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GEARED UP
BY SASHA KANDRACH

 

When the Islanders are playing their best hockey, they are one synchronized, orchestra. It's a metaphor President and GM Lou Lamoriello frequents when referring to the commitment and collective efforts needed to create a winning hockey team. The ensemble must be balanced throughout as every individual follows along to their assigned tempo and shapes the sound of the composition. Each player, or musician in this case, must ensure their instruments are finely tuned properly strung, and polished. 
 
For hockey players, who are notorious creatures of habit and operate on regimented routines, maintaining and fine tuning their gear is crucial to ensure that they have the modes for a proper performance. With 16 potential pieces equipment to use on a given day, the practice of calibrating the gear itself can be quite meticulous. 
 
At its core, the equipment tendencies are personal preferences at the intersection of comfort and performance. If a player prefers a new blade at the start of every period or goes to extreme measures to preserve a pair of elbow pads for the year, the perception may appear "picky" on the surface, but there's an almost immediate justification behind the logic of those calculated tunings. After all, these adjustments are vital methods to ensure every instrument produces the perfect pitch. 
 
"You know what? I'm really not that picky," Jordan Eberle explained. "I think it's more of what you feel comfortable with. I'm just picky about some things. That's what it comes down to, what feels best for you."
 
Trying to categorize players based on these preferences is a tall order, and to factor in the wide spectrum of individual preferences based off of such a vast variety of equipment itself is quite the toilsome tangle. 
 
Scott Mayfield proposed his own pragmatic solution; separate players into three groups on the basis of frequency of change or need for adjustments and on the flexibility to experiment with new gear. 
 
"I think there's guys who are relatively easy going and low maintenance," Mayfield explained. "Those are the guys that are either just super easy and don't ask the equipment guys for a lot and don't switch things up really ever. Or you could also say those are the guys that have figured out what they prefer and haven't changed from that. Then, there's guys I'd say who are a little more difficult maybe just because they're particular about certain things here and there, or they're relatively laid back outside of something like gloves. And then you've got guys who maybe make more of a fuss or just need a lot of maintenance."

THE ONES WHO NEVER - OR RARELY - CHANGE ANYTHING

 

For veteran players especially, there's comfort in consistency; a theme that translates accordingly in the realm of players who are content with their respective gear. For Josh Bailey, who is in his 12th season in the NHL, he's nearly perfected his daily composition and a corresponding routine. 
 
"It's probably borderline OCD over the years," Bailey said. "I do everything the same, it doesn't change. I always put things down a certain way, or tap stuff, or throw the ball of tape the same. I could do it blind at this point. I've been doing it since minor hockey. I've had a little bit of change [with equipment], but I just don't like changing my stuff. I'm pretty particular about the way everything feels, the equipment guys know that, I've been here for my whole career. They've forced me to change pants a few times over the years, but for the most part I've kept everything the same over the years or as long as I can. Shoulder pads, elbow pads and shin pads have been the same for quite some time. They get used so much they actually get molded to your body almost. When you switch it takes a lot of time, so I try to avoid that."
 
Devon Toews, like Bailey, rarely if ever, asks for his skates to be sharpened. Instead, Bailey and Toews rely on the trusted judgement of their seasoned equipment team to make the necessary tune-ups.
 
"I don't think I've ever asked to get my skates to get sharpened," Toews admitted. "[The equipment staff] just kind of does it whenever they think it's right. It's not a thing that bothers me. [My skates] just have to fit right otherwise that will bother me, but outside of that I'm really not particular about anything."

Aside from the overall feel and intricacies of the gear itself, there's the practicality when examining the extent and cadence that equipment is used. While resources may seem infinite at the NHL level, cost is a factor that Mayfield is still cognizant of and attributes his low maintenance style to. 
 
"I always joke about guys who are going through gear so fast," Mayfield said. "Growing up, you couldn't tear through things because you're buying all of that stuff, right? Your parents are spending a lot of money already. I got pretty used to using the same pair of gloves for a couple of seasons, using the same sticks and just hoping they don't break. I go through sticks now pretty quick because they break, but I only go through one or two pairs of gloves a year and only one or two pairs of skates a season. I'm easy going."
 
The general consensus from the Islanders room was that Nick Leddy was by far the lowest maintenance player in the room. The veteran defenseman of 10 seasons has primarily used the same regimen since his teen years playing for Eden Prairie High School and into college as a student of the University of Minnesota. 
 
"(Leddy) has got to be the easiest guy," Cal Clutterbuck said. "I know he's got some of the same gear that I was wearing back when I was in the AHL and when first broke into the league [13 years ago]. He's just so laid back and low maintenance. He's got to be a dream for the [equipment staff]."

THE ONES WHO ARE PARTICULAR ABOUT ONE OR TWO PIECES OF GEAR

 

This group encompasses the vast majority of the Isles room; players who are passive about the majority of their equipment but expressed that their few outstanding demands could be reflective of their individual quirks. 
 
