December 28, 2012

From NEHJ: Slick sticks

By Jesse Connolly

Today’s essential tools of the trade wow players with composite materials, dazzling graphics and custom features. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Like a paint brush to an artist or a sword to a knight, the hockey stick is everything to a hockey player.

You can strip away the elbow pads, the gloves, the helmet, you name it, but without a stick, there are no passes, no shots, no assists, no goals and, quite simply, no hockey.

“The hockey stick is a hockey player’s hammer, a tool that the game could not be played without,” said Graf’s Joe Aitken. “The stick is the item that every player credits for getting the job done.”

Over the years, the hockey player’s proverbial hammer has changed dramatically. So, too, has the process of shopping for and customizing one. Accompanying those changes have been rising costs, the coming and going of manufacturers young and old, and an ever-evolving market that has seen the top equipment makers crank out model after model in the ongoing race to create the perfect stick.

In this special report with New England Hockey Journal’s annual Hockey Sticks Buyer’s Guide, we examine all that and more. 

The evolution

Unlike most pieces of equipment that have slowly evolved over time, the hockey stick underwent dramatic changes in a short time period. While one-piece composite sticks had been in the works for some time, it wasn’t until about a decade ago when they became the predominant option across various age groups.

“I think that, as hockey equipment has evolved, the cherished item has gone from skates to sticks,” said Bauer’s Ryan Libby. “It was only about 10 years ago when stick options were just wood or shafts and blades, so the excitement level of getting a new stick didn’t really exist. A player might have purchased a dozen wood sticks or two shafts and six blades to last the season, but you didn’t hear a player get excited about buying a new Bauer 3030 stick, for instance. 

“The excitement, and the big investment, was always skates because they were the item at the time that could really improve your game the most. That said, the advancements in stick technologies, the amount of options available to the consumer and, of course, the pure fun that comes from picking a new stick has changed the way that we look at sticks.”  

Throughout the past 10 years, the stick has been repeatedly refined, yielding a much-improved product when stacked up against its predecessors.

“Composite hockey sticks have come a long way from the earliest composite models,” Warrior’s Keith Perera said. “The raw carbon materials have improved, the resins that hold them together have improved. Everything is lighter and stronger now mostly due to other industries, namely aerospace, pushing the envelope and using these materials more and in more applications.”

Picking your stick

No one enters any store without some sort of idea of what they’re looking for, but a player would be wise to trust the experts at their local stores and pro shops. That’s what they’re there for.

“As the retailer, we are there to guide the player with their purchase and be the one to fill in any gaps of knowledge they are unaware of when it comes to choosing a stick,” said Paul Watkins, assistant manager of Hockey Monkey Superstore in Norwood, Mass. “We are not there to sway a player into any particular brand or model, but instead to choose the proper tool for them. Guiding them to making the best informed decision on their stick purchase only comes after gathering a good amount of information about them such as their playing and shooting style, position, price range, history of sticks and what they are looking to achieve.”

Walking in and simply grabbing a stick off the rack isn’t a wise idea, as variance between each stick might not be detectable from a visual standpoint.

“You see all the time kids coming down with sticks that are 102 flex and the kid weighs 150 pounds,” said Lenny Gregorian, who has co-owned Connecticut’s South Windsor Arena with his brother, Steve, for nearly 40 years. “That’d be like a 5-foot woman trying to go out and bear hunt with a 120-pound bow. You’re just not going to get the velocity on your projectile.”

Still, more often than not, a player will try out whichever stick he finds aesthetically pleasing first.

“The aesthetic is very important,” Reebok-CCM stick product manager Ryan Crelinsten said. “At retail stores, it is the tractor beam that pulls the player towards the stick. A great design gets players excited about the product.”

But at the end of the day, the true test is when a player takes a hold of his potential new twig. “As any player will tell you, a stick needs to feel good in their hands,” said Sher-Wood’s Daniel Desjardins. “It has to have a good balance, and once you know your most preferred curve, all these elements mean you can be comfortable with the chosen stick. From that point on, it’s all about how the stick responds to your play.”

Heavy lumber

If you haven’t been to a hockey retail store in a few years to pick out a new composite stick, you might’ve suspected that the last remaining wooden sticks had been tossed into one great big fire. While all of the retailers we talked to did confirm that wooden sticks make up a very small portion of their merchandise, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a great buy for a number of customer segments.

“We still carry wood sticks,” said Rich O’Rourke of Sports Etc. (Arlington, Mass.). “Wood is great for the more traditional player who prefers a softer feel and better puck control. Wood is also perfect for beginners, as a backup and as a relatively inexpensive option for the recreational player. Sher-Wood in particular is a company that still focuses on wood sticks and has a reputation as the premier manufacturer of wood sticks.”

Custom crafted

Warrior dedicates precisely 0.0 percent of their time to making wooden sticks. They do, however, work extensively with countless prominent NHLers who utilize their composite ones.

“We are very lucky to have over 100 players in the NHL using our product,” said Perera. “Though we endorse a few players, the majority of our players use our sticks based on performance and the service we give them to find the very best stick for their game. We have a team of pro reps that service every NHL team and have a very close relationship to every player in our stable. They customize everything about a stick: the feel, paint, grip, curve, flex, flex point and length (e.g. Zdeno Chara).”

New Jersey Devils forward Adam Henrique is among those who relies on Warrior’s ability to tailor a stick to each player’s needs.

“I changed my curve up quite a bit this past summer,” said Henrique. “It’s something I’m trying out. Now I’m playing with it a little bit. I initially just changed up a couple little things. I’ll see how that works and go from there. It’s just kind of trial and error.”

If it doesn’t work out, he can always talk to one of the company’s reps at the rink or give them a call.

