Pass Me My Cue

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The evolution of the hockey stick has been quite dramatic over the past 160 years; from a hand carved one-piece stick made of hornbeam (ironwood), to today’s one –piece carbon-composite molded stick.

The earliest known stick was made between 1852-1854 by the Mi’kmaq natives of Nova Scotia.

The earliest known stick was appraised at a value of $4 million and sold for $2.2 million.

Most early known sticks were made from maple or willow trees (golf clubs and tools of the time were made of the same wood).

The laminated stick constructed of wafer thin layers of wood gave the stick more flexibility. This 1940 creation remained that way until the use of fiberglass and other synthetic compounds in the 1960’s. The advanced use of these composite mixtures gave the sticks a longer shelf life than the wooden stick that would dry out, become brittle and break easier.

As a young hockey player growing up, I really didn’t think that much about the stick. The fact of the matter was, without one, all you really had was a game of soccer on blades or snow boots.

I had a game stick until it wore down and then it became my road-hockey stick. Pretty simple and straight forward process.

Today a player has a minimum of two game sticks, with a few older ones in reserve, in case he or she can’t get the new ones to their liking.

The 1960’s, the decade with the most significant changes in history, includes the music of the Beatles, putting a man on the moon, the Viet Nam war, and the first computer. Hippies led a generation that had a fondness for change and a love of far-out gadgets.

The game of hockey also was a part of that revolutionary change.
Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks broke a stick at practice one day. The blade was broken but didn’t entirely split from the stick, with a right angle shape to it. While the trainer went to get Mikita a new stick, he continued to shoot with the broken one. He noticed something very unusual as he shot pucks. The puck sprang off the stick with more velocity and dropped in mid air like a knuckleball. Mikita, knowing he was on to something, started to bend the blade of his sticks and experimented with them in practice. Teammate Bobby Hull took interest in Mikita’s curious experiment and soon began bending the blade of his sticks, also using them in practice. After weeks of practice, the two star forwards convinced coach Billy Reay to use these newfound weapons in a real game. The results were off the charts. Very quickly the ‘banana blade’ became the talk of hockey. It also became controversial.

Andy Bathgate and Bert Olmstead both claimed they invented the curved blade years before and suggested Mikita had simply copied their idea. Think Mark Zuckerberg and the Winkle Voss twins for a modern- day version.

Suddenly the stick mattered to me. These ‘banana blade’ sticks were the coolest things I’d ever seen. Until that point I thought having your name and number on the shaft of your stick was as good as it got.

When one of my teammates showed up at practice one day with a curved stick, I had to have one. I found out his dad had soaked the stick in hot water and then bent the softened blade in a vice. That seemed simple enough.
We didn’t have a vice so I had to improvise. The space between the washtub and the wall in the basement might do the trick.

CRACK! OH NO! BROKEN. MY DAD IS GOING TO KILL ME!!! Now my $3 Hespeler Green Flash game stick was broken. Thinking quickly, I taped the blade back together but still couldn’t use it for my game that night. I would have to use my road -hockey stick. Maybe my dad won’t notice?
“Michael I told you not to try and bend that stick”.
“Dad I will shoot better and be able to raise the puck easier”.
“You won’t be able to make a backhand pass or take a backhand shot. Now I have to go buy you another stick and I don’t want to have this conversation again Michael!”

Well the good news was that was the last year he ever had to buy me a stick or equipment. Going forward, all of my equipment would be supplied by the teams.

The bad news was, at the age of 11, I wasn’t a very good listener, because we had that very same conversation numerous times.

I frustratingly tried everything to curve the blade of my stick without cracking or breaking it.

Leveraging the stick between the basement floor and bottom of the washing machine worked sometimes but more often just tilted the unit out of balance and my mom wouldn’t do laundry for a few days until my dad rebalanced it.

Between the handle of the soap dish in the bathtub worked, for a while anyway. I think my Dad is still mad that I broke that soap dish 49 years later. Further, to show you what a quick study I was, a year later at the Quebec Peewee Tournament, I tried to curve my first real mini –stick with the same result in the hotel bathroom!