"I think with guys and their gear it comes down to their personalities a bit and also their preferences," Bailey said of his observation. "But even some guys, you know if they fall into a bit of a drought, you'll see them start mixing it up. All of a sudden, they're asking you about your [gear] and what things you do. Then, you see a guy go on a bit of a run there and it's almost a guarantee that he's not going to be touching anything."
 
Upon returning from offseason training up in Prince Edward Island, Ross Johnston caught flack about his sticks being labeled by date. The rumor was that the specific date he inscribed on his sticks was a reference point for when the stick would allegedly expire.  
 
"I did date my stick because I was using a different pattern over the summer," Johnston said. "I put a date on it, so I knew which one specifically it was and when I had started using it. Not to let me know when the stick was expired or something crazy like that. It's not typically a superstition for me, but I was using the same sticks at the start of the season so that's why the date was from July."

"Hey, maybe I will start dating them again," Johnston continued. "With all of my gear, if they still make it, I wear it. Easy as that. I've been wearing the same gear since middle of junior. I have the same model of Jofa shin pads from like six years ago. My elbow pads are the same as junior. Gloves; I go through quick, I guess. I did switch skates recently, they're that molded technology that shapes to your actual foot. But as long as they're hard boots, I'm good to go."
 
Like Johnston, Anthony Beauvillier takes a marker to personalize his sticks. Instead of inscribing his twigs with a date, the 22-year-old winger writes the same phrase every day that he has since he was 15 years old and playing for the College Antoine-Girourad Gaulois. In black ink and written vertically contrasted against neon orange tape, Beauvillier writes the simple message to himself to "Have Fun."
 
"I had a meeting with my coach when I was 15," Beauvillier recalled. "He wanted me to think about a phrase to write on my stick to just help me get out of my head and find something that would relax me. I would just get frustrated and it was something I needed to work on.
 
"It's all what it's about right?" Beauvillier continued. "Every time you're happy, having fun and smiling, it makes it so much easier to come to work. For us this is work, but at the same time we're doing what we love. When you're happier and having fun you're playing less in your head. It's easier to smile and not overthink which helps with [confidence] for sure."

 

If there's one piece of gear that gets chewed through in no time for Isles captain Anders Lee - and has become an identifier of sorts - it's his mouthguard.
 
"I probably go through eight to 15 [mouthguards per season]," Lee disclosed. "They get pretty worn down. [The equipment staff and team dentist] aren't that happy with me, but it is what it is. They break down and I break them down. Honestly, I try to stay away from that [being particular] because then you start thinking. I try to stay away from superstitions even though I know I am, but I just don't acknowledge it."
 
Johnny Boychuk's old school ways aren't solely on display on the ice. The veteran translates those practices with his gear, so much so that he abides by the mindset of, "If it's comfortable, why would you switch it?" Boychuk has gone to measures of replacing the lining of padding inside his pants and shin pads that are older than 20-year-old rookie Noah Dobson, opposed to welcoming a new set. 
 
Gloves, however, are the single item out of Boychuk's consistent ensemble in which he requests additional - and sometimes immediate - attention to. 
 
"I go through multiple pairs [per game]," Boychuk provided. "When your hands get wet, your hands start to slip off of your stick especially when you're shooting. That's the main reason why I always switch my gloves during every TV timeout."

Similar to Boychuk, gloves are a crux for Brock Nelson, but for Nelson, there is less constant maintenance and more emphasis on frequent replacement. The 28-year-old noted he easily mills through roughly 15 pairs per season. 
 
"I think I'm pretty easy [other than] maybe just gloves and sticks," Nelson said. "I don't know what it is about gloves, but I seem to just tear through them, probably like 15 a season. I grip the stick hard, I guess. I just go through them a lot. I just don't like if they start to get kind of crusty. They'll get wet from the ice and then when you're putting baby powder on them to create some friction, it'll build up and get kind of cakey. I mean I'll still wear them even if they get holes, but yeah I probably go through a decent amount in a season."
 
Nelson's diligence with his gear includes the typical contemplation of which stick to use during a game. The centerman almost regularly visits the bench to reassess his stick situation at warmups. 
 
"I do go over and check a lot," Nelson confirmed. "You take a few laps and fire off a couple of shots to try and see if it feels right or not, but I almost always go out and swap it. Routine now I guess."
 
For goalies, there's a degree of anonymity in which they prefer to preserve a mystery or withhold details especially as it pertains to their hefty raiment that conceals nearly every sliver of their body.
 
There is an exception with Thomas Greiss. Since the start of the season, Greiss has made his presence known, not necessarily by his identical crisp white or aqua blue fisherman masks. Instead, the netminder declares his attendance with the piercing squeak that his skates project when he makes a prompt lateral move in his crease. Listen carefully next time you're at a game. 
 
"I just like them sharp," Greiss revealed with a smile. "Nothing special. They just make that sound mostly when I shift side-to-side. Changed [skates] over the summer. That's all."

 

For Greiss' counterpart Semyon Varlamov, his 12 seasons in the NHL has encouraged him to keep an open mind to innovative technology that hits the scene. Even so, the 31-year-old is loyal to the equipment and comfort that has brought him success throughout his career. 
 
