- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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Bruce Boudreau is thinking about tea. It's early on a cold winter morning in Arlington, Va., and with practice about to start, the coach of the red-hot Capitals has a million things on his mind. As Boudreau makes his way to the ice, a fan reaches over a gate and hands him an old hockey stick. It's dingy and bulky enough to pass for a railroad tie, but without hesitating, Boudreau stops and cradles the wood stick in his hands. Hockey players and their sticks form the most sacred connection in sports, and by the time Boudreau closes his fingers around the familiar teardrop-shape knob of white tape at the stick's end, he knows: This one was his. Instantly he's transported to a kitchen in the heart of Toronto during the greatest hockey season of his life.
In 1974-75, while playing for the Toronto Marlboros, the Maple Leafs junior team, Boudreau and his sticks scored an astronomical 165 points. Before games, the 20-year-old Boudreau would sit in his kitchen and customize the fiberglass curve of his weapon by carefully steaming it over a teakettle. Then he'd wedge it under a door hinge and bend it until it was perfect, race outside and plunge it into the snow to set the blade. With the kettle at a boil, he'd have a cup of tea while waiting for the snow to complete its work. "Even after 35 years, when I felt that stick in my hands and saw the blade, I instinctively knew it was mine," says Boudreau. "Hockey players have always been a little crazy about their sticks. We're different, I guess. Our sticks become a part of our DNA."
Although the connection rarely reaches such depths, most professional athletes have complex relationships with their equipment. Tennis legend Ivan Lendl always switched rackets at the ball change (every seventh and ninth games). Ted Williams used to go to the Louisville Slugger factory every spring and spend hours inspecting wood samples to find the perfect piece for his bats. The ties that bind are especially strong when the equipment in question is an implement-be it stick, mallet, racket or club. Just ask Phil Mickelson, who, until recently, was exploiting a loophole in USGA rules so he could continue using a 20-year-old wedge that would have otherwise been illegal.
But in no other sport does the connection between athlete and equipment involve contact with the tongue. Hockey players have always been superstitious, dunking sticks into toilets or garbage cans before games for good luck. They also use athletic tape as if they were tattoo artists, branding each blade and knob with a unique style and pattern. Then, last winter, after watching teammate Maxime Talbot spit on his stick for luck, Pittsburgh's Tyler Kennedy became a YouTube sensation when a camera caught him giving his stick a tongue bath after a shift against Florida. "Tyler Kennedy's stick is made of peppermint!" posted Deadspin. Go ahead and gag. Kennedy and his cohorts will only shrug and point out that he scored two goals in that game.
It was a onetime gesture for Kennedy, but no more disgust-causing than sucking on a finger after a pin prick would be for the rest of us. "To a hockey player sticks aren't equipment," says Caps star Alex Ovechkin. "They are a piece of your body." That's in no small part a function of time spent in close contact. In no other major league sport does an athlete spend so many hours cradling his or her, ahem, implement. Counting practice, the typical NHL player holds his stick for nearly 15 hours a week during the season, versus roughly three (counting batting practice) for the average MLB player. By comparison, a typical married father in the U.S. spends less than seven hours per week with his kids.
So while the connection to most other athletic equipment (and, sometimes, offspring) remains largely tangential or idiosyncratic, over the past two centuries the symbiosis between hockey player and stick has developed so that even a stick lick no longer seems bizarre. In every game he plays, Ovechkin uses his stick like an extension of his hands: to pass and shoot, to break records and make millions. The NHL's leading scorer also uses it as a crutch to get up after big hits. He wields it high and with two hands, like a nightstick, in scrums in front of the net. He slaps it on the ice (above a Capitals logo that uses a stick for its 't') to honor soldiers in the stands introduced on the giant screen. He taps it against the boards to applaud a teammate after a fight or against the goaltender's shin pads after a good save. He uses his stick to open and close the bench door. To calm his nerves late in games, Ovechkin will sit on the boards with his back to the ice and his stick in his lap, like a baby blanket,
and lovingly retape the blade.
Watch him long enough and it becomes tough to tell where Ovechkin ends and his stick begins. His success, and the Caps', depends on it. Hockey can be breathtakingly violent, but at its core the sport requires a level of touch and awareness similar to golf's. "The game is all about feel," says Washington's Mike Green, who last season reluctantly gave his favorite stick to the Hall of Fame after scoring in eight straight games, an NHL record for defensemen. "If I pause to interpret what I'm sensing when the puck is on my stick, that extra split second can be the difference between a shot and a goal, a win or a loss or getting my head taken off. So the stick has to feel like a piece of you."
That link is as old as hockey. In 1789 English settlers founded Canada's first university, Kings College, in Windsor, Nova Scotia. In winter, when the pond on campus froze over, students took their games of hurling, an Irish field game, from grass to ice. Nova Scotia's natives, the Mi'kmaq, used the area's abundant rock elms, yellow birch and maple to carve the very first sticks for those games of hurling-on-ice.
