The puck recently dropped for the 2014 NHL playoffs, pitting the best North American clubs against each other for the chance to raise Lord Stanley’s coveted Cup. Getting there, of course, requires scoring goals—and some players are so on fire that they score three goals in a single game. This phenomenal feat is known as a “hat-trick,” a term used in a handful of sports to indicate three individual achievements in a given game. But where did the phrase come from, and what does scoring three goals in a game have to do with hats?
The origins of the phrase don’t have anything to do with hockey at all. In fact, the first use of the term “hat trick” comes from a specific cricket match from 1858. Bowler H.H. Stephenson, playing for an all-England squad versus a team from Hallam, South Yorkshire, took three consecutive wickets at Hyde Park Cricket Grounds in Sheffield—meaning he hit the three wooden stakes behind the batter three consecutive times. A collection was held because of his outstanding feat and he was presented with a hat that was bought using the proceeds.
Just when the phrase made the jump to ice hockey and other sports is a matter of debate (the Online Etymology Dictionary says it's 1909, while other sources believe it didn't happen until the 1940s), and the exact source of the phrase being popularized is still fairly hazy. One Montreal haberdasher called “Henri Henri” claims they coined the phrase after they began rewarding all players who scored three goals during one game at the Montreal Forum with a free hat. Another claim comes from the Canadian city of Guelph, whose 1947 Junior-A team was sponsored by Biltmore Hats and dubbed the “Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters.” As a marketing ploy to advertise its new style of fedora, the company would give away a brand new hat to any league player who scored three goals in a single game.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, however, recognizes a similar story as the true origin of the phrase for hockey. When Chicago Blackhawks winger Alex Kaleta wandered into the Toronto haberdashery of owner Sammy Taft in January 1946 before a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kaleta fell in love with a swanky new gray fedora on sale with a gray silk band around the top. Kaleta, however, had just returned to playing professional hockey after serving in the Canadian military during World War II, and didn’t have enough money, so Taft cut him a deal. If Kaleta could score three goals against the Maple Leafs at the game that night, he could come back to the shop and have the hat for free. Kaleta went on to score four goals in the game (Chicago wound up losing to Toronto 6-5) and got a free hat out of his on-ice feat. Taft would continue on with the “trick” and award a free hat to any player who scored three goals in a single game at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the phrase eventually evolved into the three-goal celebratory label we know today.