“If you want to change something, they can send you samples of three or whatever it is,” Henrique said. “You usually get the batches of 12. If you want to change something, you can call them up and say you want to change your curve, your lie, the flex or anything, really.”

Geared for girls

Speaking of flex, you’ll find the lowest ones on the market today being created by Whip Sports, which was founded in 2012 and offers a full female line of equipment.

“Absolutely,” Whip Sports’ Chris Vianello said when asked if a female hockey player is going to perform better with a stick designed for females. “Sticks should be designed based on the height, strength, skill and position of the player. The male counterpart has a variety of flexes ranging from 85-110 (for senior sticks) and the females flexes should be no greater than 85. So by offering flexes ranging from 65-85 in senior sticks, we open the market for the female to choose her proper flex based on her physical characteristics.”

Whip offers three different price points and creates a product designed for its target customer base in every way possible.

“Female players prefer what’s aesthetically pleasing and Whip hockey sticks are designed with that in mind,” Vianello said. “We keep our designs fresh and eye catching.”


Dave Phair from Chelmsford, Mass., checks out the vast twig selection at Pure Hockey in Braintree, Mass. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)
 

Sticker shock

One thing that’s universally eye catching when it comes to sticks is often the price tag. “The highest stick is around $259,” said Doug Mathews of Wesco Sports in Connecticut. “It’s getting crazy right now and pushing on the outer limits of being too much. Some guys are just really getting fed up with the price.”

Just imagine the plight of a parent who has to shell out that kind of cash on a near-yearly basis as their children continue to grow.

“Kids today want sticks with their favorite players on them and often discount fit in favor of name recognition,” said Lori Mitchener (North Reading, Mass.), whose son Phineas plays goalie in Squirt A. “I had to spend an extra thirty dollars for the Jonathan Quick stick, as my son simply refused to play with the better-fitting and cheaper Roberto Luongo stick.”

Anyone who’s ever watched an NHL game or two has almost certainly witnessed a pro player forced to toss aside the shattered shaft of his stick.

“I’ve seen the best composite sticks snap almost effortlessly,” said Mike Miccoli, a 26-year-old native of Providence, R.I., who plays in adult leagues in Andover and Peabody, Mass. “It’s even more of a bummer when you see a stick get snapped after a blocked shot. The fact that you might need to replace something that’s so expensive so often could potentially affect how accessible the game of hockey is to those either considering or just getting involved.”

“Skates you can push and you can keep going, but a piece of equipment that can break with one shot, I think they’re pricing them too high,” Mathews said. “Unless they make them unbreakable or offer a lifetime warranty, they’re pushing that range where they’re really expensive.”

The market

Nowadays, the hockey sticks market — and equipment in general, for that matter — is dominated by a pretty short list of companies. Over the years we’ve seen small companies give it their all but fall well short of ever making a real dent in the field. We’ve also seen stick companies that were once prominent, such as Canadien and Koho, get gobbled up. Titan, for example, was highly popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s but is now a part of Reebok-CCM and used strictly in some European markets.

“The costs involved with trying to crack a market like composite sticks is prohibitive,” O’Rourke said. “There are only so many resources for the actual production of sticks, so a small company will fall in line in back of the larger ones. Then there is the matter of marketing, and a small company simply can’t compete with the marketing machines of major suppliers.”

“I would say the number one thing is research and development,” said Mark Hullings, the general manager of the Hockey Giant Superstore in Cherry Hill, N.J., when asked the biggest reason why smaller stick companies fall by the wayside. “A company that’s willing to go out and research the different graphites and composites and different materials that are going to make the stick perform differently will have success. And marketing is also a very important part of that.”

The future

Where do sticks go from here? Most retailers say they can’t foresee them getting much lighter or having many areas to improve. Some believe the supposed big leaps forward that sticks have made might even be a bit exaggerated.

“A lot of what you always see in the trade magazines and stuff, they’re advertorials,” NYC Skate Pro’s Jim Morris said. “They’re written by the company and manufacturer. So, not everything’s always substantiated or factual. I don’t want to say they’re lying, but there’s some things I’ve seen written and there were claims made they don’t really deliver upon. It’s an interpretation of one person’s opinion over others. There’s definitely conflicts when it comes to what is advertised versus what is the reality of things.

“Is there a significant difference? No. I think there are some performance benefits, but they’re not helping anyone score a measurable amount more often. People say goalie equipment is getting more advanced and what not, but that’s not the offset. There’s only so much a stick can do. The rest is the player, really. But again, it’s confidence, that head game of thinking, ‘With better equipment, I’m a better player.’ ”

The companies producing all of these sticks, however, are quite excited about the future of their product and feel as though there are a vast number of tweaks and developments that can be made on a number of levels to better meet their customers’ needs.

“There are so many different potential opportunities that are within reach,” said Libby. “However, at present, the biggest limiting factor may be the retail price ceiling — i.e. how much a consumer is willing to pay for a stick. This ceiling could potentially slow down the extreme advancements — such as chips in sticks — because composite and electronic technologies are very expensive to design, build and test.

“Furthermore, for a consumable item that has to be replaced as often as a stick can be required to be, it can be challenging to make large advancements without making sticks overly expensive. In the immediate future, we need to think about ways to push customization beyond what we currently offer on our My Bauer website and understand how can we bring that detailed, custom-fitting process from the NHL and provide it to players everywhere.”

Maybe sticks will plateau for the time being, as no advancements can be made in terms of composition or construction. But if Bauer and the rest of the field can find a way to mold sticks for individual hockey players across the globe, thus perfecting their most important tool and most prized possession, it simply can’t get any better than that. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the
editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com