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Strachan vs. Graphite—A Pro-Composite Counterpoint

Fox Sports’ Al Strachan went to town in bashing the deficiencies of composite sticks on Wednesday, espousing a popular belief that all the NHL’s scoring woes can be attributed directly to the proliferation of composite sticks.

Strachan used the comments of two wood stick adherents in Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who has to write the checks to cover his team’s stick budget, and Al MacInnis, who used wood sticks for the vast majority of his career, to bolster his argument that players simply cannot take passes using composite sticks, and, moreover, that players are wasting teams’ money while using sticks that perform to the detriment of the game.

With all due respect, Mr. Strachan’s comments were and are simply mis-informed, and the lack of any sort of attempt to talk to stick-makers about the advances made in composite stick design over the fourteen years since the Easton A/C (Aluminum/Carbon), Fontaine Graphite Pro, and Busch Balance sticks were first used in the NHL led to a mass-repetition of myths about graphite sticks in a stereotypical fashion.

As someone who has worked with composite stick companies and has discussed the pluses and minuses thereof, including “busting” the myths about the supposed superiority of wood sticks, I’d like to offer up counter-arguments to Strachan’s most insistent points of contention.  My comments are in italics:

Once again this season, scoring is down in the National Hockey League.
There are many reasons, but one of the most important can be traced to the usual lack of foresight from the league’s head office.

Without the slightest thought or consideration, the league allowed composite sticks to be introduced, just as years ago, also without any thought or consideration; it allowed aluminum sticks to be introduced.

Every NHL coach who’s been canvassed over the past month has indicated that the return of “zone defences” where players stack themselves in the defensive zone in an attempt to block shots, the return of an obstruction-less trap—as players have finally adjusted to the rules underlining the league’s continued crackdown on obstruction-related penalties—and the fact that coaches are pounding the mantra that defence can be taught, while offensive skills are innate and cannot be taught are the main reasons that scoring is down.  It’s not about goaltenders, nor is the decline in scoring directly and inexorably tied to composite stick usage.

The problem is this: While composite sticks produce blazing shots, they are decidedly inferior to wooden sticks when it comes to the game’s finer points. Pucks do indeed fly off a composite stick when you’re unleashing a shot. Unfortunately, pucks also fly off them when you’re trying to receive a pass. Or even when you’re trying to stickhandle.

“When I’m at the point and the puck comes to me, I have to know it’s there,” said MacInnis. “I can’t be looking down to see where it got to.”

In today’s game, where every player skates like the wind, you can’t take even a split second to look down. If you do, the checker will be on you and the shooting lane will have disappeared. That’s one of the reasons there are so many blocked shots today.

These comments are simply inaccurate.  Composite stick-makers do not in fact promise that they will make your slap shots harder—they promise that composite sticks, which are not in wood’s constant state of material degradation, provide a more consistent response, improved energy transfer as composites “return to zero” (i.e. return to their original shape after being deformed when they bend to accommodate the load of a puck on the stick shaft ) much more quickly than wood.  As such, the combination of extremely consistent shaft and blade response over the life of the shaft, providing the same material consistency from shot 1 to 1,000 and beyond, as opposed to wood, which would hit its “sweet spot” in terms of performance between shots 20 and 100, and graphite’s superior ability to “return to zero” provide assistance when a player gets off an average shot or does not get “good wood” on a wrist or snap shot. 

And Wayne Gretzky, a guy who knows a bit about scoring, wishes composite sticks were banned.

“I think every coach in the league feels the same way,” he said.

Coaches don’t say much publicly because they don’t want to suggest that their entire team needs help in the way it handles the puck. But they see the deficiencies every day.

Of course some coaches want composite sticks banned, especially those who see teams’ stick budgets and receive significant episodes of sticker shock, but do you want to know what stick Gretzky uses during practice?  A TPS Response Plus stick—a composite stick. 

