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The Official Site of the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Tools Of The Trade

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

The NHL is a workplace with some of the most valuable, specialized workers on the planet.
Consider these numbers…

One eighth to one sixteenth of an inch: the amount some players will cut off the shaft of their sticks to compensate for skate blades worn down through sharpening. One sixteenth of an inch is the depth of a business card.

A best guess at how much the Maple Leafs spend on hockey tape each year.

100: The standard measurement of flex on a hockey stick. 100 is the mean between stiff and flexible.

4,000 and 8,000:  The number of game pucks and practice pucks the Leafs will buy each season.

$525,000: The minimum salary for an NHL player.

Tools of the Trade looks at all the elements, big and small, that make up life in the NHL. Those tools are as obvious as sticks and skates and as abstract as diet and mental preparation.
Equipment has not one but two purposes: to maximize player protection and boost the physical and psychological comfort of the player.
Part science project, part sociological study, Tools of the Trade brings the nuts and bolts of the NHL to you.

Chapter I. Sticks or change for change’s sake.

A stick to a hockey player is like a scalpel to a surgeon.

“Our prices on average are about $150 a stick,” said Leafs’ equipment manager Brian Papineau.  Most Leafs will use one new stick a game. That’s means somewhere between 60 and 100 sticks a year and a stick budget than can come in anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000.

Because of the Leafs’ visibility and reach, Toronto players routinely garner five-figure stick contracts. The team does not receive payment for using one brand of sticks. While the sticks are top of the line, the Leafs are given a healthy discount.  Big market teams and teams like Detroit who bring a proven record of advancing a long way in the playoff are considered A market teams.

Since most manufacturers covet the visibility that comes with having a Leaf use the company’s stick, there is no financial impetus for a player to sacrifice performance for a stick contract.  Players’ tastes are so highly developed using the wrong stick is bad business.

NHL sticks weigh somewhere around 500 grams. That’s about five medium sized bananas. Since each player’s stick is custom made they should be identical. That standardization, as well as the increased velocity the sticks bring, is what players value most.

“In the old wood stick days the curves were off, the sticks would be bottom heavy, their balance wouldn’t be the same,” Papineau said. “There were issues on that end. Players would have to spend quite an amount of time before a game prepping their sticks.”

The last Leafs to use wooden sticks were Robert Reichel and Joe Nieuwendyk. Both players left the Leafs after the 2003-2004 season. The Senators’ Jason Spezza is generally recognized to have been the last holdout. He began using a composite model a year ago.

Players commonly trim the shaft of their sticks to compensate for blades worn down through sharpening.

“Just by sharpening the skates over and over again you’re taking more blade off so you are changing the height of the player,” Papineau said. “We’re talking only an eighth of an inch or a sixteenth. That’s how fussy these guys can be. “

Papineau cites another example of players’ obsession of sticks.

Model numbers that detail exact specifications are imprinted on every stick. The numbers are for use in manufacturing and as such, not for player consumption. Nonetheless players will crack the code and pass along the details to each other like prisoners smuggling a code out of a prison camp.

Chapter 2 or the men in the middle.

Scott McKay worked for the Leafs as an assistant equipment manager for 11 years before taking a job as a sales rep for Warrior equipment.  Reps, he said, are on call 24/7.

“You can expect calls late at night or early in the morning depending on how the player did the night before,” he said. “If the guy plays well he very rarely calls. Guys call you because the flex is wrong; they felt a vibration in the stick. They say ‘the stick just didn’t feel right. I want to change something.’”

“I would say about 85 per cent of the time it’s psychological,” McKay said. “Your job is to listen and treat the request in a professional way.”

The colour of the stick is often the basis for a player complaint, McKay said. Yes, the colour.

“A lot of the time they will say ‘when I look down at the stick I can see that colour.”

Leafs’ centre Tyler Bozak said he will change sticks to alter his luck.

“It’s mainly mental. If things aren’t working I will blame it on the stick and change it up. Some sticks just feel good sometimes. You might change sticks and get a couple of goals and think ‘this is the stick I have to use. “

Players will often change sticks during the game. Alexander Mogilny would sometimes rotate as many as four sticks, each substantially different from each other, in a game. He became a stickboy legend by sometimes changing his stick after scoring.

Belarussian Mikhail Grabovski is a stick stickler. The value of a good stick was driven home to him as nine-year-year old when he was given a wooden Titan for Christmas.

