Hockey Sticks: with so many choices, where do I start?

Mar 25, 2004 (Updated Nov 14, 2008)

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The Bottom Line Finding the right stick is a personal choice. Understanding the options makes the decision a little less daunting.

The hockey stick, the most basic piece of equipment, is also the most confounding. The subjective nature of the item is what makes it so perplexing. While other pieces of gear either fit or don’t fit, the stick defies such a simple categorization. It’s more like buying a pizza. Size is the easy part—options are where things get tricky.

Stick technology has come along way from the days when players found a nice piece of hickory and started whittling. Sticks today come in a number of materials that in themselves can be overwhelming. These range from wooden shafts with ABS plastic blades, to traditional wood and fiberglass, to full Kevlar and Carbon Fiber. Prices can vary by a factor of ten, with a very simple stick costing around $20 and top end exotics surpassing the $200 mark.

Today’s stick market has as much variety as the grocery store’s breakfast isle. It can certainly be overwhelming. While the overall selection of a stick is as much a matter of personal taste as cereal and breakfast bars, this article aims at helping you narrow that decision down and will look at:
  1. Wooden Sticks
  2. Two-piece sticks and blades
  3. One-piece composite sticks
  4. Picking out a blade pattern
  5. Selecting the proper flex and length
  6. Taping and Waxing
  7. Can it slice a ripe tomato? (just seeing if you’re paying attention)

The Wooden Stick
The wooden stick has been around since the inception of hockey. Yep, without the stick, hockey would have just been some bored kids kicking something around on the ice. It probably would have been called “ice soccer” and had the mass appeal of lawn darts. Despite the many improvements in this most basic piece of hockey gear, there are still a few NHL pros using wood sticks. Still the numbers are dwindling from about half the league using wood several years ago, to just a handful now.

What would make a pro player who goes through about a dozen wooden sticks a week prefer wood to the composite materials? Well, the odds are that he’s an old timer stuck on tradition. I personally think they should go back to playing in leather helmets and knit sweaters with a crest that someone’s granny sewed on, but hey that’s just me.

Another reason some players still prefer wood might be feel. One thing that technology hasn’t improved is the feel. If you cannot catch a pass, or stickhandle through the defense, there isn’t much point in being able to shoot an extra ten miles per hour. While sticks have continually improved, it’s still tough to create a composite stick that feels quite as nice as that of good old wood. Many Pros are now using a composite shaft with a wood blade as a compromise between the best of both worlds.

Beyond the obvious issue of having the plainest stick in the locker room, the negative of a wood stick is simple durability. Even if you are like me and don’t break many sticks, wood will wear out. Shooting the puck hard requires flexing the shaft and getting a good pop, almost like a bow releasing an arrow. The fibers in wooden sticks break down fairly quickly and the spring that you need in releasing a shot gets weaker. Often this will take only a few hours of ice time to become noticeable. Worse, you may think it’s just your shot getting weaker . . . my advice is always blame the stick even when you know you messed up.

Wooden sticks come in almost as many varieties as all other sticks combined. The most basic is a standard solid aspen shaft with fiberglass reinforcement on a laminated hickory blade. The first improvement comes in laminated shafts, which use layers of wood – similar to plywood. A step up from this would entail a fiberglass-reinforced shaft. Next is the aircraft, or hollow core shaft, a shaft built from smaller strips of wood, that actually leaves hollow spaces in the core. The aircraft style shaft is the generally the lightest wooden stick available. Some wood sticks have composite reinforcements. One brand even used composite materials inside of a wooden stick with an aircraft core.

Wooden sticks are the smartest choice for beginning players. The cost of a composite stick balanced against the minimal gain a beginner might get doesn’t make sense. Until beginners learn to shoot, poke check and stick handle and stand up on skates adequately; there isn’t much point in spending big bucks on a composite stick. Trust me, no one looks any less silly falling down with a $200 stick than they do with a $20 stick. Further, it will take some experimentation to find the proper curve for a new player, why experiment at $100 a stick? That said, you might find a killer deal and be able to pick up a closeout composite stick for $40 or $50 these days.

