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The Gearhead: Easton Hockey, Part 1

By George James Malik:

I recently spoke to Easton Hockey’s Vice President, Ned Goldsmith, about Easton ‘s present and future equipment line-ups, including their composite hockey skates.  We spoke twice, and Formula PR did a stellar job of coordinating the interviews.  Mr. Goldsmith was a pleasure to speak to.

Here’s the first part of our conversation:

The Gearhead: I read the press release about the Synergy Elite stick, and there’re dozens of NHL’ers using it.  You’ve stuck with the Synergy’s gone through a few generations—the grip, the SL, and the Stealth sticks, but now you’ve gone back to the Synergy name.  How is the Synergy Elite a new generation stick, if you will, and what separates it from the original Synergy?

Ned Goldsmith: Easton invented the performance one-piece stick, we’ve driven stick innovation in the NHL, and the Synergy Elite is in fact the next step forward.  What makes the Synergy Elite unique is its weight-to-strength ratio; it’s a remarkably light stick that’s also extremely durable.  Making sticks is an art, really.  Sticks are made with aerospace technology, and while making a stick is 80% science, the other 20% is art.  It’s like cooking, to some extent—you can have the recipe, but making grandma’s pie involves a lot of touches and subtleties.  In composite stick-making, it comes down to how much pressure you apply, when you apply the pressure, how much heat you use, great ingredients—we’re one of the largest users of aerospace-quality fibre—not all composite sticks are created equal, and we’re the one of the #1 users of Kevlar as well, so the ingredients we use are the best ingredients available.

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Gearhead: I’ve heard that some companies are having a tremendously difficult time acquiring graphite.  There’s a war going on, and the military obviously takes precedence over hockey equipment companies.  Has Easton had difficulties in terms of supply?

Goldsmith: There’s a worldwide shortage of graphite and Kevlar, but because we’re such a large customer, we’ve been able to maintain high-quality materials, whereas some of the smaller sellers are playing catch-as-you-can, or are using the lower-grade materials that are more readily available.  There’s been a tightening of the market, and we’ve been lucky to be in a great position of leverage, but obviously, at some point, it will loosen up again, and the suppliers want to make sure they keep Easton around.

Gearhead: A lot of players and commentators especially claim that composite sticks aren’t as durable as wood sticks, given that wood’s a cellular material with significant redundancy, but over the years, that seems to have become more a myth than anything else.  How have you refined your sticks in terms of durability?  There’s quite a bit of hype about Easton ‘s use of carbon nanotubes and Buckyballs in their sticks, as well; how do those materials increase stick durability?

Moreover, there’s always been a knock on composite sticks in terms of puck feel, but Easton ‘s received praise for its use of silicon and ribbing in blade faces to improve the player’s feel for the puck.  How’ve you improved that from, say, the original Synergy to the Synergy Elite?

Goldsmith: The differences in graphite stick durabilities come from finessing the epoxy chemistries, fibre quality, and we utilize a fibre that’s very unique in what we call elongation.  Whether a shaft breaks because of impact, or when it’s at its maximum flex, its fibres are stretched to what we call their ultimate strength, and most fibres, when they’re stretched, simply can’t hold up to impacts.  We utilize design processes and the material we use—it’s a premium material that’s aerospace-quality material, which is rare, expensive, and a lot less available than the materials that most companies can get their hands on—enhances our stick durability tremendously.  Part of it is that we buy our materials domestically, and the U.S. is the centre of a lot of work that’s done on the development and refinement of composites.  That’s a big advantage, but people want to score goals as well, and when they buy sticks to score goals, they don’t want them to break.

What makes our sticks unique is that we’ve used our premium materials and designs that are unique in a few ways; one is that our stick optimizes the torsional memory; pucks have a Frisbee effect, and as you spin the puck out towards the end of the blade, our blade returns to zero after impact faster than any other blade on the market, and you can feel it.  I’ve heard NHL’ers, like Mathieu Schneider, using the term “extremely hot-faced.”  That’s golf terminology, and they’re layman’s terms for the experience of shooting with something that zips the puck with that return to zero, and the same can be said for the shaft in that the effect of memory on the product has been tweaked, with our experience in stick-making, we’ve been able to get better, just as automobile-makers do, and we’re at the pinnacle thus far of what we’ve been able to achieve through massaging the design to get to where you want to go.

