Three is a magic number, whatever the sport: a brief history of the hat-trick

Sports fans sure like to celebrate happenings in threes, whether in ice hockey, soccer, cricket or even marbles. But whence did the term ‘hat-trick’ come?

When 24-year-old Ottawa forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau tipped a shot past New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with just 62 seconds left in regulation in a playoff game last month, Senators fans at Canadian Tire Center were simply overjoyed that the score was tied.

But when Pageau was credited with the goal over the public-address system, several fans made sure to follow hockey tradition and throw their caps and hats on the ice. It was Pageau’s third goal of the game – the individual achievement known commonly as a hat trick.

It seems as if hat tricks, and hat-trick celebrations, have been around ice hockey as long as there has been a Stanley Cup, which dates to 1892 and was awarded for the first time a year later to the Montreal Hockey Club for being the top amateur hockey club in Canada.

But the first three-goal game regarded as a hat trick, at least as recognized by historians at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, only occurred on 26 January 1946, after Chicago forward Alex Kaleta scored four goals in a 6-5 loss to Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens.

There had been other individual feats called hat tricks in other sports for nearly 100 years before Kaleta walked into Sammy Taft’s famous hat shop on Spadina Avenue in Toronto and told the gregarious Taft that he wanted to buy a fedoras – but could not afford one.

Legend has it that Taft, always looking for a way to promote his hat shop, told Kaleta that he would give him a hat if he scored three goals that night against the Maple Leafs. Taft had heard the three-goal game referred to as a “hat trick” on the radio, so he was inspired.

But the term, as best as anyone can determine, originated all the way back in 1855, when a 25-year-old professional English cricketer, Heathfield Harman (HH) Stevenson, took wickets on three consecutive balls for All-England against Hallam at Hyde Park in Sheffield.

At the time, tradition called for a collection to be taken among spectators for an outstanding performance, and Stevenson was presented with a hat purchased from the proceeds, according to no less than the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Cricket Archive told the Guardian that the earliest use of the term that could be found in newspaper archives was in the Luton Times and Advertiser of 3 July 1855, which reported from a 24 June match between St John’s College and St Alban’s Grammar School.

“The Grammar School were dismissed in a quarter of an hour for only 6 runs, mainly by the bowling of the brothers Beldam, G.W. Beldham doing the ‘hat trick’ and taking 5 wickets at the cost of 1 run, C.A. Beldham taking 5 wickets for 5 runs,” the newspaper reported.

The term, known in England as a “hat-trick,” became part of the parlance of association football, or soccer, later in the 19th century. John McDougall, playing for Scotland, was the first to record a “hat-trick” in international competition when he scored goals in the seventh, 41st and 50th minutes in a 7-2 victory over England before 10,000 in Glasgow on 2 March 1878.

Hat tricks popped up in other sports and games for accomplishments in threes: in lacrosse, water polo and team handball for three goals in a game, but also in darts for three consecutive bullseyes, and in marbles for hitting all marbles in a single turn.

But the term was taken to another, and much rowdier, level by hockey fans, who hurl their own hats onto the ice to salute a player – almost always but not exclusively from the home team – after he has scored his third goal of a game.

(Fans in Ottawa also tossed hats onto the ice last October when Auston Matthews, a 19-year-old forward for Toronto, scored his third of four goals in his first NHL game.)

A couple of years after Sammy Taft handed Kaleta his hat, a Montreal haberdasher named Henri Henri started doing the same for any player who scored three goals in a game at the Montreal Forum. The Guelph Brantford Mad Hatters, an Ontario Hockey League affiliate of the Rangers, handed out Brantford hats to a player who scored three goals in a game.

It is unclear when fans started throwing hats onto the ice to punctuate a hat trick, but Liam Maguire, an Ottawa-based NHL author and historian, told the Guardian that the tradition started around the time hatters stopped awarding fedoras to players who got hat tricks, most likely in Toronto or Montreal.

After play is stopped so dozens of caps can be collected, they are either turned over to charity – the newer ones, anyway – or the player who notched the hat trick. (Alex Ovechkin of Washington is said to be fond of looking through the pile of caps after his hat tricks and picking out one or two nice ones).

At Columbus, the caps from a hat trick have been thrown into a large bin at the team’s arena that looks like a little hockey rink. Often, teams offer cap discounts at their arena team stores on hat-trick nights so fans can buy new caps to wear to the next game.

The practice has carried over to baseball. Not surprisingly, fans at Toronto Blue Jays games have thrown caps onto the field when a home player smashes three home runs in a game. But Major League Soccer officials say soccer hat tricks don’t cause showers of hats.

There are “natural hat tricks” – when a player scores three goals in a row – and “Gordie Howe hat tricks,” when a player scores a goal, assists on another and gets a fighting major penalty in a game, though the legendary Howe himself was said to do that only twice.

Hat-trick hat-throwing has even carried over to other continents. During a November 2014 Kontinental Hockey League game in Siberia, three fans and a team employee were arrested for “disrupting the peace in public places” after a hat-trick hat-throwing. The local police were apparently unaware of the tradition.

At the Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa, the Senators actually keep the hats for two weeks at guest services and offer them back to the fans who threw them, as long as they can properly identify them.

But the handsome hat that Sammy Taft gave Alex Kaleta was apparently lost somewhere along the way. Think how many loonies that would fetch now.

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