When you explore the wide range of high-tech composite hockey sticks on the market today—innovative models such as the Bauer Nexus ADV or the CCM Jetspeed FT2—it’s hard to imagine playing with the oldest hockey sticks. What must it have been like to play with the rough-hewn wooden sticks used by the original Canadian hockey players in Nova Scotia 200 years ago?
We don’t have access to any sticks from the very earliest days of the sport, but the oldest hockey stick in existence, which is currently on display in the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, is a fascinating artifact. The story of its discovery is equally astonishing.
Known as the Moffatt Stick, it has been dated to the mid-1830s—some four decades before the first recognized game of “organized” hockey, which took place in Montreal in 1875. The stick was carved from a single piece of sugar maple, and its shape is halfway between that of a field-hockey stick and a modern ice-hockey stick. The shaft is rounded, and the bottom of the rockered, ¾-inch-thick blade forms a continuous curve from heel to toe. Even though the stick is short, just 34 inches from butt to heel, it weighs 1.7 pounds—more than twice as much as the modern-day composite sticks, and also more than modern-day wooden sticks for adults, which are more than half again as long. The initials “WM,” for William Moffatt, are carved into the blade. It’s a crude instrument, for sure, but it would get the job done on a frozen pond on Cape Breton Island, where the stick was made. And the fact that it’s still in playable shape speaks to its durability.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The stick was hung as a decoration on the wall of a barber shop in the town of North Sydney, Nova Scotia, for more than 25 years. The barber, George Ferneough, and his customers considered it nothing more than a conversation piece. But something about the old stick caught the eye of a local social worker, Mark Presley. He had first seen the stick in 2001, and when he heard that Ferneough was retiring in 2008, Presley returned to see if he could buy the antique. After the two men settled on a price of $1,000, Presley began the process of research to figure out what, exactly, he had bought.
His first step was to visit 92-year-old Charlie Moffatt, the local resident who had gifted the stick to Ferneough back in 1980. Moffatt told Presley that the stick had been in his family for generations and had been used by Warren C. Moffatt (1881-1963) and Thomas A. Moffatt (1837-1911) to play pond hockey on nearby Pottle Lake.
Next, Presley asked experts at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University to see if they could determine the approximate date the stick was made. Using a variety of scientific processes, including examining the paint and tree rings visible in the stick’s shaft, they concluded the stick had been carved between 1835 and 1838. William “Dilly” Moffat, who was born in 1829, would have been less than 10 years old when the stick was made for him.
A New Record
Before the age of the Moffatt stick was determined, the oldest stick known to be in existence was from the 1850s. When Presley decided to sell the stick in 2015, the Canadian Museum of History purchased it for $300,000—quite a return on Presley’s initial investment. (As you might imagine, George Ferneough was a bit peeved that he had let the stick go for just $1,000.)
In a press release, President and CEO of the museum Mark O’Neill said, “The Moffatt stick is a unique and powerful link to the sport’s earliest days in this country, and is an example of the national treasures Canadians will see in their new national museum of history.”
It’s important to note that the Moffat Stick is the oldest known hockey stick. Clearly there were lots of folks playing hockey in eastern Canada years before William Moffat was even born. Could there be an even older stick in someone’s attic or hanging on the wall of a shop somewhere?