Nicholas II’s passion for ice hockey

PHOTO: Grand Duke George, Grand Duchess Xenia, Grand Duke Mikhail and Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich [future Emperor Nicholas II] playing ice hockey on the skating rink of the Anichkov Palace, St. Petersburg. 1880s.

Emperor Nicholas II, was perhaps the most avid sportsman of all Russian tsars. He took up cycling at an early age, and, and from the 1890s developed a great passion for lawn tennis. In addition, he enjoyed hiking, swimming, shooting, and all kinds of physical activity, from long walks in the park with his dogs, chopping wood and shovelling snow.

In his youth, Nicholas also enjoyed ice skating and hockey. He learned how to skate during his family’s residency at Gatchina, where the garden would be flooded during the winter months, whereby the children of Emperor Alexander III would ice skate.

When the garden of the Anichkov Palace – the residence of Alexander III in St. Petersburg – was expanded, ice mountains and a skating rink were arranged in the garden. The August children: Nicholas, George, Xenia, Mikhail and later Olga, gathered here with invited friends, the Emperor often taking part in their games on the frozen ice.

Nicholas knew how to skate, but he was not a big fan, he preferred ice hockey. He even played hockey without skates, but in boots, with bent sticks [see photos], chasing a rubber ball.

During his first years as Emperor, Nicholas Alexandrovich managed to find time to visit the skating rink at the Anichkov Palace, where his mother Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna was living at the time. During the winter of 1894–1895, when the 26-year-old Tsar was overwhelmed with his duties as Emperor and Autocrat. In addition, his young wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna demanded attention. Nevertheless, during the winter of 1895, Nicholas managed to enjoy the skating rink at the Anichkov Palace on three separate occasions: 13th and 20th January and 8th February respectively.

PHOTO: Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich [future Emperor Nicholas II] with members of his family playing ice hockey on the skating rink of the Anichkov Palace, St. Petersburg; his father Emperor Alexander III is seated on the far right. Late 1880s-early 1890s.

Nicholas II was delighted when he discovered that his beloved Alix also knew how to skate, especially since his 23-year-old wife constantly complained of pain in her legs. The tsar wrote: “We skated, Alix is very good on them.” Due to health issues, Alexandra Feodorovna was forced to hang up her ice skates.

In January 1896, Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodrovna settled down in the new apartments prepared for them in the Winter Palace. As a loving son, the Emperor and his wife went daily to tea at the Anichkov Palace to see his mother, where he often took the opportunity to skate for a couple of hours on the rink with old friends.

On 4th January 1896, Nicholas II wrote in his diary: “Went to breakfast in Anichkov. We walked in the garden and played as before on the rink; Xenia and Sandro were skating.” Nicholas II often visited the skating rink that winter. In January 1896 he visited the rink 13 times. Even in bad weather Nicholas skated regardless: “There was a blizzard on the rink, so you could hardly see the balls”; “A strong wind was blowing, preventing the balls from flying”; “The fog was very thick, so it was difficult to play on the rink because the balls were not visible.”

However, life took its toll. The Emperor matured, his family grew rapidly. Political problems grew, and by the early 1900s, his winter skating rinks, which he enjoyed so much moved into the realm of dreams past.

© Paul Gilbert. 2 August 2021