"There's little things here and there that I've changed, but never big changes only small ones," Varlamov said. "I've changed my pads because I liked the way [Jonathan Bernier's] pads were built. I really liked the way he had the back designed so I changed mine to the way he had. I've always had the same glove. I've been using the same helmet for 20 years. It's the same model and it was just ahead of its time and is really good for protection. For skates, I don't change often. I like my skates stiffer and loose in the ankle, but everyone is different. I try new sticks every summer and just try and see. There's new ones that come out every year that are lighter, or wider or have different angles. For the most part, I make some changes every once in a while, but not often."

THE ONES WHO ARE CONSTANTLY ADJUSTING OR EXPERIMENTING

 

There are certain punctilious behaviors that stand out more than others. Leo Komarov's affinity for trying new sticks or technology is one that has not gone unnoticed, nor is his habit of sitting in his stall with his skate in-hand at eye-level as he carefully examines the blade of steel. 
 
"It's probably not when everybody has been saying," Komarov further explained. "[With sticks] I always get a couple samples and then it takes a few weeks to test it out, but skates have to be perfect."
 
At the start of the season, Komarov spent the summer at home in Finland training with Aleksander Barkov and Patrik Laine. The Isles versatile winger/occasional centerman returned with a few of Barkov's custom sticks. After sufficient use and approval, Komarov proceeded to make the switch and mirror the captain of the Florida Panthers. 
 
"I've been using the same curve for a really long time," Komarov said. "I switched it this summer. I switched it to a little bit rounder. It's the one [Barkov] has. It's bigger this year. It used to be pretty straight though."

 

While Komarov may be flexible and open-minded with his sticks, he's set in his ways after pinpointing the precise dimensions desired for his blades' daily filing. 
 

"Skates have to be perfect," Komarov said. "I get them sharpened every day and as needed during intermissions."
 

Clutterbuck is another one when it comes to experimenting with sticks. These days, with companies offering a variety of different composites, flexes, toe shapes, curve depths and finishes the selection process can be tedious and time-consuming. 
 
"Last year I changed sticks like six times," Clutterbuck said. "It's just the way that it looks, it feels and the way the puck comes off. It's like getting a new set of golf clubs. You go to the golf course and hit a ball and decide which one you like most. Last year, there was something about the curve that was off, and I just didn't like it. Normally, I wouldn't change sticks that much, but I didn't like the new one. So, I had to find a different stick that I liked and that was in-season and it looked like I had 90 different sticks. I never ended up getting what I wanted until this summer and I haven't really touched my sticks since then."
 
Clutterbuck is known for his wicked wrist shot, so when other sharpshooters boost another stick or speak highly of tweaking something specific, the winger's curiosity is piqued. 
 
"If you like what you like you get set in your ways, right?" Clutterbuck said. "But that's the problem too because then all of this new stuff comes out and everyone's pumping it, but sometimes the old stuff is better. I'm always willing to try the new stuff, but I don't always stick with it."
 
Unlike Clutterbuck, Eberle isn't as contingent on the actual anatomy of the stick, but rather is reliant on locating the perfect union between the stick itself and how Eberle is feeling at that precise moment.
 
"Sticks I'm funny with," Eberle said. "I have different heights. Some days you feel taller than others. That's all it is. You've got to find the right one. I just have three different heights. It's miniscule though, we're talking millimeters or centimeters in difference. On a certain day, eventually you'll grab a stick and it clicks and you're like, 'That's the one!' It's hard to explain, but yeah [I do it] during warmups. If you watch, Barzy does it too, we just keep going back and switching them out until I find the one that I want. But you notice it. Once you grab the right one, you'll immediately know it."
 

Similar to Eberle, Mathew Barzal is admittedly quite conscious on the physical feel of his gear. With sticks, Barzal will analyze the instrument from the moment he picks it up before taking it on a stroll with a puck. Over the summer, the playmaker altered the curve of his stick to incorporate more shooting into his game. The change to the toe allows the electric centerman to pop more slap shots and one-timers. The adjustment has clearly been effective for Barzal, who currently leads the Isles in goals (16), assists (19) and points (35). 
 
"With my sticks, it's usually how it feels that day," Barzal said. "I'm very day-to-day with my gear. Some days with my sticks I'll make it shorter, then the next day I'll feel like I need it longer."
 
For such an explosive skater with such enthralling edgework, the maintenance needed to sharpen blades or swap skates is a justified mechanism for success for Barzal. 
 
"My skates need to be sharpened after the second period of every game," Barzal said. "I usually get them switched once or twice a game. My skates need to feel a certain way and need to be square."
 
There's really no right or wrong way to manipulate such dependent objects like hockey equipment. But for players who rely so heavily on the effectiveness of their collective gear to be reliant against the modes of rink conditions, usage and efficiency, their relationship with equipment is a fundamental apparatus within the game and their performances. Just like an orchestra, the detailed processes of finding that perfect pitch for every instrument are necessary means in order to shape a synchronized repertoire.