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VIDEO: Into the Cobequid Mountains in search of the perfect roots

The roots of hockey are, quite simply , roots

What are the roots of hockey? This might be a trick question.

The answer, of course, is roots. Some of the earliest one-piece ice hockey sticks were carved from a tree stem with a root attached. This makes sense. After all, if roots are strong enough to keep a tree standing in the wind, they should be strong enough for a hockey stick.

In the beginning, most sticks were carved from hornbeam trees, wood that’s so hard it’s also called iron wood. Plenty of hornbeam grows on the mountains behind my house so I took my pickaxe and started digging. Amazingly, the hornbeam roots were thin and wide, just like a hockey stick blade!

Unfortunately, none of the hornbeam roots connected to the trunk at the proper angle for a classic hockey stick. But some of the earliest sticks were quite a different shape than modern ones. They looked more like the letter L. So it’s very likely hornbeam was used for these primitive L-sticks.

I dug up plenty of roots from other species, too, like yellow birch, ash and maple. Sadly, not one of them made a decent stick. The roots always had flaws like internal bark and voids. This got me thinking that roots weren’t used at all, at least for mass production starting in the late 1800s. If you comb through the old ads for hockey sticks you’ll find no mention of roots.

Instead, you’ll find one-piece sticks described as “Made from natural crook birch.” So how did they manage to carve thousands of one-piece sticks every year? A 1990 interview with a Mi'kmaw elder offers some clues.

He recalled, “The finest hardwood was selected for the hockey sticks. The wood was then taken to my uncle’s sawmill, and there it was carefully handcrafted to create the finished product.”

It’s unlikely anyone would cut roots at a sawmill. Perhaps they used tree “knees,” where the tree has a natural bend above ground. No digging is necessary to harvest these knees. This is a good thing, especially when you need thousands of pieces.

Turns out the best knees are found on steep hills. Trees grow outwards from the hill at an angle then turn upwards. Time and time again, on steep hills, I found the hockey stick angle exists naturally in yellow birch trees.

I had no problem finding suitable knees and selected some for harvesting. My neighbour sawed the knees into hockey stick shaped boards on his tractor-powered homemade sawmill. These slabs were sawn more than an inch thick, perfect for a finished stick that is slightly less than ¾ inch thick.

Sometimes wood is carved while it’s still green. The wet green wood is much softer than dry wood which makes it easier to carve.

But when green-carved items dry they can develop some wild twists and curves. This could ruin a hockey stick. One of the books I read claims the Mi'kmaw carvers would rough out the hockey sticks and hang them to dry before doing the final carving. I decided to play it safe and dry the wood before carving a stick. The slabs air-dried in my unheated attic for a year.

But then I was offered work in Nunavut. It was farewell to Nova Scotia for me, but I took the hockey stick slabs with me. And that’s how hockey stick wood from the dark and dreary mountains of Nova Scotia ended up here, in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Visit us next time us and we’ll carve a couple sticks.

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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