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The Gearhead, Episode One: Warrior Hockey

By George Malik Welcome to "The Gearhead!" As your resident rink rat and equipment nut, my goal is to give you an inside look at the tools hockey players use by talking to the ladies and gents who make hockey gear. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Warrior Hockey's marketing director, Neil Wensley, about the Warren-based manufacturer's expansion from making lacrosse equipment to producing hockey sticks as well. He and I spoke for over an hour about Warrior's stick-making processes, and I think he had as much fun as I did--there's nothing like two equipment geeks talking shop!

Gearhead: Why did Warrior decide to expand its operations and get into the hockey equipment business by purchasing Innovative Hockey’s in 2005?

Neil Wensley: With lacrosse being such a seasonal sport, we needed something counter-seasonal to offset lacrosse, and hockey was a natural fit, especially in the northern United States and Canada, and there’s no company that had the ‘action sports’ mentality that Warrior has. 

Gearhead: So how do you market your product differently than other hockey companies?  In an age where most companies tout their technology in terms that hockey players might not be able to relate to, Warrior’s taken a very different approach.  Some would argue that your strategies are “guerrilla” marketing, but that’s not necessarily accurate…

Wensley: You can look at how skateboard companies and surfboard companies market themselves as brands that have a combination of high-end technical product as well as companies that are selling a lifestyle, or culture to consumer, especially young consumers…Nobody’s doing that in hockey, and the sport’s wide-open in terms of generating excitement.  It’s not “guerrilla” marketing; we’re more creative, and think outside the box.  We’re forward-thinking and we do things differently, and as far as our actual product, it’s definitely not the same as the product other equipment companies producee as well.
There are 135 NHLers using Warrior sticks, and if we were simply worried about marketing, we’d have no players using our sticks.  We’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and money in creating high-end products, and we just choose to sell them differently.
When we purchased Innovative Hockey, we chose to make changes in materials and processing when we brought our management together from our other companies, myself included, and we really brought in another knowledge base to relay into a solid company, but in terms of business, the basis of Innovative hockey remains intact.  The same people who made Innovative sticks are now in a good partnership in terms of the marketing muscle that we’ve put behind their great product.

Gearhead: As composite stick companies have made advancements in terms of durability over the past few years—composite sticks break much less often these days—how has Warrior worked on making their sticks more durable?  Innovative sticks were known as really spectacular sticks from a performance point of view, but they were also seen as a bit brittle.

Wensley: Our stick durability comes from our internal materials, specifically several foams, and our proprietary selection of actual composites—which is huge.  It’s a combination of every material as well as our process.  Our sticks are very advanced, and it’s not that hard to take apart other companies’ sticks to see how they’re manufactured, but reverse-engineering our sticks would be very difficult. 
We have a very different recipe as far as the combination of materials, processes, and curing time are concerned, but it’s proprietary…

Gearhead: Most “one-piece composite” sticks are still basically fused blades and shafts.  You offer a fused composite as well as a “true one piece.”  How do you produce a real “one-piece” stick without making an entire mold for the stick?  Do you use a pre-preg graphite blade, or do you use a single mold for the stick?  And why do the NHL’ers seem to gravitate towards the fused composites?

Wensley: We use a pre-preg graphite blade for both the Dolomite and the Mac Daddy sticks,but the Dolomite has two components, whereas the Mac Daddy is a true one-piece stick in terms of construction, with a singular mold process.  Most NHL’ers lean towards a fused stick as they’re used to it, and it gives a different feel, a different kick point, and more dampening because of the fused joint.  Some prefer a heavier stick as well.

Gearhead: What about the non-NHL’ers?

Wensley: Our retail sales are split evenly.  The retail mindset, in terms of recreational players and younger players, is about performance.  They say, “Lighter is better,” and they accept the fact that it will cost more to buy a real one-piece stick.

Gearhead: Warrior really seemed to explode onto the NHL scene in the 05-06 season.  I heard that Warrior was really responsive to its players.  How did you become a big player in the NHL so quickly?  Was it about players like Brendan Shanahan using your sticks, or…

Wensley: Our blades and flexes set us apart as we pay a lot of attention to all the issues players have—from flex to weight to curvature.  We can change the flex, the “feel” of the shaft, the geometry of the shaft, the “feel” in the blade, and other companies can’t match our delivery time.  We can take a pro’s stick sample and make a custom mold within two and a half days, whereas other companies take weeks or months, and they manufacture overseas, whereas we have a plant in Mexico. 
A lot of our faster response times have to do with the fact that we don’t pay many players to use our product.  We have the “Players’ Club,” which is comprised of our contract athletes, and there are only 8 in the PC out of the 135 NHL’ers who are using our sticks. 
We don’t pay the other guys; instead, we rely on our service and the quality of our product, and we hope that players will overlook the marketing cheque to get a better product. 
You can give them the rationale that if the stick performs well, and you score ten more goals, that pays you a lot more than you’d get paid to use a stick—ten goals is $1.5-2 million in the NHL these days, whereas a guy like Sidney Crosby might make $500,000 on his endorsement deal from Reebok.

