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Artifact kindles debate on origins of hockey

Quebec City resident Bobby Rouillard may have found evidence that the game of hockey is more than 200 years older than originally thought.

Quebec City resident Bobby Rouillard may have found evidence that the game of hockey is more than 200 years older than originally thought.

His proof?

A hockey-like stick dating from the mid-1600s.

The 35-year-old Rouillard, whose father is a prominent Quebec City antique dealer, recently bought the stick from a nearby collector for $3,000.

Immediately upon seeing it, Rouillard said his suspicions had been aroused by its dark, chocolate-brown colour.

“The stick is made of yellow birch, and it takes centuries for yellow birch to get dark like that.”

In February, Rouillard submitted the stick to Quebec City’s University of Laval for carbon-14 dating.

In mid-March, his suspicions were confirmed when tests found that the stick dated from between 1633 and 1666.

Judging the stick to be of Mi’kmaq origin, a First Nations group native to Nova Scotia and the Eastern regions of Quebec, Rouillard suggested that it may provide a revolutionary new viewpoint on the sociological origins of hockey.

“Credit for the invention of hockey usually goes to a small association of white English speakers,” said Rouillard, referring to a group of McGill University students in Montreal who, in 1877, codified the first rules of modern ice hockey.

According to Rouillard, his stick proves that hockey was already being played by the Mi’kmaq when French explorer Jacques Cartier first set foot on North American soil in 1574.

According to Deborah Guinish, acting director of the Nova Scotia-based Mi’kmaq Association for Cultural Studies, hockey sticks have long constituted a major part of Mi’kmaq craftsmanship.

In the 1800s, said Guinish, many of the game’s earliest players took to the ice wielding Mi’kmaq-made sticks.

Already, several executives at the Society for International Hockey Research have been quick to dismiss Rouillard’s claim as “nonsense.”

However, as Rouillard notes, “they may be hockey experts, but they aren’t wood experts, and I can’t make up carbon-14 results.”

Craig Campbell, a researcher at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, was excited by the news.

“(The stick) would obviously suggest to us that hockey is about 200 years older than what is generally accepted.”

Given the stick’s ambiguous origins, Campbell warned that it would be difficult for the Hall of Fame to confirm the stick as authentic.

“A lot of what we do is detective work; tracing items based on known info,” said Campbell. “This stick is out of the blue; it would be very difficult to correctly identify without any known reference point.”

Far from being an influential artifact in early hockey history, Brian Logie, a London, Ontario-based author and hockey stick historian, didn’t even think the stick was worth the original $3,000 price tag.

“It looks very much like a hockey stick from the early 1900s, said Logie.

Noting that while the wood may be 350 years old, he doubts that it represents the age of the stick’s actual carving.

“To the best of our knowledge, there were no hockey teams as we know it back then, why would someone have made a hockey stick if hockey didn’t exist yet?”

Michael Robidoux, an Ottawa-based researcher of hockey and First Nations culture, affirmed that “there’s no disputing at all that the Mi’kmaq were playing stick and ball games in the 1600s.”

However, added Robidoux, it’s a bit of a stretch to label those early games as hockey.

“The idea of calling it a hockey stick should be done with caution,” agreed Ian Brodie, a professor of culture at Cape Breton University. “It was probably a stick used to play a game that was one of the precursors of hockey as we know it.”

Robidoux suggested the stick might even have had a number of uses besides sports: digging, hunting, even warfare.

“There’s speculation that the Iroquois may have sometimes taken lacrosse sticks into battle.”

Tristin Hopper is a Montreal-based writer.

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