For that matter, does someone like Pavel Datsyuk have any problems stick-handling using a full composite stick?  These sticks have evolved tremendously since they first broke onto the market almost fifteen years ago. 
Nobody seems to mention the fact that, for every catastrophic stick break you see, many composite sticks last for several games and practices, whereas wood sticks would have to be switched out multiple times per game, if not per period, depending on player preference.  There are still players like Nicklas Lidstrom and Dany Heatley, who believe that they must switch out their composite sticks after each period for consistency’s sake, but there are also players like Chris Chelios, who engage in an extremely physical style of game, but still use the same stick until it breaks, though as many as four or five games and an equal number of practices.

Supporters of composite sticks say that they give ordinary players a tremendous shot. And that’s true.

But where is that shot going? If it’s on the net, it may well be 20 mph faster than its counterpart from a wooden stick and may therefore beat a goalie when another shot wouldn’t. But composite sticks are nowhere near as accurate as wooden sticks. So any gain from speed is negated by the lack of accuracy.

Still, players love to have booming shots and for most of them, the only way to get one is to have a composite stick.

Again, this is simply inaccurate.  Wood sticks are so inconsistent on a stick-to-stick basis, given the inconsistencies in wood as a structural material, that players can go through dozens of sticks before finding the one that “feels right,” and even that stick is only good for somewhere between 20-100 shots.  Composite stick blades’ are much more consistent in their responses to shots and have less blade torsion than wood sticks, and that added consistency can lead to a more predictable shot trajectory.

And naturally, the stick manufactures promote their use among the pros. A decent wooden stick sells for one-tenth of the price of a top-end composite stick — roughly $30 as compared to $300. If the manufacturers can tell the beer-league player that he uses the same stick as his favorite hockey player, he’ll buy it, even though, in most cases, improvement is negligible — if it exists at all.

This approach is not limited to hockey. It’s the same in many areas of sports equipment. Look at golf, tennis, skiing and so on.

Strachan’s price estimates are simply inaccurate here.  Composite sticks are significantly more expensive than wood sticks, but NHL teams get deals on the $200 (only the Reebok O-Stick costs over $300) sticks, buying them in bulk for approximately $150 per stick.  A “decent wooden stick” has actually become more expensive because of the more limited supply and decreased demand, so a $30 stick at an NHL team’s bulk discount price can actually cost $40-50 on the retail market.

As for beer-league players using composite sticks, I suppose the argument there is that no beer-league player needs to use the same quality of equipment that professionals use, but they do so anyway, whether it’s the “best” stick, skate, helmet, glove, or, for goaltenders, goalie pads.  It’s the same in every aspect of the hockey equipment industry.

Talk to hockey people about the composite-stick problem and they say it’s too late. As Sher-Wood’s decision indicates, the composite sticks are now so ingrained in the game that they’re all but universal.

But need they be?

Baseball doesn’t allow aluminum bats because they change the nature of the game. A quality pitcher will break a bat with an inside pitch, whereas if the batter is using an aluminum bat, that pitch will probably become a hit down the line. Recognizing this, major-league baseball insisted that all bats must be made of wood, Sammy Sosa notwithstanding.

Had the NHL been run by hockey people instead of lawyers, the potential changes being wrought by composite sticks might have been foreseen.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone could have predicted the eventual impact of composite sticks upon the game itself, including the “hockey people” that have considerable influence as to how the game is ran.  Again, the concept that these sticks make players’ shots “harder” is a fallacy—composite stick manufacturers promise a more consistent shot and assistance in getting “better wood” on a mediocre shot, as well as a more consistent response in terms of being able to stick-handle, pass, and control the puck on the end of the stick’s blade, not velocities in excess of 120 miles an hour.

But unfortunately, as well all know, the foresight of the NHL’s movers and shakers rarely extends past where to go for dinner. Then, when they get there, they’ll bemoan the lack of scoring in their game.

Players using composite sticks saw a tremendous increase in NHL scoring levels at the beginning of the post-lockout era, and, once again, after the usual “pick on the goalie” articles that were initially produced by the media, coaches have finally admitted that their systems of play, combined with players’ abilities to adapt to the crackdown, have reduced the amount of special teams play, and have made it much more difficult to score. 
Blaming the reduction in scoring upon composite stick usage, especially without checking one’s facts, is simply elucidating a misinformed opinion to proffer a pro-wood-stick agenda, and that’s what Strachan’s article does.

Filed in: Hockey Equipment, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: al+strachan, composite+sticks

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

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