Younger children, with the exception of a very few elite level players will also find little or no benefit from the more expensive one-piece and two-piece sticks. Elite level children might gain some benefit from the lighter weight of a composite stick. Some have used these sticks to boost their children’s confidence as well, “You’re good enough to use this now, junior.” But, in most cases parents can save your money for something better than your child’s bragging rights at practice, “Look at my shiny new $200 stick!”

Two-piece Shafts and Blades
Two-piece sticks have been around for a while. The blade and shaft, sold separately, are hot-glued together with a heat gun. Originally making its debut in the medium of aluminum, the two-piece shaft is now available in such exotic materials as Carbon Fiber, Graphite and Kevlar. Some lower priced shafts are pure fiberglass making them heavier and more prone to breakage. Aluminum shafts lasted almost forever and are still a favorite of many players who own one, but they are almost impossible to find.

The advantages in a two-piece stick are lighter weight, more consistent performance and longevity. Space age materials and a hollow core make most two-piece sticks a great deal lighter than their traditional hickory and aspen counterparts are. The type of a blade selected can change the weight somewhat, but it will generally weigh less than a wooden stick. This translates into slightly quicker stick handling for the player. Performance and longevity are the result of fade free materials that ensure nearly the same flex and pop for the entire life of the stick.

A composite shaft can last for years. It is less prone to the stresses and inconsistencies that a wooden shaft is. The pop in a composite shaft may fade slightly over time, but nothing like what takes place in a wooden stick. What is very different is the way that composite sticks break. With a wooden stick you generally know your stick is going bad well in advance. There is a growing expectation of imminent breakage. With a composite stick or shaft, you generally don’t know it’s going to break until you are holding a separate piece of stick in each hand. Fortunately, composite sticks and shafts generally come with a 30-day warranty while wood sticks come with none.

One downside to buying a two-piece is the cost. Even an inexpensive shaft and blade will cost twice what a wooden stick goes for. Realistically, the cheapest shaft on the market will cost about $40 and a low-end blade for it about $25. More likely you will spend over $150 to get a two-piece stick of decent quality. However, since the largest numbers of breakages in sticks occur at the blade, the two-piece is an attractive option after the initial investment.

The type of blade selected will determine much of the durability in a two-piece. Reinforced wooden blades are among least expensive. These will give a good feel for the puck, but generally last the average player a few months at the most. Composite blades are the most durable and expensive. They run the gambit from lightweight foam core blades with carbon fiber shells, to full Kevlar and carbon fiber construction. This type of blade might serve a once or twice weekly recreational player up to a year, for a novice perhaps longer.

Two-piece shafts and blades are interchangeable between brands. Junior and Senior are the two basic blade sizes. The shafts come in Junior, Senior and Intermediate sizes with intermediate shafts accepting Senior blades. However, most brands now make tapered shafts and blades as well. These blades fit a longer shaft which tapers at the blade end and should not be confused with standard blades and shafts. Tapered two-piece sticks are typically the top performing two-piece sticks and priced accordingly.

The Modern One Piece Sticks
The term one-piece stick used to simply refer to a wooden stick that wasn’t broken. Now it refers to the expensive, featherweight, composite jobs that would make NASA proud. (The price tags are starting to get into the NASA range too).The one-piece stick is the newest of stick options. Easton’s very popular Synergy started the craze and remains among the most popular choices today. The one-piece is the lightest of the three basic choices available, and widely considered the top performer as well.

A one-piece stick will have a very nice, almost weightless feel to it when even the casual player picks it up. The one-piece is made of carbon fiber or Kevlar. Most have hollow cores although a few have foam centers to add to durability. One-piece sticks are probably the most hyped up piece of hockey equipment today. Every brand seems to have their own unique design, from holes in the shaft, to a spine on the blade, to elliptical and even triangular shafts. Obviously some designs are better than others are. Ask fellow players what they like or see if you can borrow one before you make the plunge.

Like a two-piece, the one piece is a durable, high performance choice. The one-piece will give most players many months of quality play. There is little argument that a good player will notice a more powerful shot with a one-piece stick. The benefit to a less developed shooter will be negligible. If you don’t have a good shot to start with, there is no stick that can change that.