Mi'kmaq craftsmen scoured the forest floor for the L-shape trunk-root combinations that gave the sticks their familiar shape. Those sticks became known as "hockeys" (no one is sure why), and so did the sport, which migrated west along with the population. The father of organized hockey, James Creighton-an engineer and hockey enthusiast born in Nova Scotia who published a standard set of rules in 1877-championed the sport in Montreal and Ottawa, where he introduced it to the sons of Lord Stanley, governor general of Canada. Stanley was so enamored of the game that in 1893 he spent 10 guineas (about $900) on a silver rose bowl and offered his Stanley Cup as the prize for the best hockey team in the land.
In the 1899 Stanley Cup Finals, members of the Winnipeg Victorias battled rivals from Montreal. Afterward, an unknown Victorias player inked the entire strange tale of the championship onto his stick. There are snippets from the pregame speech ("We have the men who can win this ") and a recap of the second and final game of the series. Before 8,000 spectators, Winnipeg held a 1-0 lead after 58 minutes, when Montreal's Bob McDougall slashed and "punctured" Winnipeg's Tony Gingras, who had to be carried off the ice. When Gingras' teammates angrily protested what they thought was a lenient call, the insulted ref left the arena. He returned an hour later and gave Winnipeg 15 minutes to return to the ice. When the team refused, the Cup was awarded to Montreal.
It's all right there, on both sides of the stick. (See page 78.) This is what makes hockey sticks so special. They don't just direct pucks; they tell stories.
Undersized in the NHL's bruiser era, the 5'9", 170-pound Boudreau compensated by adding four inches to his stick when the Leafs called him up in 1976. It didn't work. He played just 141 games in eight seasons with the Leafs and Blackhawks. The sticks of another Blackhawks player, future Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, testified to the aftereffects of a 1964 car accident that severed a tendon in the index finger of the wing's right hand; Hull had the knobs shaved almost in half to make them easier to grip. A century later, the back side of the Victoria's stick is still searching for absolution: "I made a mistake," it confesses, "and I am sorry for it."
Special permission and white cotton gloves are required to hold the Victoria's stick and admire its hockey hieroglyphics. It's stored in the fireproof and humidity-controlled archives of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The stick collection is housed on a rack 20 feet high and 50 feet long and includes thousands from nearly every milestone in the game's history. Nine miles to the east, Lord Stanley's rose bowl glimmers under perfect stage lighting and the cathedral ceiling on the second floor of the Hall's main museum. But the stick archive is what leaves All-Stars, old-timers and dignitaries slack-jawed. They already understand the bond between players and their sticks, so to them this is much more than an equipment rack-it's the soul of their sport writ large.
On the right side, halfway up, is the blue graphite composite stick that recent Team USA forward and former Wisconsin star Jinelle Zaugg-Siergiej used to score the game-winner in quadruple overtime against Harvard in the 2007 Women's Frozen Four. Less than 10 feet away is the old boat oar used by Cyclone Taylor, hockey's Babe Ruth, when he helped the Ottawa Senators win the Cup in 1909.
There's a Gretzky stick with almost zero flex and black tape turned gray by his habit of using baby powder to add glide to the blade. Gretzky's stick is long and heavy, the opposite of what you'd expect from the greatest touch player in history. Generally, puckhandlers have lighter, shorter, more flexible sticks than defensemen, who play a more physical style in the middle of the ice and so use stiffer and longer sticks. But because "feel" remains the most important factor in stick selection, players follow no absolute when choosing or customizing one. "Sticks are like wives," former Canucks coach Harry Neale once said. "You don't tell a guy what to do with either one of them."
Toward the lower left side of the archive is the banana-curve blade invented by Stan Mikita, the Hall of Famer who won a Cup with Chicago in 1961. Near the end of a practice in 1963, a teammate shoved Mikita from behind. When he lurched forward, his stick blade got caught under a bench door and bent nearly in half. In the old Chicago Stadium, to replace his stick Mikita would have had to navigate 22 treacherous steps, in skates, down to the locker room. Annoyed, he yanked the stick out of the boards and fired a slap shot across the rink. Everyone froze. The curve centered and balanced the puck in the axis of the blade, adding lift and acceleration. The era of the modern slap shot had begun. "The effect of the cupped curve made it sound like a cannon had gone off," says Mikita, 69, from his winter home in Florida.
The son of a carpenter, Mikita set about after practice to re-create his revolutionary boomerang curve, using a vice, a hacksaw, a chisel and a plane, along with a hearty helping of heat and pressure. His new stick made its game debut a few weeks later. Expecting to get ridiculed, Mikita scored on his first three shots. "I invented the curve, but maybe I created a monster," he says. "I'm pretty sure the goaltenders' union is still pissed at me."
