Hockey relic leads to cross country adventure

When Mark O’Connell found a tyke-size hockey stick at his Orillia, Ontario, cottage 17 years ago, he thought nothing of it — he gave it…

When Mark O’Connell found a tyke-size hockey stick at his Orillia, Ontario, cottage 17 years ago, he thought nothing of it — he gave it to his son to play with.

When a friend alerted him to a hand-carved stick that sold for $2.2 million a few years ago, O’Connell dug up the metre-long piece of ash and started investigating.

He found a 19th century painting, which showed an early hockey game, with players using sticks that looked similar to his.

“It’s shorter than normal, they played the game in a more one-handed way — that’s the way the game started,” said O’Connell, on Friday during a stop at the Roadhouse in Whitehorse.

He took the stick to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, which confirmed the artifact’s authenticity.

“They could tell from the patina of the wood, which was similar to a hurling stick from the 1850s which they had… they said it was pre-1871, manufactured by a company named Ditson, who partnered up to become Wright-Ditson, which was more famous for tennis and golf equipment.”

That company would eventually be bought by Spalding.

The retired real-estate agent decided to take the piece of hockey history to the pros, sitting in on a few Maple Leafs practices, getting photos of the players with the stick.

“I did that a few times over two years, but my hardcore travelling started in April, and I’ve had it from Newfoundland to Vancouver, and I’m hoping to get to Nunavut as well.”

His routine on the road usually involves setting up a display in a sports bar, or just hunting down famous hockey players, past and present, to photograph holding the stick.

“It’s a Canadian thing, and I wanted everyone in Canada to see it,” he said, flipping through a photo album full of NHL players and fans alike, everyone holding the stick.

“I’d truly like to go to all 30 NHL cities, but the league would have to help me out there.”

While in Nova Scotia, locals helped steer him to the newly built home of Sidney Crosby, where Crosby’s dad answered the door with a “He’s sleeping, hold on…”

O’Connell has a shot of a bleary eyed Crosby holding the stick.

 “I’ve been crisscrossing the country for the last two years, letting people know about it — my goal is to break even on my travel expenses, but it’s been an enjoyable trip so far,”

“That stick that sold for $2.2 million was appraised for $4.5 million,” he said. “I figured once I crisscrossed the country a couple of times, it would be the most famous stick in the country, and that can only help.”

When asked if he would part with it, he didn’t say outright.

 “Somewhere down the road it will be sold, but right now I’m having the time of my life.

“My kids are all grown, I’m free for the first time since I was 23 years old.”

The hockey hall of fame would love to have it, but they only take donations.

“I’m generous, but I’m not that generous,” he said.