There are many examples of games throughout history that incorporated hitting a ball on an ice-covered surface that pre-date modern ice hockey. IJscolf, a game resembling Colf with the added element of an ice-covered surface, was popular in the Low Countries between the Middle Ages and the Dutch Golden Age. The game was played with a wooden curved bat (called Colf or Kolf) and a ball made of wood or leather between two poles or simply convenient nearby landmarks, with the object hitting the chosen point with the least number of strokes. A similar game called Knattleikr had been played for a thousand years or more by the Vikings as documented in the Icelandic Sagas.

However, most believe that modern ice hockey is evolved from outdoor stick-and-ball games adapted to the icy conditions of Canada in the 19th century. The games of British soldiers and immigrants to Canada, influenced by stick-and-ball games of First Nations, may have influenced the game to be played on ice skates, often played with a puck, and played with sticks made by the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia. A competing theory is that the game was introduced by the Icelandic immigrants adapting the Icelandic game Knattleikr. These immigrants moved to Canada and USA after the eruption of a volcano in Iceland in 1875. Immigrants from Iceland then played on behalf of Canada and won the first ever Olympic medal in ice hockey.

Often these games were recreation for British soldiers on postings. In Canada, from oral histories, there is evidence of a tradition of an ancient stick and ball game played among the Mi'kmaq First Nation in Eastern Canada. In Legends of the Micmacs (1894), Silas Rand describes a Mi'kmaq ball game people called tooadijik. Rand also describes a game played (likely after European contact) with hurleys, called wolchamaadijik.

Stick and ball games have a long history dating to pre-Christian times. In Europe, these games included Irish sport of hurling, the closely related Scottish sport of shinty, and versions of field hockey, including "Bandie ball," played in England. European immigrants to Canada brought their games with them and adapted them for icy conditions.
The name of hockey itself has no clear origin, though the first known mention of the word 'hockey' in English dates to 1363.

Early 19th century paintings show "shinney," or "shinny," an early form of ice hockey with no standard rules, played in Nova Scotia, Canada. Thus, many of these early games had also absorbed the physically aggressive aspects of what the Mi'kmaq in Nova Scotia called dehuntshigwa'es (lacrosse). Games of shinney are also known to have been played on the St. Lawrence River at Montreal and Quebec City and in Kingston and Ottawa in Ontario. The number of players on these games was often large. To this day, shinny (or shinney) (derived from Shinty) is a popular Canadian term for an informal type of hockey, either on ice or as street hockey.

In 1825, Sir John Franklin wrote that "The game of hockey played on the ice was the morning sport" while on Great Bear Lake during one of his Arctic expeditions. A watercolor from the mid-1830s portrays New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Sir Archibald Campbell and his family in the company of British soldiers on skates engaged in stick-on-ice sport. Capt. R.G.A. Levinge, a British Army officer who had been in New Brunswick during Campbell’s time, provides a written account of "hockey on ice" on Chippewa Creek a tributary of the Niagara River in 1839. In 1843, yet another British Army officer in Kingston, Ontario, in Upper Canada, wrote "Began to skate this year, improved quickly and had great fun at hockey on the ice." An article in the Boston Evening Gazette, in 1859, made reference to an early game of hockey on ice occurring in Halifax in that year.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, in The Attache: Second Series, published in 1844, reminisced about boys from King's College School in Windsor, Nova Scotia, playing "hurly on the long pond on the ice" when he was a student there, no later than 1810. Based on Haliburton's writings, there have been claims that modern ice hockey originated in Windsor, Nova Scotia, by King's College students and was named after an individual, as in “Colonel Hockey's game.” Others claim that the origins of ice hockey come from games played in the area of Dartmouth and Halifax in Nova Scotia.


In 1799, William Pierre Le Cocq, in a letter written in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England, provides a reference to the game hockey: “I must now describe to you the game of Hockey; we have each a stick turning up at the end. We get a bung. There are two sides one of them knocks one way and the other side the other way. If any one of the sides makes the bung reach that end of the churchyard it is victorious.” The actual word hockey was mentioned centuries before, in 1363, when King Edward III of England issued a declaration banning a list of games: "moreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games."
From the context, the word "hockey" is a clear corruption of the word "hook" referring to the end of the stick. In 1527 a statute recorded in Galway City in Ireland stated, "At no time to use ne occupy ye hurling of ye litill balle with the hookie sticks or staves, nor use no hand balle to play without the walls, but only the great foot balle." This was referring to the game of hurling and the hook made it likely the stick was like the ones used in shinty.
According to the Austin Hockey Association, the word puck is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word "puc" or the Irish word "poc," meaning to poke, punch or deliver a blow. This definition is explained in a book published in 1910 entitled "English as we Speak it in Ireland" by P. W. Joyce. It defines the word puck as "... The blow given by a hurler to the ball with his caman or hurley is always called a puck."

