December 23, 2013

From NEHJ: Stick figures

By Jesse Connolly

Rec league street and ice hockey player Greg Stoddard. (Photo by Travis Gray)

As the tool of the trade, it’s hardly surprising that hockey players are obsessive when it comes to their sticks. No matter what position you play, everything has to be just right: the lie, the curve, the grip, the length, the look, the feel.

Of course, hockey isn’t the only sport in which athletes are overly particular about their equipment. Baseball players have a variety of ways of breaking in and caring for their gloves. Golfers have their clubs perfectly tailored to their height, hand size and swing speed. Heck, every serious bowler fine-tunes the object they hurl down a lane for 10 frames a game

But no bowling ball, sand wedge or catcher’s mitt will ever possess the intricacy or the mystique of a hockey stick.

* * *

Not all of us are sharp enough to remember the very first stick we ever wrapped our hands around, but there’s always one we can vividly recall cherishing at a young age.

Former Olympian and coach Mark Kumpel (Wakefield, Mass.) 

“It was a Christian Brothers,” said Mark Kumpel, who played in 288 NHL games during a 10-year career in the pros (1983-93). “Oh, boy. It was a hand-me-down I’m sure, from my brother who didn’t play seriously. Probably when I was six or seven. That would make it like ’68.”

Much like Kumpel, who continued to utilize a Christian Brothers stick until joining a Quebec Nordiques team that had partnered up with Sher-Wood, Greg Stoddard — who plays in a multitude of rec leagues throughout the Boston area year-round — stuck with what he was first introduced to.

“The first real stick I had was an Easton Synergy,” the 25-year-old resident of Somerville, Mass., said. “I got it when I was like 13 and heading up to hockey camp. I treated that stick like it was gold and thought it would score a ton of goals for me. I think I might have ended up using it all through high school.”

Growing up in Wakefield, Mass., Kumpel quickly figured out what style of stick worked best for him.

“I preferred using the Christian Brothers or the Sher-Wood 5030s growing up. I still use the wood ones today if I can find one I like. I use a short stick compared to what most guys use. I feel that the shorter the stick, the better you can handle the puck. That wasn’t one of my strengths. Some of the guys that I played with always yelled at me to pass to their tape, so I figured I better give myself every chance in the world to handle it, so I had a little bit of a shorter stick.”

Now the director of hockey operations for the Eastern Hockey League after leading the Walpole Express to three AJHL championship in five seasons as head coach, Kumpel still uses the same routine for prepping his stick that he first developed as a young boy.

“I always taped the blade from back to front,” the University of Lowell alum said. “The handle is probably a six-inch-length knob. It wasn’t actually a knob, but just tape that was twisted down and then back up the stick, then taped over with three-quarter inch wide tape. I still do the same thing. The only difference is now I just go outside and file it down with the cement.”

Like many kids, Stoddard learned how to make his stick game-ready by studying the habits of those around him.

“I only started playing ice when I was about 12, so I just looked around the room and saw what other guys were doing,” the Baldwin, N.Y.-born winger said. “I might have had the guys at Play It Again prep my first one and then did it myself after that.”

Stoddard held on to that first Easton twig for as long as he could, but eventually the moment comes when a player has to find a replacement. Kumpel stressed to focus on picking what’s the most comfortable, not the most dazzling.

“I encourage the kids today: The first thing they should be focusing on is the lie of the stick, not the sexiest thing they can get their hands on,” he said.

Stoddard, who played for a “dynamite” floor hockey team, the Wolverines, at HockeyTown in Saugus, Mass., over the summer and is skating in a Greater Boston men’s league this winter, takes a similar approach — all while keeping a close eye on the price tag.

“The only two numbers I look at now are flex and price, with the second being way more important,” Stoddard said. “I’m not good enough to justify buying one of those super sexy Bauer Total Ones at like 200 bucks, but I’m slightly better than the 30-dollar Sher-Woods. I aim for something in the 75 to 100 range, and will sometimes go a bit higher if I really feel like treating myself. As for flex, I generally prefer around an 85 flex; it allows me to get some strength behind a shot but is still pretty easy to take a slap shot with.”

