Pavlovich Lebedev, another pioneering figure who is known as “The Grandfather of Russian Figure Skating.”  Whichever of the two of them actually did come out on top in 1890, I think it quite possible — even likely — that Alexei Lebedev was the “Mr. Lebeudff” referred to in the Examiner article.

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Russian skaters and judges in the late 19th or early 20th century. Alexei Lebedev is fourth from the left. (Image Source)

Sadly, it does not appear that Mr. Rubenstein’s and Mr. Lebedev’s plan for a hockey tour ever came to anything — I have been unable to find any sign that a team from St. Petersburg visited Canada in the early years of the twentieth century (if you have heard differently, please do drop me a line!).  Of course, matters in Russia took a grim turn not long after this point, with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905.  And the early rumblings of discontent that would eventually lead to the events of 1917 were already being heard.  So it is possible that, in the end, the planned tour was simply not feasible.  It is also possible that Mr. Rubenstein was not able to drum up enough support for the idea from his hockey colleagues.  We simply do not know.

Bandy remained, and remains, popular in many parts of Russia, Central Asia, and the Nordic countries.  In time, bandy clubs would provide a significant number of the players who made up the early Soviet “puck” hockey teams (for one thing, they could already skate like the wind).  And it is tempting to wonder what would have happened had the tour gone ahead, and a “St. Petersburg seven” arrived in Canada to take on the locals in the North American version of the sport!

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An unidentified Russian bandy team in about 1898. (Image Source)

Incidentally, the photo at the top of this piece comes from this site, a wonderful collection of photos of early bandy players and games in St. Petersburg.  I encourage you to check it out!

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Posted on May 8, 2015, in History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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