- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Just two seasons ago, almost every hockey player on the planet used a wooden stick or one that was mostly wood. These days, however, wood is so previous millennium.

The hockey stick, like so many household items, is new and improved. A kevlar composite stick which puts more oomph in a shot is all the rage in the NHL in 2002.

One would think an improvement in technology that helps propel a frozen hunk of rubber in excess of 100 mph would cause players to take extra safety precautions. But not in the tough guy NHL, where playing hurt is a badge of honor and extra protection is for wimps.

Two seasons ago, 1997 NHL rookie of the year Bryan Berard came close to losing the sight in one eye and his career when he was inadvertently hit by a stick. Berard's horrible injury might have been prevented had he been wearing a visor, but it didn't change many minds about such eyewear. Two-thirds of today's players still take the ice without protection for their eyes.

In just 35 years, the NHL has gone from a six-team Snowbelt League of hard-hitting Canadians to a 30-team operation sprawling from Vancouver to Miami, with nearly half the players from Europe and the United States. In the early years, helmets used to be rare and some goalies didn't even wear masks, but these days protective headgear is mandatory.

But despite changes, such as the move from bulky leather goalie pads filled with deer hair that never really dried to today's synthetic, foam-filled, quick-drying gear loved by goalies and equipment managers, the NHL remains bound by tradition. The overriding one is machoismo and, as a result some players would just as soon get caught wearing a dress as a visor.

"If I could prove that wearing a shield would enhance your performance by even 1 percent, I've got a customer," said Richard LaChapelle of Itech, one of the two major visor makers. "But if I say, as I do now, that wearing a shield is better for your health, then it falls on deaf ears. Protection is well below performance on the NHL ladder."

Joe McMahon, long-time New York Islanders equipment manager, can't disagree. Despite his advice, only five Islanders wear shields, two below the NHL average.

"I would love for it to be mandatory that all players wear mouthguards and full-face shields," McMahon said. "I can recommend them over and over, but I can't tell guys what to wear. In training camp, I ask our kids to leave it on for a week through the rookie games, but most of them don't even want to do that."

And unlike older players, young players have been required to wear shields on their way up through juniors, European elite leagues or college hockey ranks.

Protective equipment is one thing, but when it comes to sticks, many 30-somethings have been willing to switch. About 80 percent of NHL players have gone to synthetic sticks, especially Easton's Synergy model, even though they're not yet custom-made as wooden ones are. The days of players spending hours working on their wood sticks with saws and blowtorches are just about gone. Seemingly, everyone wants a Synergy stick although scoring is at its lowest level in memory.

"The change in the sticks has been overwhelming," McMahon said. "I don't think Easton even realized how huge it was going to be. It's lighter, the passes are crisper and the shots are definitely harder. Jason Arnott scored against us for New Jersey this year, and I honestly didn't see the puck leave his stick [before] it was behind [goalie] Chris Osgood."

Wooden sticks may be going the way of the dinosaur, but don't tell that to Washington's Peter Bondra, who's on the verge of his fifth 40-goal season in seven years.

"I like the feel of wood," said Bondra, who meticulously works on his sticks and numbers them so equipment manager Doug Shearer can give him just the one he wants during a particular shift. "I have confidence in my sticks, so why should I change? I tried the Synergy a couple of times in practice, but it didn't feel right to me. All the kids want the Synergy stick because it's the new thing and it's cool. My son has a Synergy stick. He still has his wooden stick, but he doesn't use it anymore."

Bondra's teammate Steve Konowalchuk, 29, might be the youngest player using wood.

"I tried [a Louisville model] for a couple of practices after I got back from the shoulder injury, but they were a little stiff and it wasn't the time of year to be working on things," Konowalchuk said. "I'm going to try them again this summer. You always want to improve with the times.

"If it makes your shot better, you want to keep up. But I use a pretty high lie [the angle of the blade]. My blade's flatter on the ice, close to my body because I play so much along the boards. The puck's in my feet a lot, and I want to be able to dig it out. If I had [Bondras] curve, I might shoot a little better, but I wouldn't have the same results as he does and I wouldn't be as good along the boards."

Konowalchuk made his NHL debut 10 years ago this month so he recalls playing against the last few bareheaded players. And although he wears a visor as do teammates Bondra, Ulf Dahlen, Sergei Gonchar, Jeff Halpern, Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus Konowalchuk said there is a downside to the protection.

"When you went in the corner with a guy without a helmet, you were aware of keeping your stick down," Konowalchuk said. "Now, you don't even think about it. You can play a lot more fearless. Maybe that's causing more injuries, especially to the head."

So what about the skates? Tired of a string of foot injuries sustained while blocking shots, the Islanders' Claude Lapointe asked McMahon to give him a more protective skate. Graf designed one with a white velcro strap where the lower laces normally would be. Lapointe's feet have stayed healthy during the two years he has worn the admittedly ugly skates, but he remains the only NHL player with them.

New Jersey's Patrik Elias and Edmonton's Jochen Hecht are the only players now wearing Graf's new skate, which has a disposable T-blade. However, Graf's Dale Morriseau isn't expecting a Synergy-like rush to his product when the company tries a major rollout this summer.

"The T-blade doesn't have to be sharpened, so you don't have to worry about the consistency of the sharpening," Morriseau said. "We've tested it against all kinds of blades, including the Zurin that Wayne Gretzky used to wear. The T-blade is better. You can glide down the ice in one glide with less friction. Kids who've tried them love them. And unlike a traditional blade, you can replace one in 30 seconds."

But Morriseau is shooting for only 10 percent of the players to wear the new skates next season, largely because with a series of circles instead of the traditional posts and runner holding the blade, they look so different. Philadelphia center Adam Oates termed them "weird" and "a gimmick."

Shearer is also a skeptic. Still Graf, which is a distant third behind Bauer and CCM with 16 percent of the NHL player market, might be on to something.

"Most companies aren't going to try to revolutionize skates as much as they will sticks because skates don't give their names as much exposure," McMahon said."And players are more afraid to change skates than sticks. They like the feeling of freshly sharpened skates. They know I'll get them just the way they like them. But when Patrik Elias cuts on the ice, you can really hear it. And it's awful when a $9million player is off the ice getting his skates sharpened when you're on a power play. Do you want a $5 replacement blade or your $9 million player off the ice? These skates could be the next big thing."

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