The price of a one-piece is generally comparable to that of a two-piece initially but does top out much higher. Sometimes you can turn a broken one-piece into a two-piece by cutting it and installing a replacement blade. But this isn’t a given by any means. Depending upon the brand and style of stick, replacing a blade might be impossible. At the very least, it will change the characteristics of the stick.

The blade end of a broken one piece has to be cut off in order to repair it. In many one-piece sticks this will become the new top of the stick as a blade will not fit in this tapered end due to construction, shape or sizing. Flipping the stick changes the flex dynamics of the shaft. Unlike wood, some one-piece sticks do not flex at a consistent rate throughout the shaft. An advantage of space age construction is the ability to put variable flex zones allowing most of the flex close to the blade.

Tapered replacement blades are generally the best choice to keep a stick right side up. However they generally have a very short hosel. This creates problems where the player will have to use a longer butt end on their stick increasing the likelihood of breakage. Further, by cutting off the bottom of the shaft, the flex may become slightly stiffer there, only to flex at the top where the butt end is.

So perhaps the biggest downside to the one-piece stick is their position as the most expensive option. Not only is the initial investment sometimes higher, but in order to keep that same high level of performance, players will need to buy a new stick every time they break one.

Players often complain about the feel of one-piece sticks when first switching from wood. The blades are generally the heaviest part of these sticks and take away from the feel of the puck. The newer sticks on the market have addressed this issue by changing the materials in the blade and often adding an inner layer of foam or silicone. At any rate, it may take a few games to get used to a one-piece stick.

Selecting a Blade Patter
As confusing as the materials might be, the blade pattern, or curve, is the most personalized part of buying a stick. I can only help you to understand the differences here. The choice is as subjective as what kind of bagel you prefer (I had to stay with the food theme).

Patterns used to be a lot easier to understand as they were labeled by their descriptors: curve, loft and lie. All but a few brands have done away with this system in the age of corporate sponsorship deciding to use player names instead to differentiate patterns. Does this mean that picking a curve is a simple as deciding to using a Crosby pattern since you like the way he plays? Unfortunately it might not.

The most important factor in the selection is the lie. This term describes the angle of the blade to the shaft and is expressed in a numeric value. Most sticks today have a lie value between 4 and 7. The majority of sticks are going to lave a lie in the vicinity of 5.5, with numbers larger than that describing a more upright stick position and numbers smaller a less upright stick position.

If this angle is wrong, the blade will not sit flat on the ice and will cause undue difficulty in stick handling and shooting. If possible, look for a stick with skates on (with skates on your feet, not on the stick). Some shops will also have a box to stand on that simulates the height of skates. Make sure that your stick blade is flat when you are at skate level and in a playing stance. You can also sometimes determine your lie by the way the tape on your blade wears during play. If the heel of the tape wears before the toe, you should look for a lower lie.

The loft is just like a golf club and described as how open the blade is, ranging from closed to very open. The more open the face of the blade, the easier it should be to get your shot airborne. If you find your shots going six feet over the goalie’s head, it’s time to look for a less open blade. No choice of loft will affect your stick’s ability to slice a ripe tomato—hockey sticks don’t belong in the kitchen anyway.

The curve is described as one of three types: heel, mid and toe. This is the place that most of the curve in a blade is concentrated. On top of that there is a depth of curve generally ranging from ¼-inch to ¾-inch. Which of these you chose will be as much personal preference as anything you buy in hockey. These three basic curves combined with various depths create as many different choices as you could possibly imagine. Changing curves will affect your shot and is something to experiment with before settling in on that expensive one-piece stick.

The type of toe on the blade comes in two basic varieties: round or square. Forwards generally prefer a round toe. Good stick handlers often prefer a round toe for dangling through traffic. Defensemen often use a square-toed blade. These blades are usually longer and provide a better surface for blocking shots, firing huge slapshots and keeping the puck from exiting the attack zone. The length of the blade can vary somewhat as well.

So, to put all of that together, here’s the blade type that I prefer: a deep heel curve, very open, with a lie 5, square toe and a long blade. Most of you who know what curve you like are groaning at my choice. Hey, it works great for my backhand which is, oddly, my favorite shot.