Gearhead: I think Modano ditched his deal with Reebok…

Wensley: There are two guys who’re great stories in Chris Pronger and Mike Modano; both of them had huge endorsement deals with Reebok, but they chose to use our sticks without pay.  They must get a lot of grief from Reebok, but it’s their call, and their preference is on performance.

Gearhead: I’ve heard that Warrior supposedly tests the flex of every stick it makes.  Is that true?

Wensley: We weigh and test the flex of every single stick before it leaves the factory, whether it’s a pro stick, a $220 retail stick, or a $89 entry-level model.  Every stick goes through the same quality control process, and that’s definitely unique, especially when compared to other manufacturers from far East sources as those quality control procedures aren’t in place.

Gearhead: I’ve heard that NHL’ers are ridiculously picky; even with the advances in consistency because of composite manufacturing, they’ll still take an order of ten sticks and will keep only two.  How picky are they, really?

Wensley: It’s unbelievable.  Payers weigh everything they wear these days, and if it’s within ten grams, they keep it, and if not, they ditch it.  The same is true for sticks. 
Lots of guys are so above and beyond the average player that they can just flex the stick, and they know whether it’s within even 5% of their requested flex.  We get a kick when players tell us that the stick is “just off” the last batch they liked; we take the sticks back to the factory to test them, and the stick’s dead-on what the margin of error the player predicted.  You can’t fool players.  They have an unbelievable feel for their equipment in terms of their sensitivity.

Gearhead: I’ve seen guys like Robert Lang use your one-piece stick, and now he’s gone to a two-piece, but he even brought over those one-piece Busch sticks from Switzerland.  He always seems to be changing things up.  How picky is he?

Wensley: Langer is extremely picky, not only with feel and flex, but also the geometry of the shaft, and pattern of blade.  He’s very educated on the materials and processes that go into making sticks.  He’s also unique in his selection of sticks—he uses a heavier, boxier, more dampened stick—it feels more like a wood stick.  Lots of bigger, stronger guys like Chara and Shanahan, they like the two-piece because it’s a little heavier and doesn’t torque as much, and having the joint dampens the feel somewhat.

Lang’s stick in particular uses a lot of fibreglass.

Gearhead: How do you make your sticks more durable?  Do you use Kevlar, do you bulk up protection at the corners of the shaft, or do you do something else?  And how do you try to keep the graphite laminates consistent?  I know I’ve got an old Louisville Kevlar, from when they bought Fontaine, and the weave’s really messily put together…

Wensley: We don’t use Kevlar…We strictly use fibreglass and graphite.  We use the highest grade of graphite available, and we pay a premium, but what we don’t see on the back end in terms of breakage and returns put us ahead of the curve.  Many companies are short-sighted—they want savings on the front end, but their return rate or lack of consistency hurts on the back end.  We use aerospace grade composites, which are tough to get, especially with the war going on, but it pays dividends because the consistency is so much better, and it’s stronger.
The strength of our sticks comes from the molding process—the orientation of our materials, and how we get the recipe together.  It’s an exact science, and we have a recipe for every product, and pro players have some of their own recipes as well.  The orientation of the material changes the feel, the flex, the geometry of the shaft—whether it’s boxier, or has rounded edges, is concave or convex—lots of things can be changed by playing with the orientation of graphite weave.

Gearhead: Did you guys get a leg up in terms of the Red Wings using a lot of Innovative sticks, or Shanny changeover?

Wensley: The Red Wings did have a lot of guys who used Innovative sticks, and when Shanahan changed from aluminum sticks over to composite, that said a lot because there was no secret that every company tried to get him to switch, including Easton, and when he finally switched, everybody took notice of it.  He says that in his entire career, nobody ever looked across at him and asked, “Hey, how do you like that stick?  And now, not a game goes by when a guy on the other team doesn’t ask him why he switched to the Warrior stick.  He’s a great salesman for us, and we don’t ask him to do so, but he goes out of his way to push the product.

Gearhead: Is there a reason that you chose to make the Dolomite black and the Mac Daddy lime green?