Until Mikita's invention, hockey sticks-and hockey shots-had remained largely unchanged for the first 150 years of the sport. The next revolution took just three decades. In the late 1990s, technology and synthetic materials altered sticks in the same way they changed tennis rackets and golf clubs. One-piece graphite hockey sticks were lighter, had less drag and packed a bigger punch. Avs star Joe Sakic debuted a full graphite composite stick in 2001; by the beginning of the next season, more than 100 players had made the switch. The following year, players using composite sticks swept the NHL awards. By 2009, fewer than 1% of NHL players still used wood. Purists lament the way the game has, literally, lost its hockey roots. But in truth, sticks have evolved as you'd expect-in tandem with the game. Like hockey itself, equipment that was once purely and organically Canadian has become international and high-tech. In 2009, James L. Easton, CEO of stick- and equipment-maker Easton-Bell Sports, gave $2 million to his alma mater, UCLA, to continue research on the use of advanced materials in sports equipment. The aerospace-grade carbon fiber now in use is five times stronger than steel and two times stiffer per volume and has allowed sticks to drop nearly half their weight, from 25 ounces to the teens, while making slap shots north of 100 mph commonplace. Industry insiders call the weight loss "the race to zero."
Most sticks produced by the market leaders-Easton (used by 47% of NHL players), Nike/Bauer (23%) and Reebok/CCM (14%)-are made in Mexico and China, and the designing and manufacturing of a stick line has become so complicated that it requires 15 hours of work and 100 people. Sticks can now be customized in thousands of ways and down to the tiniest details, depending on the length, lie, flex, strength, geometry, design, grip and curve preferred by a player. Alterations that used to require a hacksaw and a blowtorch can now be done with a text message and a computer stroke. Stick manufacturers say they can perfect each player's stick before it leaves the factory, although some people doubt it. "Our computers tell us there are almost no variations in the sticks now, but hockey players very well might be more finely tuned than our computers," says Larry Carlson, director of advanced materials at UCLA. "Whether the fussing is real or not doesn't matter when you understand it's part of the hockey culture-this deep human need to tinker with the tools of your trade."
For the Capitals, that work gets done in the stick room at their practice facility in Arlington. It's no bigger than a toolshed, with just enough room for two metal racks of sticks and a workbench that houses a torch, a hacksaw, a tabletop saw, a bucket of ice, glue, a sander and a dozen rolls of tape in every size, color and style. The customized sticks on the walls form a kaleidoscope of types, colors and shapes that correspond to the spectrum of personalities and playing styles on the team. The space has the cozy feel of a coffee-break room, and players dressed in shorts and flip-flops wander in and out, talking, singing and cracking on one another as they go through the generations-old hockey ritual of stick prep. The only thing missing is a teakettle.
Defenseman Tom Poti comes in with a heat pack on his back and several purple welts above his left eye. Poti fires up the glue gun to add a wood knob and an entire roll of tape to a stick that is already long, stiff and squared up as sharp as a battle-ax. "Tom's stick is like a piece of rebar," jokes forward Brooks Laich, who is shortening his stick and sanding down the blade a quarter of an inch for better puck control against the boards. After prepping more than 100 sticks this season, Laich and Poti know the measurements by heart.
Moments later, a shirtless Ovechkin, suffering from serious bed head, shuffles in and, in a deep and corny voice, starts singing "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco, the song he picked for his video game, NHL 2K10. Ovechkin takes three of his sticks down with one hand. He examines his curve, an unmistakable descendant of Mikita's, with one eye shut, like a marksman. He then waggles each stick, places the blade on the ground and leans into the shaft, testing the flex by buckling the stick almost to the floor. Satisfied, he nods. He keeps two and places one back on the shelf. That one didn't feel right and will be marked with a piece of tape and the letters NFG, code for No F-ing Good. "Getting your stick ready is like putting on a power suit for work," says Boudreau. "You feel confident. You feel like you've lost weight and you're ready to take on the world in that suit. Well, that's what a hockey player feels like when he picks up the right stick."
It's a connection so deep and powerful it can last 35 years. Minutes before practice is scheduled to start, Boudreau is still holding his old buddy and reminiscing about the Marlies. A crowd has gathered around him, and someone asks if he's still trying to decide if it's really his.
"Oh, no, I know it's mine," says the coach. "I'm just trying to decide if I should make an offer to buy it."
As the Caps clop onto the ice, and the familiar cannon crack of pucks fills the brisk air, coach and fan strike a deal: If Boudreau can deliver the Stanley Cup, he'll get his beloved stick back, free of charge.
From the look on Boudreau's face as he walks back toward the bench, it's tough to tell which keepsake will give him a bigger thrill.
FORGET TEAM CHEMISTRY. NO BOND IN SPORTS IS STRONGER THAN THE ONE BETWEEN AN NHL PLAYER AND HIS STICK. AND IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IT, JUST TRY PRYING THIS BLADE AWAY FROM ALEX OVECHKIN.