“It was white but it looked grey because I used it so much.  I had it for a year and I was playing outside when somebody stole it while I was getting changed.

“My Dad went around asking who had been at the rink. He got the names of the guys who played before in that area. He went to their apartment and got it back.”

Chapter 3 or specs and stones.

Nothing else matters if the stick is the wrong length. Defenceman usually play with longer sticks since reach is essential and a longer stick is useful when skating backwards.

The NHL limits sticks to 63 inches long but deferments are granted to exceptionally tall players such as the Bruins’ six-foot-nine Zdeno Chara and the Leafs’ six-foot-five Keith Aulie.

Flex directly affects velocity.  The velocity from a slap shot isn’t generated from the stick hitting the puck but the stick hitting the ice just short of the puck, flexing backwards and then snapping back into place as it impacts the puck.

A flex of 100 is considered medium. Fewer than 100 mean springier sticks. Whippier sticks are usually favoured by forwards.

“Players today have found reducing the stiffness and going to the 85 and a 90 flex means they get more whip on their shaft and more of a snapping effect,” said Leafs equipment manager Brian Papineau. “It’s better for their wrist and elbows when they are shooting. You don’t get the strain.”

Phil Kessel is always talking about having more pop in his shot,” Papineau said. “He wants that puck to snap off the blade and get more of a zinging effect.”

“I use an 85 flex because most of my shots are in-close,” said Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton. “It’s good for snap shots, wrist shots. Brett Hull used a ridiculously low flex and he’s in the Hall of Fame.”

Defensive defenceman favour stiffer sticks because they can put all their weight on it without fear of the stick snapping.  That said, when a defenceman has an offensive component to his game, they usually opt for a snappier stick.

“My stick is a little whippier,” said Cody Franson. “I like it for the snap shot. With a stiffer stick I really had to lean on it to get a good snap shot. I wanted something where I could focus on where I wanted to shoot the puck rather than worrying about shooting the puck hard."

A stick’s lie determines how much of the blade sits on the ice. Defencemen often use a lower lie and while they lose a little velocity on their shot, fewer pucks slide by the toe and heel of the stick.

Players such as Mikhail Grabovski who crouch a little lower than most players to generate speed routinely prefer a lower lie. Stick manufacturers advise buyers to test their lie by inspecting the tape on their stick. If most of the wear is on the heel, the player needs a lower lie. A higher lie is needed if most of the wear is on the end of the stick. Wear all along the bottom of the blade points to the right lie.

Chapter 4 or tales of the tape.

A sampling of Leafs showed most tape their stick from heel to toe (Mats Sundin was a well known exception) but the artistry is often found at the other end of the stick.

“I still do the same thing that my Dad showed me,” said Joffrey Lupul. “Wrap some tape, white tape, spin it, and wrap a little bit around and just tape over the rest of it.”

“The way you tape your stick. For a lot of guys that’s the superstition,” said Marlies winger Kelsey Wilson. “ If you have a bad period or you’re  not handling the puck well you re-tape your  stick between periods.

Taping the blade is only part of the job.

“I actually tape the knob of the stick the same way my dad showed me when I was 10 years old,” said Tyler Bozak. “The knob is probably more important than the blade for most guys.”

Players most commonly wrap tape around the top of the shaft. Some extend the tape down several inches spin the tape and loop it around the shaft to create a grip. Another layer of tape- some players use the white less sticky trainer’s tape – seals the grip.

“I actually tape the knob of the stick the same way my dad showed me when I was 10 years old,” said Leafs’ centre Tyler Bozak. “ The knob is probably more important than the blade for most guys.”

With composite sticks replacing wooden ones much of the tinkering:  shortening the sticks, shaving the blade, using a butane torch to alter the curve, went out of fashion. Players still alter their stick but manufacturers advise against sanding it down or even painting it since the chemicals in paint may undermine the carbon compound.

For players, a stick is also a place to scrawl messages, often to themselves. The Bruins’ Zdeno Chara pens the name of his wife, Tatiana, on his stick.

“A lot of guys put their kid’s name, a buddy who’s sick,” said Scott McKay, a former Leafs assistant equipment manager and a sales rep for Warrior Hockey.” When (Buffalo hardrock) Rob Ray was in his last year, he had the words ‘farewell tour’ where his name would go.”

There is no correlation between point production and how much attention players devote to their sticks.

“I am very low maintenance, I pretty just stick with what I am given,” said Leaf winger Joffrey Lupul. “My sticks have been fine. I don’t know even know what my lie is.”

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