On the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, That's Hockey feature producer and freelance writer Wayne Karl looks at one of the game's most high-profile innovations in recent memory. It's been 10 years since the introduction of the one-piece composite stick.
TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire emphatically proclaimed - in an oft-repeated on air clip - that they "stink! Get rid of them!" and Martin Brodeur once said, "they should be illegal."
Ten years later, the one-piece composite hockey stick is anything but outlawed - it has been embraced as the weapon of choice by almost all NHL players, and is one of the most significant success stories in the hockey business in decades.
All from a rather quiet introduction in the second half of the 1999-2000 season when Easton Hockey convinced then-New Jersey Devils rookie Scott Gomez to be the first NHLer to use "the most technologically advanced stick ever," the Synergy.
"It gives a better release, a harder shot, better everything," Gomez said in The Hockey News 2001-02 Yearbook. "What else can you ask for?
NHL players were soon asking for it in a hurry, once they could see the 460-gram stick could help them shoot quicker, harder and more accurately. No more fussing with inserting a wood or graphite blade into a composite or aluminum shaft, or fumbling with heavier wood sticks. The Synergy gave them light weight, power, quickness and consistency, every time.
Easton has long since been joined by Bauer, CCM, Reebok, Warrior and others in making once-piece sticks, with each generation of stick becoming lighter, higher performance, more durable and with colors and designs to attract pros and amateurs alike. Players have never looked back.
"It's made shots harder and a little more accurate," says Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa.
"Every guy shoots the puck hard now, instead of one or two guys on every team," adds Luke Schenn, defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza, one of the last wood stick holdouts, as late as to the beginning of the 2009-10 season, has seen the light.
"I'm pretty set with what I've got right now (a Reebok one-piece)," he says. "I feel really comfortable with my stick, so I think I'm pretty much done with wood. I was one of the few remaining guys. Nobody really wants to make wood sticks any more because there's no market for them. Everyone's buying one-pieces."
You might assume the new technology has increased scoring over the years, but not so.
"Well, I went from 42 goals in junior to five my first year, so no," laughs Mike Fisher of the Ottawa Senators.
"I think maybe it's increased scoring from further out," says Spezza. "Goalies are bigger, stronger and better, too."
For the five years leading up to the one-piece stick, scoring averaged 5.6 goals per game. For the 10 years since the one-piece, scoring has averaged an identical 5.6 goals per game:
NHL season - Goals per game
1995-96 - 6.3
1996-97 - 5.8
1997-98 - 5.3
1998-99 - 5.3
1999-00 - 5.5
Average - 5.6 goals per game
NHL season - Goals per game
2000-01 - 5.5
2001-02 - 5.2
2002-03 - 5.3
2003-04 - 5.1
2005-06 - 6.2
2006-07 - 5.9
2007-08 - 5.6
2008-09 - 5.8
2009-10 - 5.5
Average 5.6 goals per game
You might also believe the widespread use of one-piece sticks has produced provable, harder shots. Again, not necessarily so.
Until Zdeno Chara set a new record for the fastest slap shot at the 2009 NHL All-Star Skills Competition with a shot measuring 105.4 mph – using an Easton S15, a later-generation Synergy – the hardest shot on record at the event was 105.2 mph. That was recorded was back in 1993 by Al Iafrate – using a wood stick.
Just as the one-piece stick has taken over the NHL, so too has it become the dominant choice of recreational and minor hockey players.
"The stick used to be one of the last things with the purchase – pick it up last minute, $30 on your way to the rink," says Wes Huether, director of training and operations support, Pro Hockey Life, Toronto. "Today, the one-piece stick is probably the number one tool in the player's arsenal."
Hockey specialty retailers such as Pro Hockey Life typically now have incredibly expansive stick racks with dozens upon dozens of one-piece models of every size, make and color from every manufacturer. Wood sticks? Not so much – well below 10 per cent of sales and continuously dropping, Huether says, and those are purchased mostly for ball hockey or road hockey.
One of the concerns about one-piece sticks when they first came out was price. They were introduced as elite level pro products and priced accordingly – at about $250 to $300. But with each season and each generation of stick, manufacturers have continually expanded their offerings across lower price points suitable for minor hockey and amateur players. In fact, the sub-$100 price point is the fastest growing segment of the one-piece stick category today.
"There's always going to be the elite level product, and there's always going to be a certain consumer looking to purchase that product," says Huether. "But every player can use a one-piece stick now, whether you're budget focused or performance focused, there's a price point for you."
And for those on-air cries from broadcasters, denouncing the shattering of "another $250 stick," clarify this: NHL players and their teams don't pay retail prices. They pay what's called a "team rate," a type of wholesale, which amounts to about a third of the retail cost, or often well less than $100.
Manufacturers have also addressed the issue that Pierre McGuire was once so upset about – breakage.
"We're going to see increased performance in the future, we're probably going to continue to see the sticks decrease in weight, we're going to see a continued focus on durability," says Huether.
"The stick companies do a great job getting the latest technology," says Eric Nystrom, forward with the Calgary Flames. "There's a reason these sticks sell – because they're good, you can shoot harder, they just have a great feel, they're so light."
All that may be true, but according to one superstar player who knows a thing or two about scoring, it takes more than just technology.
"Hard work is always the best thing, no matter what you've got in your hand," says Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby. "Certainly I've liked (the one-piece), I switched to it this year."
Not only did Crosby switch this season to a one-piece (he previously used a graphite shaft and replacement blade), from his equipment supplier Reebok, he only scored an Olympic Gold Medal winning goal with it, and then went on to become co-winner of the 2009-10 Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal scorer. He and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning shared the award, scoring 51 goals each.
Stamkos uses a one-piece model from Bauer, while Alex Ovechkin, who finished just behind with 50, uses a one-piece from CCM.
Art Ross Trophy winner, Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, recorded 112 points this season with, you guessed it, a one-piece stick, from Bauer.
Wayne Karl is a freelance journalist in Toronto and can be reached at email@example.com.