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VIDEO: Here's how our ancestors used to carve hockey sticks out of a single piece of wood

Woodworker Bruce McNab takes us along on his quest to complete possibly the most Canadian woodworking project ever in this four-part series

With a lot of help from Village Media, I’m happy to share one of my favourite woodworking projects of all time – carving one-piece hockey sticks just like they did in the 1800s.

I started this project back in 2007 but then put it on ice for a few years. But my interest came roaring back when I heard an old hand-carved hockey stick from Nova Scotia was up for auction. It sold for $300,000 to the Canadian Museum of History. Suddenly, Nova Scotians were scouring their barns and sheds looking for hockey sticks!

Ice hockey evolved from the woods and waters of Nova Scotia. Pioneers brought their field hockey games to the new world. Their sticks, called hurleys, were goofy looking things shaped like a candy cane. Eventually hurley sticks were adapted for ice with a longer, flatter blade.

Some historians believe Mi'kmaw craftsmen created the first ice hockey sticks. And indeed, there are records of Mi'kmaw men selling hockey sticks at the Halifax market in the 1860s. But it’s hard to get hockey historians to agree on anything, especially hockey’s birthplace.

However, everybody agrees that the first recorded indoor hockey game was played in Montreal in 1875. It was organized by a fellow named James Creighton. And all the sticks for the game were made in Creighton’s home province, Nova Scotia.

For about a century, hockey sticks were carved from a single piece of hardwood, usually yellow birch. But they couldn’t be made from a regular board because the sticks would break during their first game. Instead, the early hockey stick carvers had to go out into the woods and harvest trees that were curved by Mother Nature.

Early advertisements described the one-piece sticks like this: “the natural grain of wood running with curve of blade.”

Most one-piece hockey sticks were shipped from Starr Manufacturing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the company that pioneered the mass production of ice skates.

Another source was Antigonish, Nova Scotia where thousands of sticks were carved by a Mi'kmaw workshop owner named Charlie Young (1864 – 1939). Charlie’s sticks were labelled under the “Swiper” brand and then exported across North America.

My first research stop was the Antigonish Heritage Museum. The museum curator kindly allowed me to examine their one-piece hockey stick collection. She even let me trace one of the sticks carved by Charlie Young so I could create a full-sized pattern.  

And then it was time to search the woods for trees shaped like a hockey stick. Join us next time and see what we found in the wild Cobequid Mountains of Nova Scotia.

About the Author: Bruce MacNab

Bruce MacNab is the author of the award-winning biography The Metamorphosis: the apprenticeship of Harry Houdini. Raised in Dartmouth, he attended NSCAD and the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology. He now lives alongside Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Mountains
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