Very young children will be best suited with a straight blade stick. Most youth sticks come with a minimal curve at most, but I would stay away from even these. Oftentimes children this young haven’t even determined if they will play left or right-handed. A curve will only impair this decision. A curve offers no assistance to very young novice players regardless. And hey, if Gordie Howe went his entire career without a curve, does anyone really need one?

Size and Flex of the Stick
Players have recently begun to accept a common misconception that the easier a stick is to flex, the harder their shot will be. One and two-piece sticks will have a flex rating, generally designated by a number. The flex rating used by most brands indicates how many pounds of force it takes to flex the stick one inch. The notion that a more flexible stick yields harder shots is completely wrong. The stiffest stick a player can flex in a shooting motion is the one that will offer the hardest shot.

Again think of the shaft as a bow. The stiffer a bow is, the more velocity it can send an arrow. The same is true for sticks. I suspect the source of this misconception is made from a nearly valid point. Obviously if a bow is too stiff to be properly drawn, the arrow will not travel far. The same is true with sticks. If you cannot flex a stick with your shooting motion, you aren’t getting the full potential.

As a general rule of thumb the flex should be about half the player’s body weight. Any player over 150 pounds should be using a senior stick. This would be at least 75 flex. These numbers are just rough guidelines though. If a player has a good shot or above average strength for his or her size, they should think about going to a stiffer stick. Conversely, a novice might go down a level.

Women and smaller players might benefit from an intermediate stick. These are close to the same size as a senior stick, but have lighter flex and generally a slightly smaller girth. Intermediate stick flexes generally range from 60 to 75 pounds. Youth flex ratings are generally 45 to 55 pounds. Of course the kids who should be using a 45 flex are often found in the hockey shop sitting on a 110-flex stick to see if they can bend it.

With children the girth of the stick is generally a major factor. Make sure that the shaft is a comfortable diameter for their hands whether choosing a junior or a youth stick. The girth will often vary a bit between models and brands. Most children will not be as affected by lie as seniors since they are growing and the lie they need is continually changing. However, make sure they are not too tall for the lie to start with as it will only get worse.

Stick length for adults is generally between the chin and lips when standing the stick straight up, in street shoes. For growing players, the top of the nose is a good place to cut the stick. This should get them through a season. When playing, the top hand should cover the end of the shaft. In leagues of old, where dirty play was the norm, sliding a hand down the shaft was the norm when someone was following you into the boards. Body checking the butt end of someone’s stick doesn’t sound like fun to me.

When cutting a one or two-piece stick, the butt-end should be cut as small as possible before cutting the composite portion of the stick. It can even be cut flush and later retrieved by driving a screw into it. This method ensures that as much of the stick is left intact, preserving the flex rate and dynamics and leaving room for growth if needed.

Taping and Waxing
The blade of the stick should always be taped for ice hockey. Some players use friction tape, but regular cloth tape will work. Friction tape is sticky on both sides and helps players catch passes. When taping the blade you should always tape from heel to toe. This creates flaps that open as the puck strikes the blade. These pockets slow the puck down and help to keep it from sliding off. They also provide spin when shooting.

Wax should be used on all wood and fiberglass style blades. Waxing the tape keeps moisture out of the blade and makes it last a good deal longer. Wax on most composite blades will not make a difference in blade life but can help prolong tape life and improve the spin on the puck.

A few leagues allow only black or white tape on stick blades although it comes in a plethora of colors. I personally prefer black as it hides the puck a little better. If people don’t see you have the puck, it makes life a little easier. But most people prefer white tape for some reason. That’s a personal choice.

The top of the shaft should be taped as well. Most players will put a small butt-end knob on their stick and several inches of tape below that. This helps you know exactly where your hand is on the stick and keeps you from dropping it.

That’s About it Hopefully, I’ve given you enough information to make selecting your next stick a little easier. More importantly, I hope you haven’t had an aneurism from all the information. There is an unbelievable selection out there waiting for you, but it isn’t as daunting as it might seem with a little bit of background. Eventually it will become almost as simple as the decision of Cheerios over Wheaties. Unfortunately, six months after you settle in on the Wheaties curve, he might retire, leaving you to start your quest from scratch. But, that’s another story.

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