Foundation of modern ice hockey:

While the game's origins may lie elsewhere, Montreal is at the centre of the development of the modern sport of ice hockey. On March 3, 1875, the first organized indoor game was played at Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink between two sides of nine-player teams, including James Creighton and several McGill University students. Instead of a ball, the game featured the use of a puck, the purpose of which was to prevent the puck from exiting the rink, which did not have boards, and hitting spectators. The goals were goal posts 6 feet (1.8 m) apart, and the game lasted 60 minutes.
In 1877, several McGill students, including Creighton, Henry Joseph, Richard F. Smith, W. F. Robertson, and W. L. Murray codified seven ice hockey rules, based on the rules of field hockey. The first ice hockey club, McGill University Hockey Club, was founded in 1877 followed by the Montreal Victorias, organized in 1881.

The game became so popular that the first "world championship" of ice hockey was featured in Montreal's annual Winter Carnival in 1883 and the McGill team captured the "Carnival Cup." The number of players per side was reduced to seven, and the games now organized into thirty-minute halves. The positions were now named with left and right wing, centre, rover, point and cover point, and goalkeeper. In 1885, the Montreal City Hockey League was established. In 1886, teams that competed at the Winter Carnival organized the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) league and played a regular season composed of "challenges" to the existing champion.
In Europe, it is believed that in 1885 the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club was formed to play the first Ice Hockey Varsity Match against traditional rival Cambridge in St. Moritz, Switzerland, although this is undocumented. This match was won by the Oxford Dark Blues, 6–0. The first photographs and team lists date from 1895. This rivalry continues, claimed to be the oldest hockey rivalry in history. It was not the only game on ice derived from stick-and-ball games played in Europe. In this time period, the game of Bandie ball was adapted to the ice, evolving into bandy, which endured in popularity in Europe into the 20th century, and remains popular today in Sweden, Russia, Finland and Norway.

In 1888, the new Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston, whose sons and daughter had become hockey enthusiasts, attended the Montreal Winter Carnival tournament and was impressed with the hockey spectacle. In 1892, recognizing that there was no recognition for the best team in all of Canada (various leagues had championship trophies), he purchased a decorative bowl for use as a trophy. The Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, which later became more famously known as the Stanley Cup, was first awarded in 1893 to the Montreal HC, champions of the AHAC. It continues to be awarded today to the National Hockey League's championship team. Stanley's son Arthur helped organize the Ontario Hockey Association and Stanley's daughter Isobel was one of the first women to play ice hockey.

By 1893, there were almost a hundred teams in Montreal alone, and leagues throughout Canada. Winnipeg hockey players had incorporated cricket pads to better protect the goaltender's legs. They also introduced the "scoop" shot, later known as the wrist shot. Goal nets became a standard feature of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL) in 1900. Left and right defence began to replace the point and cover point positions in 1906 in the OHA.
A similar sport had been popular in the United States (US) during this time called ice polo, but by 1893 the first ice hockey matches were being played at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University. Ice polo, played in the New England area, would die out as Americans adopted ice hockey. In 1896, the first ice hockey league in the US was formed. The U. S. Amateur Hockey League was founded in New York City shortly after the opening of the St. Nicholas Rink and its artificial ice rink.

Lord Stanley's five sons were instrumental in bringing ice hockey to Europe, beating a court team (which included both the future Edward VII and George V) at Buckingham Palace in 1895. By 1903 a five-team league had been founded. The Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace was founded in 1908 to govern international competitions, and the first European championships were won by Great Britain in 1910. In the mid-20th century, the League became the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Most of the early indoor ice rinks have been demolished. The Victoria Rink, built in 1862, was demolished in 1925. The Stannus Street Rink in Windsor, Nova Scotia, built in 1897 may be the oldest still in existence, but is no longer used for ice hockey. The Aberdeen Pavilion, built in 1898 in Ottawa was used for ice hockey in 1904 and is the oldest existing facility that has hosted Stanley Cup games. The oldest indoor ice hockey arena still in use today for ice hockey is Boston's Matthews Arena, built in 1910.

Professional era:

Professional ice hockey has existed from the early 20th century. By 1902, the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League was the first to openly employ professionals. The league joined with teams in Michigan and Ontario to form the first fully professional International Professional Hockey League (IPHL), in 1904. The IPHL hired numerous players from Canada, and Canadian leagues in response started to openly pay players, who played alongside amateurs. The IPHL, cut off from its biggest source of players, disbanded in 1907. By then, several professional hockey leagues were operating in Canada, with leagues in the Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec provinces of Canada.
In 1910, the National Hockey Association (NHA) was formed in Montreal. The NHA would further refine the rules, dropping the rover position, splitting the game into three 20-minute periods and introducing the system of minor and major penalties. After re-organizing as the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1917, the league expanded into the United States in 1924.
Professional ice hockey leagues developed later in Europe. The game of bandy was still popular and amateur leagues leading to national championships were in place. One of the first was the Swiss National League A, founded in 1916. Today, professional leagues have been introduced in most countries of Europe. The top leagues in Europe include the Kontinental Hockey League, the Czech Extraliga, the Finnish SM-liiga and the Swedish Elitserien.