At the detail level, the difference between our blade and others is that we have a finer fibre.  While it’s more expensive, the fibre is like a piece of hair in thickness, really, and rather than having one thick piece of hair, we have three super thin ones, and that’s how we can effectively do two things—our blades tend to perform better at returning to zero, and in fibres measured per gram, what they call the aerial fibre weight, where one company may have 150-200 gram material, we’re dealing with 50-70 gram material, 100 versus 2 100ths, really fine aerial fibre weight, and the second part is that all those extra layers allow us to be subtle in our designs, and the stiffnesses from the various geometries.  With extra layers, six in our sticks to two in others, we can lay the material up in an array that allows them to have better memory.  That’s why all sticks aren’t created equally, and it’s the same story in the shaft—lighter fibre weights.  You can feel the difference, and the pros feel it, and that’s why half the league uses our product.

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Gearhead: Easton and TPS Hockey have gone from a more traditional shaft geometry to “extreme concave” shape, which is supposed to help with shaft durability.  Can you explain how that works in terms of stick-on-stick impact?

Goldsmith: We’ve beefed up the four corners—it’s difficult for shafts to meet flat-on-flat, you normally hit corner-on-corner, you hit on the obliques of the stick, so most impacts come on the corners of the stick.  The most common form of breakage is a first impact on a heavy bend of the shaft, and with the less-experienced composite-makers out there, you see more and more of those surprised-looking players as that occurs.  The bottom line is that you need to understand why sticks tend to have that issue, and it starts with the corners of the sticks. 

Gearhead: I’ve got an old Louisville Kevlar, just after they bought Fontaine, and it’s just a tank of a stick, but it’s also unbelievably heavy.  You said you still use Kevlar in your sticks; how have you refined that technology?

Goldsmith: That early Fontaine stick is based on good science, and hats off to them, they had the Kevlar on the outside to protect the shaft, and carbon on the inside for performance, and it makes sense; it’s amazing to see the number of sticks where Kevlar is buried in layers in the stick, which helps dampening, but gives no protection.  The carbon fibre is there for fatiguing, and that’s fine at the store, but in hockey you’re constantly getting beaten on, and even if the stick isn’t breaking, it’s breaking down because fewer fibres are intact, and as the stick gets used, it’s not protected.  A Kevlar outer wrap is still a tenet of the Easton design.  Some have followed, some haven’t, and there’s a difference between a stick with Kevlar and a stick with Kevlar outside or 50% of the Kevlar buried in the stick, used only for dampening, not protection, and you miss that opportunity to have better impact resistance.

Gearhead: How would you answer the critics, especially the announcers, and the GM’s who say that composite sticks still break too often, and that players should go back to wood sticks?

Goldsmith: With wood sticks, you don’t know what you’re going to get.  You just tried to use what felt right, and after a while your great stick for a game, or four games, wouldn’t feel so good because wood’s in a constant state of degrading.  Maybe the heel of the stick made a clanking sound, and the shooting was poor; you could still use it until it was really unusable, but was it broken?  It wasn’t in two pieces, and with composites, you do have more catastrophic breakages, but they tend to stay high-performance until they can’t be used anymore.  It’s different, and everybody including announcers got used to it, but players aren’t stupid, and that’s why so many players have dropped wood.  It can’t match the performance, the goals, and in a faster game you can do much more with composite sticks, but it’s a different event when one “breaks”; one is on a constant continuum of degrading, while one is good or broken.

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Gearhead: You’re also unveiling a new skate—a composite skate, no less.  What separates a composite skate from, say, a high-end Graf skate?

Goldsmith: For Easton , our skates are a call to action.  As a composites company with more than 15 years of experience, in selling composite sporting goods, specifically, this was a no-brainer strategically.  We decided that if we wanted to enter the skate market, we wanted to do something unique—the market is filled with products, even the high-end skates, that use, basically the same shoemaking technology that’s existed for more than a century.  It’s good technology, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not applicable to composites; it’s leather and plastics, and the inevitable challenge there is weight versus break-down.  In a standard lasted skate, no matter whose lasted skate it is, even the good high-end performance products, if you want a stiffer skate, you add material.  There’ve been neat ideas that have been finessed and finessed and finessed to drop from 12-1,300 grams to a size 9 in the low 900’s to 800’s.  With the advent of foaming plastic technologies in the vapor skate, and the Nike One 90, those have been interesting products, but that being said, they hit their limit at the 850-gram mark.  You can see it because they’re launching new skates year in and year out, and they’re staying at that level.  They went to the foam skates that actually took them to the 700’s, around a 750-755 gram-skate in a size eight, but with the launch of the S15, we’ve got a sub-700-gram skate, and close to a 660 gram plus-or-minus ten grams per skate.  They’re stunning to skate in.  They’re very light, and we’re just ramping up production, we’ve supplied five or ten guys in the league with them thus far, and they’re growing in popularity.  You can look at yourself at the quotes from Nick Lidstrom—he’s a very conservative guy, and he didn’t want to change from leather skates, but as soon as he put on the S15, he couldn’t believe that he didn’t try them before.  He said that they’re just phenomenal.  They’re a glorious experience, they’re so light on your feet that it’s like skin-diving as opposed to a big, thick suit, it’s a very different experience, and it’s liberating as a hockey player, where speed is such a huge part of the game. 