Wensley: Making the Mac Daddy green was a conscious choice to differentiate ourselves both on the ice, which is essential as consumers watch the games, and when they walk int retailers, they look at the shelf and see 45 sticks, so it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.  We want to give the consumer another reason to pick up our product when they’re not familiar with our product, and colour seemed to be an easy avenue with which to do so.

Gearhead: What are your plans regarding branching out into other equipment lines?  You’ve got gloves out, but your Lacrosse line offers more…and how do you determine the backhand pattern of the gloves?  You’re using split knuckles and a form-fitting backhand.  Did you use medical personnel to help design the glove?

Wensley: We plan to have an entire equipment line—we don’t have a firm launch date, but it’s in development, a full line, even helmets and skates down the line.  We just don’t have a sense of urgency because we want to get a handle on the stick business, and then the glove business.  The glove business has been far above our market projections, and developing other categories…When the time is right and the product is right, we’ll bring it to the market.
Another competitor’s glove vs. a Warrior glove…They’re stylistically different, but the actual construction is pretty much the same, especially NHL gloves.  Players ask for the same specs every year, regardless of the brand on the cuff roll.  They want the same palm they’ve used for the last eight years, the same nylon and PU cover…
We get the anatomics from our lacrosse line, and you’ll see that next year’s glove line for retailers will mirror the lacrosse line even more—they’ll be more contoured and will fit closer to the hand as lots of NHLers are going to that tighter fit. 

Gearhead: I’ve seen that with the Nike gloves…how do you keep protection up when gloves fit that tightly?

Wensley: The tighter fit is a challenge as we have to find new foams that are still protective as well as lightweight as weight is a consideration in all our product categories—players are getting gloves shipped in and weigh them, which we never saw two years ago.  They’re looking for an edge, especially with the league getting faster, any advancement they can get…
It’s a challenge to find and develop new materials and new designs. 

Gearhead: Does New Balance help out with anatomic design as they’re your parent company?

Wensley: It’s more a function of what we’re doing with lacrosse than an influence from New Balance.  We were known in lacrosse as having the most comfortable and anatomical gloves, and that’s mirrored on the hockey side, including using our manufacturing patterns, and that’s a conscious effort to bring that to hockey.

We have our own R and D focus groups for sizing purposes, to create our own sizing curve, and then we create patterns to make the gloves.  We do lots of R and D on the front end as opposed to other companies, who use the same pattern for years and years, with four different brands made in the same factory, with stock patterns and dies…We don’t do that.

Gearhead: What about glove length?  Do you only offer short-cuff gloves?

Wensley: We offer multiple cuff links based on player preferences, but players tend to go shorter and wear longer elbow pads and forearm protection, they’ll do anything they want, so our gloves have fairly short cuffs.

Gearhead: You said that you have different shaft geometries…Do players prefer the rounded edges, more square, or even concave or convex shapes?

Wensley: We have two different things going on—in the pro level, we offer upwards of six different shaft geometries, whereas at retail we only offer two—the fused and the true one piece—the different geometries at the pro level are based on materials lay-up, and we have stock geometries that serve 95% of players, but we’ll do just about anything a player wants.  Some players, like Chara, will ask for a much longer stick, and because he has the biggest hands in the league, he asks for a larger geometry and a boxier shaft.  Once that’s created, we add that to our arsenal. 

Shaft geometry totally varies per player.  The majority of players use slightly rounded corners andstraight walls, no concave or convex shafts in general.  They use fairly standard shapes, similar to what we’re selling in retail.

Gearhead: Did the Europeans use that extra 1/4th of an inch to increase their curves?  It’s not much, but…Also, do players use different flexes or different blade patterns?

Wensley: We had lots of players increasing their curves; in fact, at training camp, we had a huge push for new molds as most of our players, especially the Euros, wanted us to redo their patterns and incorporate that larger curve.  Kovalchuk and Saprykin both shoot right from the toe of their blades, so they wanted similar adjustments.

Gearhead: Can you change the blade in terms of a “sweet spot?”

Wensley: We determine our “sweet spot” by our construction, but we can vary the feel and stiffness and responsiveness of the blade in different zones, depending on what the players like.
Most players have different patterns for their blades—Kovalev has six patterns with a consistent shaft—but he plays around more with blade patterns than anything else. He’s really locked into what he likes.  He was at the factory when his sticks’ recipes were being put together.  He had a big part in it; he’s extremely intelligent and grasped the concept and the process.
Most players have multiple patterns as well as flexes, and they go back and forth.

Gearhead: I see a lot of NHLers still using acetylene torches to try and work the blades, even though fire degrades composites—it basically turns the graphite to pencil lead—and yet the broadcasters always blame the sticks for breaking, when a lot of the damage is done by the players.  Does that drive you nuts?  What do you tell the players? 

