The Victoria Pros of 1912-13

Hockey’s game-changing play turns 100

The adoption of the forward pass was probably the most important rule change in hockey history, but that wasn’t the consensus at the time.

The introduction of the forward pass in hockey is widely acknowledged as a turning point in the game — probably the most important rule change ever.

But that certainly wasn’t the consensus at the time, according to Craig Bowlsby in 1913: The Year They Invented the Future of Hockey.

The author of two previous books about early hockey in BC, The Knights of Winter and Empire of Ice, Bowlsby suggests freeing up the puck’s movement offended the era’s sense of propriety. While forward passing already existed in lacrosse and American football, hockey purists preferred rules restricting the attacking team.

“[T]he new forward pass in hockey threatened people’s world view,” he writes. “Passing a puck forward, to the Victorians and Edwardians, was too extreme, and therefore not honourable … The forward pass would be so fast, and would circumvent the opposing team so easily that it was obviously unfair.”

It’s not perfectly clear what the game looked like until this point. The degree to which passes were forward, backward, or lateral is still a matter of debate — Bowlsby includes a discussion on the subject with fellow author Bill Fitsell as an appendix to the slim volume.

This much we do know: before the rule change, hockey was so slow that players usually spent the entire game on the ice.

Lester and Frank Patrick, co-founders of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, decided to shake things up, and allow forward passing in the neutral zone, an idea dismissed by eastern sportswriters as “foolish,” “absurd,” and “a farce.”

Players had mixed feelings, with Vancouver Millionaires captain Si Griffis opining that it would be impossible to implement. Even Lester harboured doubts.

When the new “no offside in centre ice” rule was introduced on November 28, 1913 in a pre-season game between Vancouver and Victoria, as expected, things sped up considerably. Players used to a full 60 minutes “began to gasp and wheeze.”

But while quickly embraced in the west, the forward pass was only gradually and grudgingly accepted in the east. The NHL didn’t adopt its own version of the rule until 1918, and until then, Stanley Cup showdows between the two leagues alternated rules — though the PCHA didn’t always dominate contests that employed the forward pass.

The book has a peripheral local connection: the Patricks lived in and played for Nelson between 1908 and 1911 and the Pacific Coast league was bankrolled by the sale of the family’s sawmill at Crescent Valley, whose ruins are still visible.

Copies can be ordered directly from the author at epic(at)intergate.ca.

This story will appear in the West Kootenay Advertiser on November 21.