Sticking with what works

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Hockey players, forever in search of sources of merriment, like to make fun of Kyle Wellwood's tiny stick, perhaps the shortest in the National Hockey League.

They also make fun of his shot, suggesting that it's best taken early in the period, otherwise the accumulated snow will prevent the puck from getting to the net.

But those kind of comments are only in jest. In reality, Wellwood's colleagues on the Maple Leafs realize that he is the best puck-handler on the team and perhaps in the league.

Even coach Paul Maurice admits to having lost his focus on occasion, becoming entranced while watching Wellwood do his sleight of stick with the puck. Now you see it. Now you don't.

Surprisingly, Wellwood performs his artistry despite having switched from a wood stick to a composite stick this year.

Most coaches hate those sticks. They provide a booming shot but they make it very difficult to take a pass or to control the puck. Coaches would love to have them banned, but that's not going to happen. The stick companies sell them for around $200 US a piece and will do all they can to get the pros to endorse them.

Wellwood may have found the perfect compromise. "What I do is I practice with it," he said. "I shoot a lot of pucks off the boards to the stick so the blade softens up."

He does it again and again with a bunch of sticks so that he never has to go into a game with a new composite stick.

"I wouldn't take a new stick to play," he said flatly. "I've got a whole bunch ready."

Anyone who has watched him can see why he like a short stick. He gets the puck in near his feet, then moves it and dances around it. Sometimes, when he's in action, he looks more like a soccer player than a hockey player.

"It's short," he said. "I like to make plays when the puck is around my feet. I like to get in real tight to the defenceman.

"If I'm close to the D-man, if he's going to fish for it, he's standing still. Then it's easier to make a pass."

COMFORTABLE

When Wayne Gretzky played, he used to shorten his stick as the season went on. Every month or so, he'd chop off another half inch, the theory being that as the season progressed, he became increasingly comfortable with his puck handling.

It is, after all, more difficult to handle a puck that's at your feet rather than one that's out in front of you.

But Wellwood keeps his stick at the same length -- whatever that is. He senses the length. He doesn't have to measure it.

As for whether it's the shortest in the league or not, he thinks that perhaps Tomas Holmstrom of the Detroit Red Wings might be in the same ballpark, but he doesn't know. "But it's definitely shorter than usual," Wellwood said.

Naturally, a short stick has its drawbacks. If it didn't, everybody would use one.

"The negatives are in puck battles in the corner," Wellwood said. "If the D-man steals it from you, you can't reach and go get it again. That's the drawback. You've really got to be safe with the pass."

He is that. That's why he's among the league's scoring leaders despite having only one goal. His pinpoint passes, often coming when they're unexpected, repeatedly set up Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker.

But maybe he could do it with a longer stick. Maybe the short stick just provides him with a comfort zone.

"He's got really good handling skills," Calgary Flames veteran defenceman Andrew Ference said. "On the power play, when he gets that pass down to Sundin near the net, he can move it really quickly from taking it on his forehand to stepping out in front of the net.

"But I think it's more his skill and his puck-handling ability that creates the problem, as opposed to the size of his stick."

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

But Wellwood believes the short stick works and he's got the results to prove it. Therefore it will stay.


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