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  • Marc Miquel Helsen

Not all sticks are born equal

Published in the Woolwich Observer, April 12, 2008

Hockey purists and nostalgics across the country winced this winter when iconic Sherwood-Drolet decided to farm out the mass production of wooden sticks in January to concentrate on the production of composite sticks. Many lamented the recent development, worried that it might mark the beginning of the end for the wood hockey stick even if, prior to the announcement, composite sticks already accounted for more than an estimated ninety percent of all sticks used in the NHL. Many feared the solid wood pieces might finally be bumped off the professional ice and into the annals of hockey history, taking their place beside other relics like the iconic 70s goalie face mask.

With some five per cent of NHLers still using wood sticks (the NHL does not keep firm tabs on who or who doesn’t use wood sticks) – Ottawa Senator Jason Spezza and Vancouver Canuck Markus Naslund are among the elite players who continue to eschew composites in favour of lumber – the number of players using composites is growing radically at all levels of the game.

The common idea is that composite sticks, though much more expensive, afford greater power, and consequently, faster, harder slap shots; and in a sports world that is increasingly obsessed with speed, that power is paramount, even if it translates into just a few additional km/hr.

“I think some of the guys feel the one-piece sticks (composites come in one-piece and two-piece variations) are certainly lighter and they’re able to hit the puck a lot harder and I think they think that gives them an advantage and, I mean, they’re probably right. If they can shoot the puck harder with them – there’s got to be a reason that kids are willing to spend the money and if it’s because they shoot the puck harder and give them an advantage then you can understand why they would do that,” explains Geoff Haddaway, head coach of the Elmira Sugar Kings.

The technology is such that composite sticks, whether made of fi ber glass, graphite or Kevlar, are becoming ever stronger and lighter, and the trend is making inroads at the amateur levels as more and more parents start to shell out from $80 to $300 for their children’s sticks as opposed to some $40 for wood ones.

The Elmira Sugar Kings organization supplies its team with wood sticks, free of cost, yet the vast majority of its players use single- and two-piece composite sticks.

“My kid’s ten; there’s not one kid on the team that has a wooden stick, not one,” says Patrick Kyte, owner of Elmira Sports, supplier of hockey equipment for the Sugar Kings.

While his Arthur Street store sells about fifty percent wood sticks through its retail end (amateur hockey), Kyte notes that even fans of shinny hockey are starting to go the way of composite sticks for the simple reason that the quality of the sticks is more consistent. The idea that composite sticks are more brittle and that they break more easily than their more forgiving wood counterparts does not hold with Kyte.

“If they were no good, would ninety-nine percent of the people in the NHL and OHL be using them? And have shots like Ovechkin?”

There is no question about it: the majority of high level players are buying into the composite stick technology. And the trend would be even bigger locally, says Kyte, were it not for Elmira’s Old Order Mennonite community, a steady customer base for wood sticks.

“I will never go back to a wooden stick ... because I do take a lot of slap shots. What I love about a composite stick: it’s always the same,” says Kyte, noting that his business reflects the growing trend in hockey circles. From the minor league team on which his son plays right up to the Sugar Kings squad which he supplies, and the NHL heavy weights, composite sticks are ubiquitous for a reason.

“It’s going to be exactly the same as the last one I used,” he explains. “Whereas with a wood stick they get mushy after a while and the feel isn’t the same and because the curve is wood it’s not always going to be the same. Whereas this? Always, always, always the same.”

It’s no secret that the hey-day of the wood stick is done. The decision by Sherwood-Drolet to start outsourcing its wood production came as a heavy burden to those endorsing the traditional material.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for wood stick manufacturers. For Elmira’s Paul Bossenberry, president of Heritage Wood Specialties, a manufacturer of wood hockey sticks and baseball bats based out of Cambridge, it’s a sign of better things to come. He hopes to pick up some of the slack left in the wake of Sherwood’s January announcement.

“I’m actually very optimistic about our future and I think we’re in a really good position because of the number of plants that have shut down; manufacturers are certainly going the way of outsourcing things,” said Bossenberry, whose company produces some 400,000 sticks a year.

“As the numbers dwindle in the game worldwide we become a more prominent player in the game, in the business,” says Bossenberry.

In addition to making its own line of sticks (Alpha) Heritage Wood Specialties also manufactures for Nike-Bauer, and does custom work for OHL, NCAA and NHL players including all-stars like Jason Spezza and Markus Naslund.

