While both Canada and United Sates militaries participated in sports before and after WWI, their participation in hockey did not emerge until recruitment impacted the amateur hockey world.
When the war started in August 1914, the Canadian military needed to modernize overnight, including raising a force. In 1914, Canada was in recession and unemployment was high. Additionally, patriotism surged amongst the general populace. As a result, there was a large willing and available manpower pool to resource units.
While notable hockey players trickled into CEF units between August, 1914 and August, 1915, a shocker came when the entire Selkirk hockey joined the 61st Battalion in September, 1915. However, this wasn’t reason why the CEF jumped into amateur hockey. It was the reason why it took off.
Richard Holt lays out how the CEF built units. In general, once a unit was authorized (or sponsored in the case of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), recruiting would happen locally. The unit would also stay in garrison until initial training was complete, which was usually four months. Sports provided an outlet for those waiting for their unit to reach full strength. So, it wasn’t that the 61st waited for hockey; hockey forced itself on to the 61st.
With the Selkirk team on hand, the 61st had a strong team and the Winnipeg leagues were voted to be playing for the Allan Cup. In the teens and twenties, the Allan Cup was possibly more popular than the Stanley Cup. One reason was that amateur hockey was more popular than professional hockey. And, The Allan Cup was for Amateurs only. As soon as newspapers reported on the 61st Battalion’s entrance to amateur hockey, other units submitted their application, including the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), the 40th Battery (Conn Smythe’s unit), the 94th Battalion (Thunder Bay) and many others. At least 24 CEF units participated in various amateur hockey leagues for the 1915-1916 season. (Note: a table of units is below.)
The 61st Battalion won the Allan Cup and defended the title throughout the 1916 season. In April, the 61st Battalion was declared the champions and shipped off to war. In addition to the 61st Battalion in the senior league, the 61st’s intermediate team won their league’s championship and the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) won the Winnipeg Central Hockey Associations’ championship title. These successes on the ice led to increased CEF participation in hockey, which led to the creation of the Military Hockey League for 1916-1917.
Nearly every CEF unit participated in the 1916-1917 season. Most (in)famously, the 228th under the McNamara brothers attempted to repeat the 61st’s success, except in the N.H.A. However, scandals and a strict adherence to deployment schedules interrupted the 228th’s chance. By 1918, the United States military supported hockey teams. Thomas “Tom” Howard Jr and John “Jack” Howard played for several U.S. Navy teams.
With the popularity of hockey in the late-teens, a lingering question remains on if the military recruited hockey players for hockey (promote support or recruitment) or war. The 228th supposedly offered Eddie Oatman $1200 to play hockey, but was unceremoniously dismissed two days prior to the 228th leaving for the front. Oatman claimed to have never been enlisted or properly enlisted. In contrast, the Howard brothers joined the Naval Reserve in 1917. Tom Jr. was passed from Newport Naval Yard to Charleston Naval Yard solely for hockey. In regards to the CEF, J.J. Wilson suggests that the CEF targeted hockey players for recruitment. While Wilson’s reasons may be contentious, it is clear the CEF appealed to hockey players to join. Captain James Sutherland wrote an open letter and closed with the words “The whistle has sounded. Let every man play ‘the greatest game of his life’.”