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At first glance, all hockey sticks look alike on the ice and all perform the job in the same way. But due to the sheer variety of brands, models, sizes, shapes, and materials, it's doubtful there are two identical sticks on the ice at any National Hockey League game. A player customizes the smallest details to complement his style of play. To a lesser degree, the most advanced college and junior hockey players may also use highly customized sticks, while younger players in youth hockey leagues will play with sticks that carry similar names but have very little in common with the pro models used at the highest levels of the game.
Hockey sticks were made of wood for about the first century of the sport's existence starting in the 1800s, but many changes have taken place in the past 50 years, with enormous changes in materials and manufacturing in the past two decades.
Some of the earliest hockey sticks reportedly were made of wood from Nova Scotia's ironwood trees. These sticks were carved, one-piece, solid wood sticks. In the 1920s, the first two-piece wood sticks were created, merging the blade with the shaft at a glued joint. Three-piece sticks came along soon after, and these wood hockey sticks were the norm for about 50 years. The one change during those years was the addition of fiberglass. Some manufacturers began wrapping their wood hockey sticks with fiberglass to make them lighter and stronger.
Until the 1950s or 1960s, hockey sticks had straight blades. New York Rangers center Andy Bathgate began experimenting with a broken blade, and a little later Chicago Blackhawks teammates Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull began experimenting with curved blades, soaking their wood blades in water and bending them overnight.
In the 1990s, Wayne Gretzky signed an endorsement deal to use an aluminum hockey shaft on his stick, made by Easton. Aluminum was lighter weight and nearly indestructible. Some players were already using it, but Gretzky was the most popular hockey player on earth and when he started using one, its popularity took off.
By the mid-90s, composite blades were introduced and widely adopted, followed by one-piece composite sticks by 2000, and by 2004 almost all NHL hockey players were using composite hockey sticks.
Today's hockey sticks are technological marvels. Carbon fiber, also known as graphite, is one of the most popular materials. Many sticks these days are not a single material but several. Kevlar is one popular component adding strength and durability to the stick. And titanium is sometimes added as a composite.
Knowing how to buy a hockey stick is a complicated process. But a good guide can help. The different properties of a hockey stick can be broken down between the shaft and the blade.
Most amateur hockey players will be using an off-the-shelf hockey stick of varying quality based on what the pros use. But don't confuse the two. The professional model stick used on the ice in the NHL is a different animal than what you'll find at your local hockey store, even if they look the same and carry the same name. A professional will customize a hockey stick from top to bottom to fit the game he plays.
A professional hockey stick is made at a separate place at the factory. They're made in batches and are not part of the regular production. In addition to custom blade curve, lie, and shaft flex, they'll have special customizations like a certain type of tack applied to a particular part of the shaft. They are built to meet the exact needs of one person.
None of this means that an off-the-shelf hockey stick isn't going to be a quality stick. You can buy most of the same features in your hockey stick as a pro can, including the same high-end, technologically advanced materials. But the consistency may not be the same. A pro will get 20 sticks that are identical, but 20 sticks off the shelf may have slight variances the amateur probably won't even notice. A pro stick might have a specified flex of 96, where off-the-rack sticks will come in specified flexes — maybe 85 and 100 — and you'll choose the one closest to your needs. The same level of customization the pros enjoy just isn't available to an amateur.
Differences exist in hockey stick quality and durability as well. A professional stick is likely to have a thicker shaft wall, making it stronger and giving it longer life. Many amateur hockey players simply won't subject their hockey stick to the abuse a professional stick is designed to take nearly every single day. Amateurs may play once or twice a week, while pros are on the ice a lot more.
Hockey sticks must conform to rules, including the maximum length of 63 inches, with a blade no more than 12½ inches long and 3 inches high at any point. The blades must be beveled for safety.
An interesting rule in hockey related to sticks involves a broken stick. If you snap your stick during play, you must immediately drop it. The risk of checking or being checked while holding a broken stick is a danger. Continuing a play with a broken stick is punishable with a minor penalty for an equipment violation. A player must go to the bench to get a new stick, or another player can bring a stick to the player. Goalies with a stick broken cannot go to the bench for a replacement, even during a stoppage of play, or they risk a penalty for delay of game. Another stick has to be delivered by a teammate. And sticks cannot be thrown onto the ice to replace a broken one. If a player uses his stick to break the stick of an opponent, the offender can get two minutes for slashing.
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