The evolution of the hockey stick: these aren't your dad's Sherwoods

 

The ritual begins when the tools arrive in the Edmonton Oilers locker-room. That's when Sam Gagner painstakingly begins the modification process.

 
 
 
 

The ritual begins when the tools arrive in the Edmonton Oilers locker-room. That's when Sam Gagner painstakingly begins the modification process.

He eyes the curve of the blades, tests the flex of the shafts, and spray paints the white blades black.

Wood. Graphite. It doesn't matter. Some past times will endure.

There are some technological advances that cannot change a stickhandler's bond with his stick.

"I read a quote from Wayne Gretzky when I was younger, and he had said, 'It's a matter of taking care of what takes care of you,' " said Gagner.

"I've always been really particular about my sticks. When I was younger I always had wood sticks and I'd have them over the stove, tinkering with them. The good thing about these graphites is they come with the same curve, same everything all the time.

"But that's why I shave them down. I want to be part of my sticks."

Long gone are the wood sticks of yesteryear. These days composites rule the racks around the National Hockey League, and they are branded with names like Kronik, Dolomite, and Vapor XXXX.

They come at a pretty price too--about $250 a stick, which is almost four times as much as a wood model.

Multiply that by 25 players, then estimate that each player is going to use an average of one stick a game, and it equates to $500,000--all which comes out of the Oilers' equipment budget.

Only a handful of the Oilers have agreements with stick manufacturers and, according to Barrie Stafford, the club's equipment manager, only a few of the league's elite have lucrative endors ement contracts--a list that would include Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who is tied to Reebok.

The team still shells out for the sticks.

The good news, of course, is today's composites are more durable than the first generation. The sticks still snap but not with the degree of regularlity that they once did.

And because they are lighter and more flexible than wood, they are seen in in all but a handful of players mitts.

Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche still uses wood as does Adrian Aucoin of the Phoenix Coyotes. Jason Spezza, a recent holdout, moved to the high-tech side last season.

His switch came on the heels of the announcement that Sherwood-Drolet was farming its production to plants overseas. He now uses a graphite shaft and wood blade designed by Reebok. However, he still has a private stock of Sherwood wood sticks, and he has dusted them off at times this season.

"Technology caught up in sports. Golf is a good example. So is tennis. Wood was phased out," said Stafford, who has seen the evoluation from all-wood sticks to aluminum shafts to carbon graphites with wood blades to one piece models. Joe Sakic was one of the pioneers to use the one piece version.

"There were a lot of growing pains," Stafford continued. "The blades were breaking pretty easily at the joint, then from that point they were phased out and carbon graphite turned out to be lighter and more durable. And you know what?All of this occurred because of performance. Technology allows average players in golf to hit the ball farther and straighter. It's the same in hockey. The average player can shoot the puck harder today."

In the days when wooden sticks were standard issue, teams would whip through an average of 2,500 to 4,000 a season. Word is that Bobby Orr would go through 120-180.

Now there are two-piece and one-piece composites, straight shafts and tapered shafts, low kickpoints and highfaluting titles like MacDaddy and AK27.

"I don't break a lot," said Gagner, " but I don't like when they die either so I'll go a few games with them, then when they lose their pop, I get rid of them."

Patrick O'Sullivan, like Gagner, has a routine when he gets a new shipment. He shaves certain areas, checks the lies, and he tapes his sticks between every period.

"I'm sure there are guys who are worse then me, but I like to take my time with my sticks to make sure everything is the way I want it," O'Sullivan said. "You can change little things during the season but you don't want to do anything drastic."

"I spend a lot of time on my sticks," adds Oilers winger Ales Hemsky.

Shawn Horcoff is a dabbler. He always tapes his stick before he heads out to the ice, but it's not like the old days. There just isn't as much that can be done with composite blades.

"It's not like the wood blades of the past. You can't really screw around with them," said Horcoff, who travelled to Easton's factory in Tijuana, Mexico, before the 2007-08 season to find a stick he was comfortable with.

"The game is all about feel," continued Horcoff. "If the lie isn't right or the curve isn't right, and you don't have confidence in your sticks, it's going to affect you. (But) there's a mold and they get heated up and I just think that over time, they get warped."

Horcoff, not fond of his sticks last season, made adjustments this past summer.

"I'll switch the pattern," said Gagner, "but I'll go a couple of games and if I haven't done anything, I'll go back to the old trusty which I've had since my first year in junior. I've just made

really slight modifications to it. I shave the toe down a bit for weight and I've always spray painted it to add a little weight.

"Plus I like the way it looks.

"If it's all black it's easier to hide the puck." Not all the stickhandlers handle the puck regularly and as a consequence they don't tinker as much. Take defenceman Tom Gilbert.

"I cut it to my length and I tape it up. That's pretty much it," he said.

"If I was more of a highly skilled guy with good hands who did a lot of stickhanding, it would be different. The majority of the time I use my stick for defensive plays."

That's not to say he doesn't feel a flush of frustration when one of his sticks snaps in mid slapshot.

"I think I've broken three this year, and once it was just a pass. All you can think is how does that happen, there's not much stress on the stick?" Stafford is at the rack, straightening sticks, talking shop.

"They're like fingerprints," he said as his gaze shifted down the row. "There are things

they can change in the manufacturing process but then you have taping and length and knobs. Some put wax on the blade, some put sticky stuff on the shaft. Some put powder on the handle.

"Players can get as specific as gram weights in the blades and flex points in the shafts but, because it's carbon graphite, they can't make a lot of changes as opposed to the wooden sticks," continued Stafford.

"Probably 10 per cent of the players are inclined to make changes throughout the course of the season, and when a player wants to make a change, they have to change the mold at the manufuring plant. But there's always tweaking."

reland@thejournal.canwest.com

 
 
 
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