Gearhead: How would a lighter skate help a bigger guy, like me?  I’m one of those Shawn Burr-sized guys, real stocky, about 6 feet, 230, and no matter what skate I use, my ankles are killing me after games.  Do composite skates help in that regard, and…I mean, they’re graphite, and I’d assume that players are worried that they might break from an impact like a stick…

Goldsmith: It’s not uncommon to hear that from pros; Heatley’s a guy who gravitated toward our skates as he’s a tall guy, lanky, like a lineman, and he’s a big guy, a 6’3” human on a pair of skates.  He’s using a pair of skates that weigh less than 700 grams, but he says his feet feel so much better, and he feels faster on the ice.  They provide much, much better support than lasted skates, especially for bigger guys, the comfort factor is huge.

The added bonus of using composites is that it protects the foot—it’s unmatched, really.  Slow-motion videos show that it’s just stellar—when you fire a frozen puck at the toe of a skate that’s lasted, and has a plastic toe box, that toe box is intruded.  What you want to do is to protect where the passengers are, the toes, and with our skates, the puck deforms instead of the toe cap; it’s a remarkably different event when you see it on the high speed.  Nothing matches it, and a lot of defencemen are getting savvy to that.  We get more and more defencemen asking us for skates; Andy Sutton, who broke his ankle, and has had a tough time because he’s an incredible shot-blocker, protection became a priority for him, he’s using our skates now, and he’s made requests to even protect the laces now because he’s such a believer in composites.  For the guys who make their living there, protection’s an issue, but 9 out of 10 guys want to skate faster as well, and the technology is going to grow and grow. 

We’ve held the record for skate sales for two years back-to-back, and it’s composite skates that keep growing.  We have 100 players in our skates on any given week in the NHL, and the demand is increasing, and it’s based upon our unique ability to offer an unparalleled light-weight skate that’s a performance skate, and the support and responsiveness are huge.  Other skates feel like being in a pond skate after trying on an Easton skate, and we have something very unique, with many, many patents from our work, and we’re carving out a special place in the market.  Dealers tell us that, from a business standpoint, they’re very pleased, and they’re technically pleased, too.  They’re not at the ultimate for weight yet, we were at 750 grams a year ago, and at that time we thought we had everything we could provide in terms of protection and performance, but in the natural development of the technology, we’ve got a skate that’s 100 grams lighter, and we believe another step is coming.  We’re very, very excited about our skates.

Gearhead: How does a composite skate work in terms of boot technology?  Most skates are built from the blade on up, whereas composites are built from the boot out…and how does a composite skate work in terms of energy return?  You’re obviously loading the skate when you push off, and then it flexes back, is that correct?

Goldsmith: With a 3-d boot, we can control the structure much better, and it opens the door to skate-holding concepts as well.  We may break the mold of what a skate can be down the line.  We think we’re doing that now in a meaningful way, and we’ll do more in the future.  When you skate, the skates aren’t hinged—it’s a solid structure, but it’s obvious that you’re flexing the skate as you stride, and what’s happening is that when you take a stride, you deform the boot.  That deformation happens around the third and fourth eyelets, which break down over time because plastics fatigue, unlike composites, which don’t have a fatigue factor, and the deformation is also energy-loading, and so the weight of your body, and the muscles in your legs deform the boot, but at the end of the stride, and you snap the boot back up to take the next stride, that’s your return, and composite materials are just more highly efficient than plastics at being able to return energy.  That, in a nutshell, is what’s happening in the skate when you take a stride, and that’s why composite technology is so exciting for us. 

We even have the opportunity, when players ask for stiffer skates, to do a higher level of definition of stiffening by orienting fibres to give the skates the equivalent of a 110 stick flex versus an 85 stick flex, so players now have a range in which they can build skates, and the ranges are different depending on their size and style of skating.

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Filed in: Hockey Equipment, George James Malik, | KK Hockey | Permalink
 

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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.

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