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Comfort, feel top concerns when buying equipment

by Brian Hedger
Viktor Stalberg still remembers the first pair of hockey pants he wore while playing as a child in Sweden.

They were just perfect, except for two little details.

"They were too big and there were no suspenders," the 25-year old Chicago Blackhawks forward said, laughing at the memory. "So, I was skating around for a full game trying to pull my pants up. My parents keep telling me that story over and over again now. It was pretty funny, I guess."

Stalberg can laugh about it now, as an NHL player who's coming into his own in his third season. Back then, it was no laughing matter -- and it was even worse before he got that first set of pants.

"These days, so much goes into sticks and obviously the cost of them is going up, but for young kids I don't think it's that important that you always get the best stuff. Make sure you get things that you can play with, and that's what it's all about." -- Viktor Stalberg

"As a kid, I was one of the last guys to even get hockey pants," Stalberg said. "My parents wouldn't get them for me until I was like 8, for some reason. Then, I finally got them and they were too big and had no suspenders."

The Stalbergs were not unlike a lot of parents whose children take up the sport of hockey, though. It can be pretty daunting to outfit a kid with all the right gear, not to mention a tad expensive.

You've got the obvious stuff -- like skates, sticks, gloves and pucks -- but there's also the various padding, which makes players look like they just stepped off the set of a "Star Wars" movie before they pull the jersey over it. There's also a helmet, shin pads, face cage, mouth guard, a cup that's not exactly the Stanley variety, those crazy hockey pants and suspenders, and, of course, the giant "hockey socks" leggings taped over the shin pads.

Does that cover it all?

Probably not … and that's just a basic list for would-be skaters. Young goalies, while incredibly cute all done up in their full attire, are an entirely different situation. Yet before running out to the nearest hockey shop and buying everything in sight, the best advice might come from the hockey coach's field guide to answering questions about strategy.

Keep it simple.

"These days, so much goes into sticks and obviously the cost of them is going up, but for young kids I don't think it's that important that you always get the best stuff," Stalberg said. "Make sure you get things that you can play with, and that's what it's all about."


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Just make sure they work -- or in Stalberg's case, come with suspenders. Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck agreed.

"Fit is important, but honestly, just for kids to feel comfortable when they play is the biggest thing," said Clutterbuck, who wore primarily used equipment as a youngster that was handed down or bought secondhand. "You'll see kids with beefed up shoulder pads and their gear just looks like it's way too big and they can't even move. They're skating around (all rigid). Just make sure the kid's comfortable in their gear. Safety's important, but the gear's good enough these days that if it fits them and it's comfortable, they're going to be protected."

Also, you might not need to re-outfit young players as much as you'd think -- as long as the growth spurts aren't abnormally large each year.

"Equipment's changed so much, even since when I was a kid, but I never liked getting new equipment," Clutterbuck said. "I don't like breaking in new stuff, so I wore my stuff until it was way too small."

So did Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford.

Maybe it was merely because goalie gear costs a small fortune to replace, but Crawford didn't swap out new pads every year when he was young and just starting out. He, too, wore basically the same stuff -- secondhand gear -- for most of his youth hockey days.

That changed one Christmas when Crawford -- now in his second full NHL season -- was an early teen. He came downstairs and found a huge box sitting next to the tree. Crawford's eyes still light up when he thinks about the box's contents. Inside were a brand new set of Martin Brodeur model Heaton Helite V goalie pads.

"Those were pretty cool," he said. "I loved them. Those were good pads."

They were also pricey, which is something else parents ought to weigh. You want to keep the kids safe and give them an opportunity to succeed, but you also can't afford to go bankrupt doing it.

"My first pair, I don't really remember," Crawford said. "I think my dad just went to like a secondhand hockey shop and picked everything up. I also got a lot of my stuff at Christmas time. A lot of people in my family chipped in for it. It gets pretty expensive, you know? I don't imagine that parents would want to buy new gear every year or every second year."

Especially for goalies, who tend to be the most high-maintenance players on the ice. They do, after all, have pucks flying at their face -- so it's understandable when they want a mask that fits or looks just right.

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, for instance, is using a new steel mask instead of Titanium in order to lessen the amount of impact a puck striking it makes. It's an entirely different game from youth hockey to the NHL -- where some players can smoke slap shots over 100 MPHs -- but Miller's switch shows how interesting it can be to pick out hockey gear.

"Making sure (Miller has) the right equipment, whether it's a heavier mask or more protective mask in those situations … is the proper thing to do, but there's always a comfort factor," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think everybody knows that goalies alone are probably the most fickle when it comes to tweaking with their own equipment."

Not just for safety or how it feels, either.

"I think a lot of kids go for more looks," Crawford said. "The look of the pad is No. 1 for almost all kids … and even (NHL) players, I think. Sticks or skates, a lot of them go for looks first. But the better the fit, the better you're probably going to play."

Especially once you figure out how to get those pants to stay up.
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