Hockey is sometimes described as a secular religion for Canadians, and now its worshippers have a new relic to oooh and ahhh over, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History.
Admittedly, the world's oldest-known hockey stick isn't much to look at – scarred, paint-flecked, just 105 centimetres tall with a long, curved blade, hewn about 180 years ago from a single piece of Nova Scotia sugar maple – but its significance is immense. Which is why the Gatineau-based museum announced with great fanfare Friday that it had acquired the artifact for its permanent collection for a heady $300,000.
The story behind it is twisty and oh-so-Canadian.
Selling the stick was Mark Presley, a 47-year-old social worker from Beswick, N.S. He's owned it since 2008, when he paid $1,000 to a retiring barber in North Sydney, and since then has worked diligently to excavate the stick's heritage. The barber, George Ferneough, had had the stick attached to a small sleigh hanging on his shop's wall since the early 1980s. Mr. Ferneough, 73, said Friday the stick was given to him by Charles Moffatt who claimed its ownership stretched back through generations of his family who played hockey on Cape Breton's Pottel Lake. Indeed, it's since been determined that the initials "WM," carved into the blade, stand for William "Dilly" Moffatt, born in 1829.
However, Mr. Moffatt's stepson, John Hannem, a 59-year-old Baptist clergyman from North Sydney, says the artifact was lent to the barber. In fact, Mr. Hannem claimed Friday that in 2008, he was directed by Mr. Moffatt, 91 and ailing, to recover the stick for donation to a North Sydney museum. But when he visited Mr. Moffatt's shop, the barber informed him it had been sold – to Mr. Presley.
Elsewhere, such a dispute would likely result in suits and countersuits. But we're talking Canada and Nova Scotia. For Mr. Hannem, "there's no animosity over it." He's sticking to the loan narrative. Mr. Moffatt died in 2011, so he can't provide any clarification. His stepson, meanwhile, thinks the purchase by Mr. Presley and its entry into the CMH "is the best thing that ever happened to the stick. If Mr. Presley hadn't gotten a hold of it, it probably would be sitting in a cardboard box in [a museum] because no one else would have done the research to find out how old it was and the history behind it."
Mr. Ferneough is happy, too – "in a way." He thinks the stick "should have stayed on Cape Breton Island, really." In recent years, there have been squabbles between Kingston, Ont., and Windsor, N.S., as to the rightful birthplace of hockey. Keeping the stick in Atlantic Canada could have helped cement its argument.
In 2011, as talk began to circulate about the stick's possible importance, Mr. Fereough said he should be paid a finder's fee. Mr. Presley "knew that stick was worth something when he came to the shop and asked me would I take a thousand dollars for it. … If he had said $50 I probably would have sold it.Then again, I guess I should have clued in … but I thought it was just an old strick; I didn't pay no attention to it.… I never lost no sleep or nothing really over it. What you don't have you don't miss, I guess." At the same time, he believes Mr. Presley should, as a gesture of good will, give "a little donation" to the Emera Centre hockey rink in North Sydney.
Mr. Presley insisted Friday his dealings have been "fair and honest." The stick first came to his attention in 2000 after he and his wife, Linda MacNamara, moved to Cape Breton, her birthplace, from Vancouver. Eighteen months later, the couple relocated to the Annapolis Valley, but returned to North Sydney to visit her parents. In 2008, Mr. Presley "popped into" Mr. Ferneough's shop and asked about the stick. "I wasn't necessarily sure it was even a hockey stick per se," said Mr. Presley. Just as he was about to leave, "I thought, Wait a minute. It wouldn't hurt to ask: Would you be interested in selling the stick at all or what are you going to do with it?…" Mr. Ferneough said he was interested in selling and asked what Mr. Presley would be willing to pay. "I said, 'Geez, I'd pay as much as a thousand,' and I sort of painted myself into that corner."
After buying the stick, Mr. Presley visited Charles Moffatt and with his help proceeded to assemble the stick's provenanceand the Moffatt genealogy. In 2009, Mr. Presley gave the stick to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where researchers determined it had been crafted in the mid-1830s.
The Canadian Museum of History began negotiations with Mr. Presley in early 2014, around the time Mr. Presley attempted to auction the stick on eBay. Offers reached $100,000, but he declinedto sell once the CMH approached him and officials there said they'd like to find a way to keep the artifact in Canada.
More research needs to be done on the stick – Mr. Presley, for instance, thinks it may have originally been carved by Mi'kmaqs. The museum's plan is to display it on July 1, 2017, Canada's 150th birthday, in the renovated Canada Hall space. Pressure, of course, may build for an earlier debut.
Is the CMH at all worrried there may be another "world's oldest hockey stick" out there? Histoiran Jennifer Anderson replied: "Presumably Dilly Moffatt didn't play by himself, so there must have been others who had a stick like that, not just on his pond but elsewhere. I don't know – it would be very unusual that [another] stick like this has been kept in such good condition and with such great provenance all these years.' [But]'it's possible."