I tried heating the blade in the oven and running downstairs, trying to bend the stick blade between the back of the sink and the wall. I even tried right in the stovetop burner. This method heated the stick up but I still couldn’t get the stick to bend. All this did was melt some of the fiberglass on the stick and stink our up house for a few days.

The curved stick became more popular and used by hockey players of all ages. Soon the straight bladed stick became obsolete with the popularity of the curved stick growing. It almost became comical how a player like Dave Keon had a stick with a blade that could sub as a ruler it was so straight.

Over time, the banana blade became outlawed due to the fact that in the early days of the NHL, goalies did not wear masks. Goalies didn’t really have a chance to defend themselves against a puck shot by a curved stick. Even the shooter had no idea how the puck would come off the stick. This led to restrictions put in place to how a big of a curve a stick could have.

A flat object would be placed from the toe to the heel of the blade, and the gap of the deepest part of the curve would be measured. Acceptable measurements went from 1½ inch, to 1¼ inches and so on, until today, where 25mm (less than an inch) is now the legal measurement.

For years, team trainers have watched the warm-ups, looking for culprits using what is now referred to as an illegal stick. If you are caught using such a stick, it results in a 2-minute minor penalty. At an appropriate time in the game, a coach could request a measurement of a players stick. If successful his team would be rewarded with a two-minute power play. Purists frown upon this practice, but it is part of the rules and does get called.

I was the unfortunate victim of this rule. During a game, the referee warned me about the curve of my stick. I knew it was illegal and changed sticks. The problem was, I broke my backup stick and I figured they wouldn’t notice that I was using the original stick.
Wrong again!

Not only did I get a 2-minute minor penalty, but also the two goals I had scored earlier came off the board. We lost the game by a goal. I wanted to crawl into a hole, and some of my teammates would have gladly helped shove me in and fill the hole. Even though my dad said nothing on the way home, he didn’t need to. I got the message.

The 1993 Stanley Cup final provided the most controversial stick call in recent time. With the LA Kings up one game to nothing in the final over Montreal (should have been the Leafs, not the Kings, but that’s a cry and rant for another day), the Kings’ Marty McSorley was called for a stick measurement. The Kings where leading and in command. The stick didn’t pass the test. Montreal got a power play, tied it up, and won the game in overtime and eventually the Cup. The whole series shifted in momentum as a result of that call.

Wayne Gretzky had warned his teammates that he thought someone had been in their dressing room measuring the sticks.

Marty, I feel your pain. A hockey stick is a player’s musical instrument. It is sacred! You never mess with another player’s stick. Players have routines to prepare their sticks before a game. During my years in hockey I, along with all players, would meticulously bend the blade just right. I would shave the heel so it had the exact angle to the ice that I felt I needed to play with. The right height of the stick was cut just under my chin. My stick had the perfect tape job without a crease, and was sprinkled with baby powder to take away the stickiness of the black tape in order to handle the puck better. My stick had the perfect knob at the top to fit my top hand just right. I would prepare 2 sticks like this for every game.

Today players want a stick with a lot of flex to get more torque on their shot. A longer stick is bettered suited for this. The one -piece composite stick used today gives a better feel. With practice, and with the whippiness of the composite shaft, the puck comes off the stick like a slingshot. As a result, it is not surprising that most players can really shoot the puck these days.

The stick of the 60’s cost from $3 to $5. As the years went on, the sticks became more technical and more expensive. Those $3 sticks of the 60’s became $8 to $15 sticks in the 1970’s, and soon became $30 plus moving into the 80’s. Today, a one- piece composite stick starts at $100 (if you are lucky) and can run as high as $400. The perfect stick is always on the horizon and so are higher costs.

In case you were wondering, it took me about 8 years, but I finally figured out how to curve a stick properly. Use a blowtorch! Heat the blade for a minute or two, slip the blade under your foot (shoe on) and slowly twist. And presto! The perfect curve!