The history of the ice hockey stick starts with the Mi'Kmaq, a First Nations people indigenous to Canada's Atlantic provinces. It's believed Mi'Kmaq (pronounced "mee-gum-ah" or "meeg-mah") carvers in Nova Scotia made the first ice hockey sticks during the 1830s, when they concurrently invented the sport.
The "Mik-Mak stick" was manufactured by the Mi'Kmaq and remained popular sticks for a century. into the 1930s. The first sticks were carved from birch and hornbeam trees. As ice hockey grew across North America, maple became the wood of choice. Maple hockey sticks stayed relatively the same for decades, with some modifications made to the shaft, such as lamination to add longevity to the stick and some modest flex.
The stick blade that controls the puck remained flat for the hockey stick's first 130 years. Then things, well, took a curve during the 1960s.
Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita is often credited with experimenting with a bend in his blade to get more lift and velocity on his shot. The story is Mikita was taking shots after practice with another Hall of Fame teammate Bobby Hull when Mikita broke the blade on a stick, leaving it curved. He took a shot with the cracked stick and was intrigued by the results.
Mikita and Hull would continue to experiment curving their blades, referring to them as "banana blades." The duo started using them in games - much to NHL goaltenders' dismay - and a new step in stick evolution was born. The late Mikita scored 541 goals and is widely considered one of the best two-way (offense-defense) players of all time, plus among the game's truest gentlemen. His highly entertaining teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Hull, notched 610 goals in the NHL before bolting to the start-up World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets.
Long-time New York Rangers center Andy Bathgate disputed it was Mikita and Hull who first experimented curved blades. Bathgate claimed he had been using curves since his youth and that he allowed Mikita to borrow a stick when the Blackhawks were in New York one night.
Whether it was Mikita or Bathgate, the game's best players were suddenly able to shoot harder and easily lift the puck, making life tough for goalies. Eventually, the NHL reigned in the curved madness a bit, by limiting how much curve a blade can have on it.
Today's players all have some level of curve in their stick and couldn't imagine going back to the old, flat blade days.
"Considering I have the biggest curve they make I don't think I could play with [a flat blade]," says Wyatte Wylie, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect and defenseman for the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips. "I have my certain flex and curve."
For the last 30 years, players and stick manufacturers have moved from wood to aluminum to the composite sticks used today. As the stick evolved, so has the game.
Aluminum shafts started making their way into the game. Those sticks were lighter, with more flex but still featured wood blades. The blades were inserted into the shaft and adhered with a glue. Over the last decade, the aluminum sticks have been replaced with composite shafts and blades.
Made of materials such as fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar (the bulletproof synthetic fiber), composite sticks are even lighter than aluminum and have more flex. Watching a player such Alex Ovechkin fire shots from his "office" outside the faceoff to the right of opposing goaltenders, it's hard to believe a stick can flex as much as it does without snapping in half. Composite sticks are more consistent and allow players more customization than ever before.
Ask a player about his stick preferences today and you'll get some serious shop talk.
"Everything kind of has to be the way I like it," says Keltie Jeri-Leon, a forward with the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds who play their home games in Kent. "I have a certain curve I've gone with ever since Midget [U16]. They used to make it in Stock 6, but they don't anymore. It's like a standard Sakic or Ovechkin but it's a different lie. It's a lot flatter. It doesn't flare out as much so I can shoot the puck better. I just go with an 85 flex but with a different shaft. I like it a little concave."
Like their wood forerunners, composite sticks are not infallible.
Perhaps once a game a NHL or WHL player will break a stick on a shot, leaving the player to scramble to the bench for a new one. Or the player might have to remain on the ice, sans stick, putting himself and his team in jeopardy of allowing a goal.
"I hate breaking sticks," Jeri-Leon says. "It really, really bugs me. For me, when I get a brand-new stick it's a big process to tape up and get ready. So, I don't like breaking one."
The more flexed, customized sticks have power-boosted the art of stick handling and shooting. The skill level and speed of the NHL game is at an all-time high. Players dazzle us each night with their skill. At the center of it, the composite stick can take a bow if not full credit for the nightly highlight reel.