The bulk of this historical information is from an article written by Harold 'Winger' Thomas, a former sports editor of The Stratford Beacon Herald and the namesake for Stratford Rotary Hockey's graduating player of the year trophy.
Rotary Hockey has its roots in inter-school hockey, which explains why throughout most of its history the league has operated for players of elementary school ages 5 through 13. Currently Rotary Hockey encompasses all house league hockey in the city of Stratford, offering play for boys and girls from ages 4 through 20.
The first recorded inter-school game was played in 1898 between the Romeo Stars and Central School, which at the time was located at the present site of the public library. Romeo won 8-1. Among the players in the Romeo lineup was Roy Brothers, later to become one of Stratford's all-time great hockey managers.
The early days of inter-school hockey in the early 1900s are cloudy with few results preserved. In 1905 Hamlet won a three-game series against Central 2-0.
Hockey was thriving in Stratford at the turn of the century. Senior, intermediate and junior teams won seven Ontario Hockey Association championships between 1900 and 1909. With so many teams, ice time was a problem since the Classic City Arena (now the William Allman Arena) was the only ice pad available in the city. But the YMCA with assistance from Grand Trunk Railway employees built an outdoor rink on railroad property on St. Patrick Street, where many of the early inter-school games were played.
Two teachers, Misses Ida Easson of Romeo School and May Peterson of Falstaff School, played a key role in the growth of school hockey. These two ladies took it upon themselves to organize games with both public and separate schools. T.J. Dolan, later to become managing editor of The Beacon Herald, was in charge of the separate schools. One of his many duties included approaching local businesses and interested citizens for donations towards paying for ice time at the arena. Miss Easson at that time said the league "just grew by itself."
By 1910 the YMCA, with physical director C.H. Cochrane in charge, took interest in the school hockey league and with the assistance of employees of the Grand Trunk Railway repair shops built an outdoor rink on GTR property on St. Vincent Street. They then organized a junior school hockey league with teams bearing such names as Midgets, Indians, Tigers, Wanderers, Lions and Cubs.
During the years of the First World War, Falstaff School had an outstanding player in defenceman Al Murray, who later became the first Stratford boy to turn professional when he signed with the now defunct New York Americans of the NHL. Hamlet, Avon, Romeo, Brunswick (later Juliet), Falstaff and a separate school team formed the league.
In 1923 the Very Rev. Dean Egan became interested in school hockey and both organized and coached the first Immaculate Conception team in the league. Under Rev. Egan and later Father W.T. Corcoran, Immaculate won the senior school league championship 15 times between 1923 and 1943.
In 1925 J.H. 'Mac' MacQueen had joined the YMCA as physical instructor and later director of physical education in Stratford schools. Taking notice of the great work MacQueen was doing with the youth, the Stratford Rotary Club in 1926 granted funds for MacQueen to organize inter-school soccer, baseball and softball leagues.
During the winter of 1926-1927, the Rotarians, through their Boys' Work Committee, provided money for the building of a rink on the Avon River for the use of inter-school and Sunday School hockey leagues. The school league that season included six teams: Falstaff, Hamlet, Romeo, Immaculate, Juliet and Shakespeare. The school league season concluded March 4 when MacQueen staged the first school hockey league final at the arena, with over 1,000 spectators in attendance. Immaculate defeated Shakespeare 4-3 in overtime for the championship.
During the 1928-29 season, MacQueen provided a new venture for school hockey when a selected all-star team of Stratford players faced the Kitchener public and separate schools' "Millionaires." Kitchener won 4-2. Members of the Stratford team included Bert Jesson and "Farmer" McFadden (Avon), John McGuire and E. Dale (Romeo), Alex Sillifant and F. Grey (Hamlet), Jim McGraw and J. McLean (Immaculate), J. Helm (St. Joseph's) and Wilf Salt (Shakespeare).
For a number of years the league had a variety of names: Inter-School Hockey League, Peewee and P and S Hockey League, YMCA and School League. Following the 1943 season the schools conducted their own house leagues in senior, junior and brownie series, then later the various house league winners from each school would meet to decide a champion in each division.
This system was used until the 1946-47 season when the league became known as the Rotary-Y School Hockey League and operated for nearly 30 seasons under that banner. The first Rotary-Y season opened on November 23, 1946 with Avon, Falstaff, Juliet, Romeo, Hamlet, Immaculate, St. Joseph's and Shakespeare operating both senior and junior teams. Shakespeare, Juliet, Falstaff and Avon were represented in a four-team brownie league.
Prior to the 1972-73 season the league decided to adopt a system of classifying a player's ability and placing him on a team in his age group, resulting in the school identity being lost but balancing the competition between teams. The 'Y' was also later dropped from the name as well because the connection to that organization had ended, resulting in the current name Stratford Rotary Hockey.
For many years the league operated at two arenas -- Rotary Arena at the Agriculture grounds and Lions Dufferin Arena -- with the playoff champions from each rink meeting in a series of championship games one night at the main arena (William Allman).
In the mid-1990s the league decided to include all players in its Final Day celebrations. Championship, consolation and exhibition games were held in all age divisions over two days at the Allman Arena.
Around about 2003-04, Rotary Hockey began to introduce some new rules in younger age groups so that players were able to spend more time playing and less time lining up for faceoffs. Offside and icing calls were reduced or eliminated in the youngest age groups.
In 2010, Stratford Rotary Hockey took over operation of the major bantam through juvenile age divisions which had previously been run by the Stratford Minor Hockey Association. With 4-year-olds having been allowed to register a few years earlier, Rotary Hockey was now overseeing house league hockey in the city for up to 1,000 boys and girls ages 4 through 20.
During the 2016-17 season, Stratford Rotary Hockey's board of directors voted to become part of Hockey Canada beginning in the fall of 2017. While the league retains most of its independence, Hockey Canada will provide clinics and certification for coaches and trainers, important on and off-ice protocols, and the opportunity for corporate sponsorship in some age divisions.