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I Got Wood

The topic of wood/aluminum sticks versus composites has been rolling around in my head for a couple years. I understand that there are pros and cons to each, and those pros and cons can change depending on whether you ask a player, a coach or an owner. In spite of the various arguments, I would like to officially come out and advocate for a return to wooden sticks.

Having watched the sticks intently for about a year now, I feel its safe to say that the harm outweighs the good in regards to composite sticks. We have all undoubtedly seen a lost scoring opportunity or a lost faceoff resulting from a composite stick breaking in half and it seems like nearly a third of all the penalty kills I have seen this year have featured one defending player skating around sans stick, as the two forlorn pieces lay discarded in a corner. I realize that the composite stick, in theory, offers a harder shot for the players but still wonder is how many guys in the NHL (or other leagues) actually make adequate use of this technology?

Alex Ovechkin’s display of shooting artistry in Game 2 of the Caps-Pens series would be the most recent example of a player who really gets everything from his composite. The wrister that he used to beat Fleury for the game winner was amazing, a combination of pure shooting power and state of the art stick technology. Now juxtapose Ovechkin’s three goals with Crosby’s, and you will see three goals that could have been scored with a floor hockey stick. To me, the goals Sidney scored were far more indicative of the majority of goals you see in today’s NHL.

With big, mobile and talented goaltenders and defensive systems that are designed to collapse to the front of the net, no more than a handful or today’s shooters have the talent or velocity to score from the perimeter. Its my contention that while the extra zip a composite supplies may add the odd goal, the number of goals lost through breakage etc. basically makes this a zero sum game.

Before you rush in to disagree, consider that at least one high profile (junior) league has considered making the move back to wood. High level discussions resulted in a variety of ideas being brought forward, but ultimately no vote held on the matter. Owners and league officials were very in favour of the switch, while coaches were on the fence. Most of these guys thought that while the potential benefits of a composite stick are basically untapped with their still growing junior players, they were still worried that a ban on the sticks might persuade some players to go elsewhere. In the highly competitive world of junior hockey, that is a very big deal.

A compromise solution was put forward that would allow the use of the sticks, but only if they player himself supplied them. While that idea was unworkable and shifts the burden to kids and parents, it is still noteworthy in that this movement may still gain some momentum in an age when budgets are tight and revenue is tough to come by. Reducing a stick budget by even $100,000 can mean a team makes rather than loses money.

Do you readers think its possible a team could lose a player over the stick they are forced to use? Is it that big of a deal? Should the players get everything they want, despite the costs to the team? I always wanted revolving three-ways featuring the Spice Girls (Ginger and Sporty, Posh and Mel B.) but realize that I couldn’t afford it long-term. As someone who has used both types of sticks, I believe that you get a better feel from the wood stick. For a playmaker, wouldn’t this be more valuable to you? As a defenseman, wouldn’t you rather have a more durable wood stick in your own zone or while killing a penalty? Wood sticks may go soft (thats what she said) but at least it can still be used to intercept or disrupt passes or shots, and likely to clear a puck.

So what is the solution here? Its obviously dressing room suicide to give composites to only a few guys, so does that mean its all or nothing?  What about incentives to players to try the sticks again? I bet a fair number of younger NHL’ers haven’t played with anything but composites since their formative years and they just might be surprised at what they had to offer. Or perhaps the move back could be incremental with a coach instituting a wood sticks only rule on the penalty kill, where a broken stick can mean disaster, especially in the playoffs.

While all of this is extremely speculative, one wonders if stick manufacturers even have an interest in making wood sticks anymore. I believe Sher-Wood has either phased out or will phase out its wood sticks, while other manufacturers I have spoken to feel that the margins available on the composites (Made for about $20, sold for about $200) is just too lucrative.

Even if the NHL does not pursue this goal, it would still be nice to see a league like the AHL, the ECHL or even a junior league take some iniative and play a year without the sticks, just to accurately measure the pros and cons. In doing so, it might take the heat off the parents of minor hockey players, who also are forced to shell out big dollars so their kids can use the same sticks as the pros. In reality, these are the people I feel bad for, because there is absolutely no way any kid has enough force to properly use a composite stick. Additionally, I also feel these kids are losing their puck handling ability due to the skill and extra attention it takes to keep a puck on these composites.

I really want to hear reader’s takes on this issue. Does anyone even care? Do the potentially harder shots out-weigh the constant breakage at seemingly the worst possible times? What about the costs to the teams? Should kids use them? Do you agree with the European countries that have banned the sticks for U-16’s? Lets have a good discussion about this.