Aside from price – Bossenberry notes that 60 per cent of sticks sold in the retail end of the game are still made of wood – Bossenberry is convinced that wood sticks possess other qualities, namely that of “feel” that composite sticks cannot replicate. Players who continue to use wood feel that composites do not cushion the puck like their wood counterparts.

“The biggest benefit is the feel. It has a much softer feel to it than a composite stick due to the density of wood. It has a much better feel to it than any composite sticks, plus the breakage, it will warn you when it’s going to break, as opposed to it just exploding like a composite stick. So, usually a wood stick will crack and you will feel that vibration and then say, ‘oh, yeah, I’d better replace it, it’s broken,” says Bossenberry, who plays for the Elmira Polar Kings and generally hits the ice about six to seven and a half hours a week.

Here, Haddaway offers up a similar argument.

“If you listen to our guys when they pass the puck it seems like with a onepiece stick the puck slaps against it, whereas with a wooden stick it’s almost like a softer sound when the puck hits it, just like it received it a little bit better,” says Haddaway.

“I think what we see is that with the one piece sticks you still see pucks bounce off the blades a lot more because they’re not as forgiving.”

Speedy Sugar King forward Brent Freeman, who almost exclusively uses the wooden sticks his club provides for him free of cost, agrees.

“I think you can receive a pass better with wood. Composite sticks it seems like (the puck) bounces off more,” says Freeman.

The forward will go through one stick every one to two weeks. If the Kings were to provide players with composites free of charge, Freeman might think of trying them out, but he’s still not entirely convinced.

And what about power?

“The benefit to composite sticks is that they are definitely lighter, if that’s a benefit. That’s really the only benefit. They’ve been proven not to be any better in terms of having a harder shot. McGill University did a study on them and said there’s absolutely no difference in the velocity of the shot with a wood stick versus a composite stick,” says Bossenberry.

Indeed, one of the researchers of that study notes that power isn’t so much the distinguishing factor between wood and composite sticks.

“When you get them off the shelf they behave very much the same; because in essence a composite stick is modeled after a wood stick and trying to mimic it,” explains David Pearsall, a professor of kinesiology at McGill University.

Among some of the studies that he and his colleagues at Ice Hockey Research Group – a group that evaluates the mechanical function of skates, sticks and helmets with respect to skill performance and safety – have conducted are those dealing with the strength and durability of sticks. The salient discovery had more to do with the duration of quality, i.e. power, rather than actual quality itself. In this context, the composite stick has the edge.

“The real telling difference is over long duration that the wood stick’s properties change; they get whippy,” says Pearsall, noting that they start off rigid but become soft and “mushy” with time,

As the sticks get older they get easier to bend. The laminar layers break down whereas in the composites they don’t, Pearsall notes. Up until the “catastrophic” failures of composite sticks – the all too familiar breakage and shattering is often seen on television when NHL players blister a slap shot from the point – they behave consistently, virtually always the same.

“That’s the good thing about composites, they won’t change for their life span,” says Pearsall.

“If you had fresh wood sticks and then fresh composites one person would shoot almost the same in terms of power and speed, which is sort of counter intuitive because I guess people, when they buy an expensive composite they expect a lot better performance. But I think over the long run they will have better performance because every time they pick up the stick they know how it’s going to behave; it’s not going to change over time,” says the McGill professor. And that’s a quality that Elmira Sports’ Patrick Kyte appreciates.

So, what does this mean for the wood hockey industry? Will it go the way of the dodo bird?

Bossenberry doubts it. He even argues that the wood stick – tried, tested and true – might eventually make a comeback.

“I think there’s a likelihood that it could. I do know that there seems to be a bit of a resurgence at different levels. The reason for the resurgence is, of course, the cost. The cost of a wood stick versus a composite stick is much more reasonable. I think the other thing too that we’ve heard is that there’s things like injuries, tennis elbow and things like that some high end players are finding because of the amount of vibration and stuff that they get with the composite stick,” he says.

Kyte doesn’t totally disagree. While he argues that the sales of composite sticks will eventually overtake those that are made of wood, even at the amateur level, he’s convinced they will never replace them.

And that has nothing to do with nostalgia.

“Never. You look at a guy – even Crosby uses a wooden blade.”


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