By Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star
December 23, 2012, Victoria, BC – From its origin as a carving by a First Nation’s individual, to the factory produced, carbon and fibergalss one-piece composites that rule today’s game, the simple hockey stick has undergone a tremendous evolution. Please enjoy this educational history lesson.
While there is little agreement of hockey’s moment and location of origin, there is little dispute that some of the first commercial hockey sticks were honed by Mi’kmaq carvers in Nova Scotia. Using wood from the hornbeam tree — sometimes known as ironwood for its strength — the carvers create an implement that resembles today’s field-hockey sticks, with a short, upturned blade. Other types of wood are also used, including yellow birch. Some carvers come to believe that the ideal raw material are the exposed roots of second-growth trees, which possess the desired mix of flex and strength.
The Hespeler stick company, which had been making sticks on the banks of the Speed River since 1905, is among the first to bid adieu to the hand-carved one-piece stick era by patenting designs for a two-piece wood stick. The blade is inserted into a joint in the shaft before it is glued. Early models suffer quality-control issues when the glue loses its grip in cold weather. But the two-piece wood stick comes to rule the market, with small manufacturers setting up shop all over Ontario and Quebec.
1930s and 1940s
Two- and three-piece wood sticks come to dominate the NHL. Conn Smythe, the Maple Leafs owner, demands his players use only one type: A CCM model at least 22 ounces (or about 600 grams) in weight. Smythe, a known penny pincher, prizes the heavy sticks for their longevity.
Manufacturers experiment by wrapping their wood blades in fibreglass, and within 20 years they are also using the materials to reinforce their shafts. The advancement paves the way for stronger, lighter sticks made of cheaper, lighter woods that retained the durability of heavier models.
During a practice at Chicago Stadium, Blackhawks great Stan Mikita breaks the straight blade of his Northland so that it resembles a V. When he fires a puck at the net with the crooked implement, he is amazed by the result. Says Mikita to teammate Bobby Hull: “Bobby . . . can you ever shoot the puck (with a curve).” Mikita and Hull begin to experiment with curves, running their wood blades under hot water until they’re soft before bending them under a door jamb overnight. Though others have claimed to experiment with the curve before Mikita and Hull, it is they who popularize it. The results change the game forever.
While many stick manufacturers still use solid hardwood, Quebec’s Sher-Wood and Canadien companies begin to dominate the market with sticks fashioned from lightweight aspen and reinforced with fibreglass. Among the most popular models for pros and amateurs alike is the Sher-Wood PMP 5030, which Guy Lafleur will come to call “the greatest stick in the world.”
Wayne Gretzky begins to rewrite hockey’s record book not with a pen but with a Titan brand TPM 2020 model. In his prime Gretzky is estimated to have used about 700 sticks per season, in part to satiate the huge demand for game-used souvenirs. One reports says Gretzky’s use of the stick helps vault Titan from the 13th-biggest stick maker to No. 1 in the world as measured by revenue.
Lured by a six-figure endorsement contract, Gretzky signs on to use an HXP 5100 aluminum shafted stick made by Easton, whose aluminum bats have come to dominate the market in softball and college baseball. Aluminum sticks have been previously used by the hall-of-fame-bound likes of Mark Howe and Brett Hull, who led the NHL in goal scoring using an aluminum shaft, but Gretzky’s stamp of approval — which sees him earn a reported $2 million over seven years — helps the stick skyrocket in popularity. Within a year some 80 NHLers are using a metal-shafted model.
“After using it, I’m convinced that it’s the best stick made,” Gretzky says at a news conference. “It is absolutely perfect for my needs — stiff shaft and yet extremely light. With wood it seems that stiffness is sometimes directly related to overall weight. I’m nearly 30 now and any advantage I can get in the weight of my equipment is welcomed.”
The first composite blade is introduced. Paul Kariya, an early adopter, scores 50 goals with the new technology.
Joe Sakic and Kariya are among the early adopters of the Easton Synergy, the first popular one-piece composite stick. By 2004, some 90 per cent of players are using composite technology. NHL goaltenders are among those who aren’t thrilled. “What do I think? Ask any pitcher in baseball if he would want Mark McGwire swinging an aluminum bat. Ask me if I want Al MacInnis swinging a Synergy stick. Of course, I’d say no,” Blue Jackets goaltender Marc Denis says. “Everyone’s shot is harder. You see third- and fourth-line guys letting them rip from the top of the right circle.”
The composite stick dominates the pro game, with only rare holdouts like Edmonton’s Ryan Smyth using a wood blade in a composite shaft. Sher-Wood, the only Canadian manufacturer still producing wood sticks in industrial quantities, announces plans to move its remaining domestic operations offshore.