Exploring Canada’s oldest hockey stick

Johnna Allen // Material LegacyThis hockey stick, dating to the 1770s, may be the first ever subjected to a CT scan. This scan took place at Robarts Research Institute and determined the stick was intentionally steam-bent for hockey soon after it was cut from a tree.

Western anthropologist Andrew Nelson has scored a major assist in verifying the age of the oldest hockey stick known to exist – a piece of Canadiana that dates to the 1770s.

The stick was deliberately steam-bent from a fresh-cut piece of ash and was not simply an old branch that had conveniently grown into a hockey-stick shape, Nelson and colleague Linda Howie determined. Their analysis, through CT scans and micro-CT scans, is highlighted in a new five-minute Daily Planet segment on the Discovery Channel.

The stick was one of two brought to Nelson by Material Legacy, a new London-based company that explores the history of objects and places them into their cultural, political and social context.

“To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever done a CT scan of a hockey stick, much less a micro-CT scan,” said Nelson, a bioarchaeologist whose analyses tend more towards Egyptian and Peruvian mummies than sports equipment. “This was cool. It’s a real piece of Canadiana.”

The sticks are owned by an Ancaster collector of old sports equipment, whose aim was to corroborate the sticks’ age and learn more about the era in which they might have been used.

“We translate forensic data into something that is relatable to Canadians,” said Johnna Allen co-founder of Material Legacy, with lead scientist Howie, who is an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology, a former student and a materials analyst with London-based HD Analytical Solutions.

Johnna Allen // Material LegacyA micro-CT scan conducted at Robarts Research Institute shows in close detail the grain on this 1770s hockey stick. Faint wear marks on the blade suggest where a player with a right-handed shot would have handled a puck.

Earlier, carbon-14 dating at Laval University had placed the wood’s age to circa 1776, plus or minus 20 years, while the other stick dates from the mid-1800s.

Of the older stick, the question remained about whether its blade was a natural or forced form.

“The trick is, is it a hockey stick made out of an old piece of wood – or is it a really old hockey stick?” Nelson said.

If the stick were purpose-made, the blade could have been shaped only from a newly cut, supple branch. Its grain pattern would then look much different from that of a found branch that had a funky natural bend and could have been put to use as a hockey stick at any point within the past 250 years.

To test its provenance, the stick was placed in a CT scanner operated by Donna Findlay, technical co-ordinator of CT, and Dr. Greg Garvin, professor of Medical Imaging at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and radiologist at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

Then it was subjected to even higher resolution imaging using the micro-CT scanner in a suite led by Robarts Research Institute scientist David Holdsworth.

At the blade end of the stick, scans showed wood grain stretched at the heel and compressed at the inward crook. “This wood was steam-bent to create a hockey stick,” Nelson said.

That means it was made, not just found.

“This is the oldest documented stick in Canada,” said Allen, who describes her company’s work as the forensic biography of objects instead of people. The company’s role is to research materials to authenticate and provide evidence for cultural accuracy – and then to link those objects to heritage and cultural impact of the time and geography when they were used.

“It’s a great puzzle we’ve been able to dissect and put back together in some small way – all wrapped around the game of hockey, and how could you get any more Canadian than that?” Allen said.

While many questions remain – including who used it and what did hockey look like back then? – the stick, as a cultural artifact, has significance in part because it would date to about the time of the American Revolutionary War. It would have been made at a time when British military and naval garrisons presided over pervasive tension and uncertainty in the colonies, yet still made time for leisure.

“It’s a symbol of peace in a time of war. It shows the lighter side of a situation was very dark, so there is this connection to someone’s personal history as well as to a national history,” Allen said.

Further micro-CT analysis of the stick – which is much taller and has a longer blade than contemporary hockey sticks – showed indentations on the stick shaft where it might have been held when used, and wear marks on the left side of the blade that would indicate it was used to hit something, by someone with a right-handed shot.

Just what type of ‘puck’ that might have been is the subject of a future analysis. This is the first step in a larger project to tell more about the stick – including whether apparent etchings in the wood, below several layers of varnish, suggest a military connection.

The collector, Brian Galama, is eager for the next step.

“When Laval University came back with a date from the 1700s it was exciting, but I then wanted to know even more,” Galama said. “The forensic plan for discovery Material Legacy has created to support the story of the stick is so interesting; I am learning so much and cannot wait for the next discovery.”

Meanwhile, Nelson is pleased that scanning technology can be re-purposed to help tell unexpected stories. He admitted it’s a much more satisfying tale than his own brief hockey career when he faced shots as a goalie on an outdoor rink. “I lost my two front teeth to a hockey stick when I was 11,” he said. “I stopped playing goalie at about the time players started to learn to raise the puck.”


Visit this story at westernnews.ca to watch the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet documentary following the discovery process as Western researchers explore the manufacturing process of historic hockey sticks and, in turn, change what we know about Canadian hockey.