SUN Hockey Pool

The NHL needs to return to wooden sticks

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

The National Hockey League, forever searching for gimmicks to enhance its revenues, should perhaps add an extra wrinkle to the all-star skills competition.

Stage a governors race from one blue line to the next. Oh, sorry. Forgot. There aren't enough governors who can skate to have a race.

If the governors were asked to cite legal precedents, or name columnists on the Wall Street Daily, that's another matter. But skate? No thanks.

Little wonder then, that the NHL bumbles along in its own leaderless way when it comes to the game's equipment.

It is long past the time when the league should have said to the manufacturers, "Look, this is the way the equipment is made and if you don't like it, find another business."

LAISSEZ-FAIRE MANNER

This league badly needs a return to wooden sticks. In its usual laissez-faire manner, the league years ago allowed aluminum sticks to creep on to the scene, thereby saving a whole lot of defencemen the bother of having to head to the bench every time they broke a wooden stick over someone's arm.

There are those who say that the NHL injury rate rose considerably when aluminum sticks were introduced, but no one really knows. Surely, you wouldn't expect the NHL to track meaningless statistics like that. It's only the health of hockey players that's at stake, after all.

On the heels of the aluminum sticks came the composite sticks. They didn't affect the game much -- no more than if you allowed a high jumper to use a trampoline, for instance.

These sticks turn even feeble shots into rockets. But you can't take a pass with them. And you can't hurt too many people with them since they break near a loud noise. But players can whip shots that no one can see, and they like that.

In their more sensible moments, coaches and players alike will admit that the composite sticks are a major reason for the lower scoring around the league.

Today's game is played at a breakneck speed. If you're a defenceman manning the point and the puck comes to you, you want to cradle the pass with your head up and look for the most creative way to move the puck in a hurry.

A wooden stick allowed you to do that. But with a composite stick, you have to look down to see where the puck bounced after it hit the blade, corral the puck, then look up again. That split second often gives a checker the time to close the gap, and now there's nothing left to do but bang the puck off the boards.

Coaches would love to see composite sticks banned but they won't say it on the record. They like the co-operation they get from the stick companies and they don't want to upset their players. Furthermore, they don't want to interfere with their players' income.

The stick companies are only too willing to make deals with players so they can sell the player-branded sticks for exorbitant amounts down at the local hardware store.

For the NHL to ban these sticks would require someone who knows something about hockey sitting in a governor's chair. So it's not likely to happen.

Furthermore, the stick companies would scream that they were blind-sided after making all kinds of investments based upon the NHL's promise.

Still, that's easily deflected. The league would just say, "Hey, call Jim Flaherty. He'll explain how that works."

Baseball, run by people who once played baseball at some level, doesn't allow aluminum bats for the simple reason that to do so would change the game. The inside pitch, a staple of good pitching, can be hit with an aluminum bat, whereas a wooden bat will either break, or hit the pitch feebly.

Composite sticks change the game in hockey. For the worse.

And it's not as if wooden sticks are bad. Al MacInnis never used anything else and, until the day he retired because of an eye injury, he had the hardest shot in hockey.

But MacInnis worked hard at his game. He didn't rely on technology to build his skills for him.


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