By Scott Wheeler
February 4, 2017
There may not be a more inefficient tool in pro sports than the new-age hockey stick.
They break. They break by the hundreds, and they cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, every year.
Maple Leafs fans all remember the famous examples. There was Mats Sundin throwing his broken stick into the crowd during a 2003-04 game against the Nashville Predators – and Daniel Alfredsson’s mockery of it some time later.
There was Mike Komisarek, in 2013, injuring himself when he shattered his stick in frustration one practice and a small chip ended up in his eye.
Even this season, in a game against the Minnesota Wild back in October, the Leafs failed to tie the game thanks in part to a broken stick in the last minute of play.
Two months later, their fortunes reversed when Penguins star Phil Kessel’s stick exploded on a breakaway late in a tie game for the second time in two nights. (The Leafs went on to beat Pittsburgh in overtime.)
The difference between winning a close game in a parity-filled league can be tiny.
Sometimes it comes down to your stick holding up or not.
The prevalence of broken sticks in the NHL is mind-boggling. In one interview, Alex Ovechkin said he breaks roughly 200 sticks per season. In another, Detroit Red Wings equipment manager Paul Boyer said the average player goes through as many as 10 dozen sticks a year.
Retired NHL forward Rich Peverley was one example of a player who would switch sticks almost daily.
“I would usually go through a stick every game, then use other sticks for practice and morning skates,” Peverley told The Athletic recently. “I was always playing around with different brands.”
Sometimes it was because he was in a slump. But sometimes he was searching for durability.
“I can remember others (changing sticks to find tougher options),” Peverley said, pointing to behemoth defencemen like Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara, who are known for their glass-shattering shots. “Mostly big shot PP players.”
During the last round of collective bargaining talks between the NHL and the NHLPA, one GM reportedly suggested players pay for their own sticks because of the mounting costs for teams. Stick budgets can run as high as $500,000 in a season.
Stick choice has become a big deal even at the minor league level. Players with the Toronto Marlies, for example, tinker with their options, balancing sponsorship arrangements, stick weight – the heavier the stick, the more durable it typically is – and flex.
In some leagues like the CWHL, players already have to pay for their sticks. In 2015, after Boston Blades star Janine Weber scored the Clarkson Cup game-winning goal, she was left without a stick when she donated hers to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Sometimes when sticks break, CWHL players have to share.
Because of all the factors involved, innovation in stick manufacturing has become a focal point for many organizations. And it’s one area where a wealthy team like the Maple Leafs could get an edge, given the extreme costs associated with experimentation and development.
One local company attempting to improve stick durability, in particular, is Colt Hockey. Founded in 2013, Colt uses a patented nickel-cobalt nanomaterial to reinforce the lower half of pro stock composite sticks, creating an expensive, specialty stick. The alloy, which is as thin as a coat of paint and 2.8 times stronger than steel, helps create a stick that is as much as 50 per cent stronger than the average composite.
After raising more than $100,000 through Kickstarter, Colt’s development team made a successful appearance on CBC’s Dragons’ Den pitching their unique stick. They are also beginning to get them into the hands of NHL players.
In 2014, Andrew Shaw (then with the Chicago Blackhawks) used the Colt 2 – a second generation model – in an NHL game against the Leafs. Former Carolina Hurricanes player Zach Boychuk has also used a pair of the Colt 2 sticks in the past.
A handful of New York Rangers tried the stick during a recent practice at the Air Canada Centre. Centre J.T. Miller was going to use the stick in a game before his sponsorship agreements got in the way.
With the Colt 2, weight was a problem. Pro stock composites tend to weigh between 400 and 420 grams. Colt’s stick, at that point, was 490 grams.
“I really enjoyed the Colt – had a good feel and great curve,” said Boychuk, who estimates he goes through 30 to 40 sticks in a season and breaks half of them. “It was a little bit heavy but that was a couple of years ago.”
With its new release, the Colt 3, the company’s development team feels they’ve rectified their stick’s weight concerns while maintaining its unique durability. But it remains a novelty option that has yet to catch on in the NHL.
“We don’t have any NHL players currently using the stick due to advertising fees, player endorsements and the expenses that come with that,” said Chase Orgar, one of a handful of full-time COLT employees. “We’ve been able to grow from a grassroots level instead of having to invest in professional play.”
While the Colt 3 retails on the higher end of pro stock composite sticks ($309 on their website), its durability could help teams save money. The newest Colt iteration can be as many as two to three times more durable than other leading composites.
“We get a ton of requests to venture into the retail market, but until we find a more cost-effective way of manufacturing the stick, it almost seems improbable,” Orgar explained. “At that point, you’re going to have a stick in stores for $350-400. How much attraction are you going to get with that?”
NHL teams, including the Leafs, have shown interest in the stick in the past. The Colt might one day be an option as a specialty stick for the few teams that can afford it.
“A lot of people, executives, and in management, that we’ve talked to see the stick as a shorthanded stick or a power-play stick because that’s where you have the most opportune time to score goals, block shots and have sticks breaking,” Orgar explained. “How many times has Ovechkin wound up for the one-timer and broken his stick? It could have been a goal, but it leads to a goal the other way. It’s an opportunity missed when a stick breaks.”
And it’s an opportunity Toronto might be able to take advantage of, especially given the company is right in the Leafs backyard.