Wensley: Using blowtorches and head compromises the strength of the blade, and as soon as they change the shape, you have to break fibers to change that shape as there’s no give or flexibility to them, so as soon as they change the geometry, you’ll have had to break something, and they compromise the strength of the shaft in doing so, but they keep doing it.

Luc Robitaille did it, and he’d shave the heel of his blade, which you can’t do with composites, but he kept telling us, “No, no, I’ve done this for years…”

But when they use blowtorches and try to change the shape of the blade…that’s why composite sticks break.  Most of the breakage is from slashes and regular wear-and-tear during games; if you get a nick on the shaft from a slash, skate, or the boards, that’s a stress point, and the stick breaks, a lot of that happens, but the blow-torching…

Gearhead: How do you deal with making the sticks of crease-crashers like Tomas Holmstrom and Ryan Smyth stand up?  And does Smyth still use an aluminum shaft, and do you make his wood blade?

Tomas Holmstrom’s stick is boxy, stiff, and it’s got reinforced construction to say the least.  He’s not a finesse player or a sniper; he’s a muck-it-up guy who wants to kick it in, and his blade’s almost straight, and a very low lie.  It’s a balancing tool, really, he balances himself like a tripod, and that’s why he’s the best at doing what he does.

Smyth’s silver tip is a sticker.  He wanted to keep the look of the Easton Silvertip for many years, and he just said that he likes it when he looks down, so…He puts his initials on the shaft, and the graphic is his.

We don’t mess with player superstitions.  Those are easy things, there’s no investment on our part, and whatever gives the player comfort and confidence, we’ll do.  We don’t do a wood blade and have no plans to enter the wood market.  There’d be no return for the consumer.

Gearhead: Just a few more quickies: Will you be incorporating that spray-on grip onto your sticks?  How many sticks do players go through per game?  And how do you determine your flexes?  I’m a big guy, about 245, but I like a whippy stick, a 75 flex…

Wensley: That’s really whippy…

Gearhead: So who uses what in terms of flexes?  And how do you want the shaft to load in terms of springing back?

Wensley: About the grip on the shaft, we use a similar spray process to the one other companies use, but the texture is different.  Next year, we hope to have a grip that’s incorporated into the decal so that the graphic is the textured grip.

How many sticks per game?  Most only go through one stick, a stick for practice, and one for the game if they’re not too hard on their sticks.  Some change them up a lot because it’s a force of habit from the old wood days, and some use three sticks per game and switch them out still intact.

Flex depends on the player.  On average, our most popular is the 100 flex, but there are players who use extremely flexible sticks, like Hull, he used a 65-70; Fedorov uses a 120, and Shanahan uses a 120-130, which is one of the highest in terms of stiffness…He and Chara use the stiffest sticks. 

In terms of loading of the shaft, that has to do with the nature of the material, and how quickly graphite can recover to its original position, so that’s what we look for, and the quicker it comes back, the more velocity you can put on the shaft.  We can tailor that to feel and the shooting style.  Shanny takes a slapper or more of a sweeping wrist shot; he doesn’t snap it like Kovalchuk or Ovechkin.

Gearhead: If you could say one thing to the consumer about what sets Warrior apart, sort of summarizing your approach…How would you plug your company?  And how will your online presence change?  Do you plan on having an on-line stick-customizer?

Wensley: The way that Warrior sets self apart is that we’re the only company that incorporates high-performance products with whole new hockey culture—one that we’ll develop over time—and we want to bring players into the fold,  in terms of having a family, for lack of a better word, creating a new culture to bring a new sense of excitement into the game that other manufacturers aren’t right now…

But it’s very common in individual sports like skateboarding, surfing, and motocross.  It’s more o a lifestyle thing, where we want to be a lifestyle hockey brand, like what we have currently on our lacrosse side.

We’ll work on our apparel lines, our website is being worked on…From a stick perspective, it’s difficult to sell on-line due to manufacturing constraints, but down the line…One day we’d like to be able to have a player customize graphics, flex, and pattern on-line.  It’s not a far stretch to think that, in the near future, we can do that, because we already do it for gloves for lacrosse, and we’ll work towards that towards the hockey side, making custom team and individual retail gloves available.

We want to make our website, down the road, to becoming a huge part of the business in team sports and individual sports—if you look at a website like Nikeid.com or Custompuma.com, where kids can go on-line and create their own look. 

We want to be known as a company that’s responsive to the consumer as player, and that we’d allow the player to create his or her own style.

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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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