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Tools of the Trade: Stick work

by Todd Smith / Minnesota Wild

During a recent Wild game, Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck was caught in one of the worst positions imaginable for a young NHL player. 

Behind-the-scenes: Wild stick rack
The high-octane Detroit Red Wings were on the power play and as Clutterbuck manned the penalty killing point, he was arduously stuck between Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, two of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.  Within seconds, Clutterbuck was ensnared in a torturous game of pickle-in-the-middle.  While Lidstrom and Rafalski tic-tacked the puck back and forth, Clutterbuck fought desperately to gain puck control. 

As the puck zipped back and forth between the dynamic duo, Clutterbuck pounced, and made a daring stab at the puck.  He stretched every inch of his stout body toward the puck, swung his stick, and tapped the puck across the blue line.  The puck caromed down the ice and the dangerous Detroit power play lost momentum.

Clutterbuck’s defensive positioning and instincts made the penalty kill successful.  But a subtle and often overlooked factor also contributed to the play: the length of Clutterbuck’s stick. 

Clutterbuck is one of the shortest members of the Minnesota Wild.  But, surprisingly, he uses the longest stick on the team.  With the extra inches at the end of his stick, Clutterbuck was able to extend far beyond his normal range and win the battle between him and the pair of All-Star Red Wings defensemen.

“My stick is actually longer than Boogaard’s,” Clutterbuck said recently, chuckling at how absurd that might sound. Derek Boogaard stands 6-foot-8 so it is naturally assumed that he uses the longest stick on the team and not the 5-foot-10 Clutterbuck. “My stick goes about a ½ inch over my eyebrows.  It helps my defensive game.  I like the extra length for poking at the puck.” 

Chris Snow, Director of Hockey Operations for the Wild, agreed with Clutterbuck. 

“Ultimately, we like players to use sticks that suit their strengths,” Snow said.  “There are always exceptions, of course.  But if a player spends a lot of time on the penalty kill -- a guy like Clutterbuck -- then he needs a longer stick to poke check.  And a lighter stick, too, so that he can wave it faster back and forth.  On the other hand, if a player stick-handles the puck a lot, he’s going to carry the puck closer to his body.  That player shouldn’t have a long stick because with a long stick he’d be hanging the puck out there waiting to get picked.”

All across the NHL, players use specific sticks that correlate with their playing style and role on the team.  For example, Wild veteran Andrew Brunette, a player who spends a great deal of his playing time battling in the trenches, uses a stick with an extremely thick blade that helps him corral bouncy pucks in the corners and behind the net.  Marek Zidlicky uses a light stick with a serious curve that works wonders with his in-tight, half wind-up, slap shot. 

Former Wild player Brian Rolston needed an ultra stiff stick with a 120 Flex (the norm is 95-100) that could withstand his heavy slap shot.  Washington Capitals super snipers Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin -- two players that shoot constantly -- use sticks with so much whip they may as well be using wet noodles.  Also, the blades of their sticks are massive banana curves.  Conversely, Sidney Crosby’s blade is almost straight because he’s an outstanding passer and needs a subtle curve to facilitate his lethal backhand shot.  But, in the end, a player chooses the stick with which he feels the most comfortable.

“Hockey sticks are the tools of their trade,” said Minnesota Wild Assistant Equipment Manager Matt Benz, standing in an auxiliary room that houses the Wild’s hockey stick workshop deep inside the bowels of the Xcel Energy Center.  The room was filled with a wide assortment of tools: saws, blow torches, heat guns, files, spray cans, vices, sanders, and endless rolls of tape.  “Each player’s stick is unique.  The knobs, blades, and tape job are all specific to the player.”

In fact, all of the Minnesota Wild player’s sticks are so unique the equipment staff can identify them solely by the top two inches of the handle.  The knobs and tape jobs are all completely different.  Leaning up against the wall in the workshop was a Clutterbuck game stick.  It towered above every stick in the row.

“You should’ve seen Wes Walz’s stick,” Benz quipped, shaking his head in disbelief.  “His stick was the opposite of Clutterbuck’s.  It was so tiny and thin it actually was like a kid’s model.  When you leaned on it, the thing would almost break.  Most players use about a 100 Flex.  Walz’s stick was a 70.  He loved the torque the tiny stick created.  When he went to shoot, it was like he was swinging a golf club.”

Wes Walz’s choice of using a kid’s stick is just one story in a long line of humorous and sometimes odd relationships hockey players have had with their sticks.

“When I played in Colorado,” Wild veteran Martin Skoula said, “my teammate Dave Andreychuk carried an old wooden stick with him from his rookie year.  He used it as the pattern to measure and cut all his new sticks.  Andreychuk carried the stick around with him for 18 years.” 

Mikko Koivu meticulously re-tapes his sticks between periods.  Another Wild player tapes a black heart on his stick.  One Wild player writes words and initials on his stick that no one else can see.  Former Wild player Alexander Daigle used a knob the size of a bagel because he’d been doing it since pee wees.  When former NHL star Bernie Nichols would get on a hot streak, he brought his stick with him everywhere he went.  Adam Oates used to saw off the end of his blade in a straight right-angle.  Ottawa Senator’s forward Jason Spezza tapers the point of his blade so it resembles the cone of a rocket ship.  Paul Coffey would open up a box of a dozen Sherwood sticks and keep only two.  Some players place their sticks in trash cans before the game for good luck.  And other players dunk them in toilets to break out of slumps.  Some players don’t let anyone touch or move their sticks.  The stories go on and on. 

While players superstitions with their hockey sticks haven’t subsided -- one Minnesota Wild player kisses his stick before the games -- the doctoring of the sticks has vastly dropped.  Back in the day, hockey players needed a carpenter’s license when handling their wood sticks.  They were constantly sanding, shaving, heating, bending and cutting. 

The arrival of the modern day composite stick gives players instant results as the lie, flex, and curve patterns come pre-built into the stick.  They hardly have to work with the sticks at all:  just cut the end and tape it up.  But that doesn’t mean the players still don’t tinker.  There are limits to how much a player can manipulate a composite, so players are constantly testing a variety of sticks with different characteristics. 

Colton Gillies, the youngest member of the Minnesota Wild, has had trouble all year trying to find a stick that works.  In junior hockey, his team budget was considerably smaller, and the team provided only stiff sticks so that the players wouldn’t break them.  But in the NHL, where the budgets and resources are substantially higher, young players need to spend a lot more time trying out a variety of sticks.  Before practices, Gillies takes loads of shots as he simultaneously works on his puck skills and stick selection.  James Sheppard, 20, has only used composite sticks for two or three years.  Although Sheppard is happy with his current stick, he plans on experimenting this summer with all the different choices that are now available to him.

“I’m definitely going to re-look at my stick this summer,” Sheppard said.  “Try different combos of lie, curve, and flex.  I need a stick that feels good on face-offs and when I shoot in movement.  I’ll be shooting lots of pucks and playing with friends.” 

Sheppard paused and let out a small chuckle.  “I wouldn’t be sleeping with my stick or putting them into toilets or anything like that.  But a lot more goes into choosing a stick than fans realize.”
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