Kumpel, unlike Stoddard, played during the pre-composite era. “I look at sports in general and the advancements in equipment,” the 1984 U.S. Olympian said. “When I played tennis in high school, I used the old Wilson Advantage racquet. I could hit that thing maybe 40 miles an hour. Now they can hit the ball 140 miles an hour. It’s no different than with sticks and composites. It’s a fine tool. I look at it, I can’t use it. I still use a wood. I played in the Olympics and I played in the NHL, and I don’t think I’m a good enough hockey player to use it.”

The Olympics were an unforgettable experience for Kumpel. With no hesitation, he remembered which stick he had in his hands when he scored in the tournament. Just don’t ask him where that stick wound up.

“Oh, yeah, it was Christian Brothers,” Kumpel said. “Where is it? I don’t know. I really couldn’t tell you. I have a couple of my old Christian Brothers sticks in my garage that I’ve always kept. Maybe that’s one of them. I couldn’t say for sure. I got the puck from my first NHL goal. They’re a lot easier to hang onto.”

As true as that may be, hockey sticks are one of, if not the most collectible pieces of sports equipment. Boston Bruins season-ticket holder Colleen Donovan always wanted to get a hold of one. She finally worked up the courage to ask at a Bruins practice. She parlayed that request into a pair of sticks: one from Patrice Bergeron and another from defenseman Derek Morris.

“Both sticks are autographed,” said Donovan, who’s still figuring out how best to display her prized possessions. “Bergeron is easily one of my favorite players. He’s a great guy. When I got the Derek Morris stick, it was right before my 20th birthday, so he wrote ‘happy birthday’ on it.”

Katie Shanahan, a friend of Donovan’s and a fellow season-ticket holder, has made a hobby of collecting broken sticks.

“I have a few in the attic, a few in a closet, and a number of them gathering where I keep my ‘good’ sticks,” the Westford, Mass., native said. “I did use one broken stick to make a sign for the 2011 Stanley Cup parade and I still have that.

Shanahan, who plays in the South Shore women’s league in Massachusetts, has a pretty neat goal in mind for her discarded lumber.

“Eventually, I hope I’ll get back to living on a pond and having that ice available every winter,” she said. “By then, I hope my broken stick collection will be big enough to create my own bench to put on the side of our shoveled patch. A nice stick bench would be a great place to tie your skates or take a rest after hours of pond hockey.”

Shanahan’s idea is both quirky and innovative. That’s probably the best way to describe how a former teammate of Kumpel’s once handled a stick crisis.

“The old woodies used to have a colorful sticker two or three inches above the blade that went all the way around the shift,” Kumpel recalled. “One time, they came in without them. This one guy was losing his mind. He peeled the stickers off all his old sticks and put them on the new ones because he said it was screwing up his peripheral vision. Whatever works! They’re particular. That’s why they’re professional athletes. They prepare themselves, and whatever it takes to get the job done, they do it.”

You certainly can’t knock the process.

“It’s definitely a pregame ritual,” Kumpel said. “Some guys like myself, I put my equipment on the same way every time. I tape my sticks the same way. Some guys, no matter what, they tape it, undo it, tape it up again. It’s just part of their ritual. It’s their focus time.”

In life, we’re taught to focus on the important things. Nothing in hockey is more important than the stick. It’s what Tim Thomas used to make “the save” on Steve Downie. It’s what Wayne Gretzky used to set a never-to-be-beaten record with 92 goals in a single season. It’s the be-all, end-all element of a hockey player’s arsenal, the tool of warriors on ice, but one capable of connecting with vulcanized rubber to create something beautiful.

“You can’t score without it,” said Kumpel. “You can’t kick the puck in. I played with some guys that told me they had as many goals go in off their butts as they did their sticks, but for the most part, the only way to score is to have a stick, and who doesn’t like to score goals?”

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