Unlike sports with British or pastoral roots like cricket, rugby, football (soccer) and baseball that were played frequently in the 1880s, hockey did not arrive in the Assiniboia or Saskatchewan sections of the North-West Territories until the following decade. The first reported competition was a series between teams from Regina and Moose Jaw in 1894, with Regina winning two of the three games. By the end of the 19th century, competitive men’s teams had sprung up in Prince Albert, Moosomin, Saskatoon, Rosthern, Indian Head, Qu’Appelle, and many more towns located along the railroad lines. Organized league play escalated in the first decade of the 20th century, and was consolidated in 1906 with the formation of the Saskatchewan Amateur Hockey Association or SAHA (now Saskatchewan Hockey Association) as the sport’s provincial governing body. As early as 1908 the SAHA was confronted by rumours (often true) of covert professionalism. When the Prince Albert Mintos were declared professional in February 1911, they became the first Saskatchewan team to compete for the Stanley Cup; they lost 12–9 to the Port Arthur, Ontario Bearcats in a two-game, total-goals series to decide an opponent for the defending champion Ottawa Senators. Port Arthur defeated the Saskatoon Wholesalers 12–6 in a similar series in 1912. Most of Saskatchewan, however, was focused on the pursuit of the Allan Cup, emblematic of amateur hockey supremacy in Canada. The Regina Victorias won the trophy in 1914 and were succeeded in 1915 by the Melville Millionaires, who held the national title for only a few weeks before being dethroned by the Winnipeg Monarchs. The 1940-41 Regina Rangers have been Saskatchewan’s only Allan Cup champions since then.
Massive enlistment in the military during World War I caused both a decline in senior hockey and the emergence of the junior game. The latter was acknowledged with a national championship, the Memorial Cup, begun in 1919 and featuring the Regina Pats (named after the Princess Patricia Light Infantry regiment) as western Canada’s first representatives. Although the Pats lost to the University of Toronto, Regina would rebound with Memorial Cup triumphs in 1925 (Pats), 1928 (Monarchs), and 1930 (Pats). While both junior and senior hockey thrived, the 1920s were most notable for the short life of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL), a major-league professional organization of equal calibre to the National Hockey League and whose champions competed for the Stanley Cup against the NHL’s best teams. The Regina Capitals won the WCHL’s first championship in 1921–22 and remained for four seasons, while the Saskatoon Crescents (sometimes called “Sheiks”) were on hand until the league dissolved after the 1925–26 season.
Teams and leagues struggled to survive the Great Depression and World War II, but individual stars emerged from a variety of backgrounds. Gordie Howe, the NHL’s scoring champion and most valuable player six times in a career that spanned 34 years, honed his skills in Saskatoon by playing in as many as six youth leagues at once. Metro Prystai was recruited from Yorkton to be a scoring sensation with the junior Moose Jaw Canucks. Rural Saskatchewan produced talented individuals like brothers Max and Doug Bentley (Delisle), Elmer Lach (Nokomis), and Sid Abel (Melville). Notre Dame College in Wilcox, under the leadership of Père Athol Murray, moulded several NHL veterans. Professional hockey had a resurgence after World War II with the Regina Caps (later Capitals) and Saskatoon Elks (later Quakers) of the Western Hockey League, but those minor-league franchises died out in 1956. Junior hockey gradually took over as the pre-eminent spectator attraction, with leagues and teams constantly realigning along lines of population, geography, and facilities. The Regina Pats dominated the 1950s through the citywide network of Parks League teams and elite Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget clubs that fed the junior roster. Facing little competition within the province, the Pats represented western Canada in the Memorial Cup final five times from 1950 through 1958, but lost every series.
Junior hockey, at its elite level, shifted from a provincial to a regional concern in 1966 with the creation of the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League (later the Western Canada Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, the professional circuit of that name having gone defunct). Spanning the three prairie provinces, the league originally included the Pats, Moose Jaw Canucks, Saskatoon Blades, Estevan Bruins, and Weyburn Red Wings. A sixth Saskatchewan team, the Swift Current Broncos, joined in 1967; but within eight years only the Pats and Blades remained, as the other teams were relocated outside the province in larger cities with greater economic potential. By 1986, however, staunch fan support in small cities helped Saskatchewan boost its Western Hockey League membership back to five with the Moose Jaw Warriors, the Prince Albert Raiders and the return of the Swift Current Broncos. Memorial Cup championships came to Regina in 1974, to Prince Albert in 1985, and, most dramatically, to Swift Current in 1989, two-and-a-half years after a highway bus accident killed four Broncos.
The formation and growth of the CMJHL/ WCHL/WHL led to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s transition to a Tier 2 league: since 1972, the SJHL has been a stable entity, always operating with at least ten teams, except for four seasons in the mid-1980s when its membership fell to as low as eight. Seven national Tier 2 champions have come from the SJHL: the Prince Albert Raiders (in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982) before they moved up to the WHL; the Weyburn Red Wings (1984); the Notre Dame Hounds (1988); and the Humboldt Broncos (2003). Notre Dame has also produced two (1980 and 1986) of the province’s seven Canadian midget champions since that title was established in 1979, lining up alongside the Regina Pat Canadians (1989, 1994, 1999), Yorkton Mallers (1993), and Tisdale Trojans (2002).
Saskatchewan’s contributions to Canada’s international hockey success have also been significant. The Saskatoon Quakers, 1933 Allan Cup runners-up, represented Canada at the 1934 world championship in Milan and won the gold medal. Canada’s 1955 world champions, the Penticton (BC) V’s, boasted nine players with Saskatchewan connections, including player-coach Grant Warwick and his brothers, Billy and Dick. Jackie McLeod, a Notre Dame alumnus and NHL veteran, coached the 1968 national team that won a bronze medal as the last wholly amateur team to represent Canada in the Olympics; seven of its players hailed from Saskatchewan. More recently, the province produced four members of Team Canada’s women’s squad, which won the 2002 Olympic gold medal. Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, arguably the best female player in the world, went on from that triumph to become the first woman to play regularly as a professional when she logged twenty-three games for Salamat of the Finnish Second Division in the 2002–03 season. In doing so, Wickenheiser expanded on Saskatchewan’s tradition of supplying elite players from virtually every populated section of the province. Eddie Shore—born in Fort Qu’Appelle and raised in Cupar—was the NHL’s finest defenceman with the Boston Bruins in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Gordie Howe was the game’s most inexorable offensive force except when checked by defensive standout Bert Olmstead (Sceptre). Glenn Hall (Humboldt) and Johnny Bower (Prince Albert) proved themselves among the finest goaltenders of all time in the 1950s and 1960s. Bryan Trottier (born in Redvers, raised in Val Marie) was a superb two-way centre of the NHL’s post-expansion era and a member of six Stanley Cup championships. Wendel Clark (Kelvington) was an exceptional player among a new generation of Notre Dame prodigies. Altogether, Saskatchewan has produced more than 425 NHLers, the highest per capita output of any Canadian province, American state, or European country.