As a boy growing up in the 1960's and 70's, I played hockey. I played on the outdoor rink, on the indoor rink, on the street, on the frozen river, in the basement, in the living room,…..everywhere, all the time. And the hockey stick was the most precious of possessions. Not only because it was very costly for my parents at $5-$10 each, but because there was something special about where it came from, how it was made, how it felt and how it made me feel. The hockey stick was revered by all of us like a magic wand would be revered by a wizard. The hockey stick was made of wood. Well of course it was. It was a "Stick" after all. Why would we think it would be made of anything else? It was a CCM, Sherwood, Victoriaville, Koho or Jofa. For those in the USA, it was likely a Northlands. It may come with a curve or not. If it didn''t, then you would have to learn how the wood and fibreglass coating would respond to the heat of the blow torch and, also how much torque was required when plying the blade into a curve in the door jam. As a goaltender I didn't see a curve until the late 70's.
I don't know what it was but there seemed to be a connection between the harshness of the northern Canadian wilderness and the fact that the hockey stick had been extracted and crafted from that same environment. The hockey stick was truly a product of the spruce and fir that surrounded us. The "feel" of the stick was in it's weight, lie, smell, natural grain and the tape on the knob and blade. The sport got its start on frozen ponds and rivers and thus it made perfect sense that hockey would become a fabric of the winter culture of Canada, the northern snow-driven States of Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Illinois or the European Nations of Sweden, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.
A sport that closely resembles that of hockey is golf. Have you ever watched video of the golf legends, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player? At the same time hockey players were using wooden hockey sticks, these golf legends were using Drivers with a wooden head and plastic insert. They were in fact called "woods" for that very reason. When watching the swing techniques of Nicklaus and Palmer you could see how they "shaped" the ball by controlling the impact with their grip, stance and swing. In order to have success in golf you had to make precise contact to the small "sweet spot" of the driver. In today''s game the driver heads are huge and they do not require the precision and focus that the legends of the 50's - 80's had. Every golfer now looks the same, swinging the driver with as much club head speed as possible to make the ball go further. As opposed to the artistry displayed in 1972 by Trevino and Player who would hit the ball 250 yards and make the ball draw, fade or stream low under the wind. If you were watching a silhouette of each golfer you could tell who they were just from their individual stance and movement. Each golfer had a distinctive style and form.
This same individuality of form could be seen in the NHL goaltenders of the 1950's through the 1980's. Terry Sawchuk's deep crouch, Gump Worsley's two pad stack, Glenn Hall's butterfly, Tony Esposito's wide "A" frame, Ken Dryden's hands resting on the top of his stick and Grant Fuhr extending his trapper while doing the splits. There was an art to the game of hockey during this period. A dance. A majestic combination of speed, force and finesse. The great skating defence man, Paul Coffey, once said that he loved how Bobby Orr could change the pace of a game and in fact Mr. Coffey has said he tried to do that when he played. But that is not possible now. It's all one speed.
This speaks to the art of the game and the wooden hockey stick contributed to that. With the introduction of the new super lightweight hockey stick, I don't hear phrases like "nice touch with the puck" "nice feel for the puck" or "nice touch around the net". The "feel" is gone in more ways than one. I wonder if the light weight nature of the stick prohibits the player from having that feel. For example, I have watched young Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget players taking a pass differently than how we were taught. Rather than cradling the puck they are "stopping" it. As a result the puck often just bounces off the blade. I have witnessed this at the NHL level as well. Also, there is so much flex in the shaft that redirecting a puck on net from an angle is difficult. The flex causes the blade to change angle and we see players miss the net by a wide margin. Not to mention the countless times the stick just breaks at the slightest touch or contact with the puck, another stick or just the ice surface itself.
Change the equipment and you discover a different game. Case in point, the sport of baseball. The most crucial offensive weapon in baseball is the bat, as the stick is the offensive catalyst to hockey. The most significant change in baseball bats appeared in the 1970s with the advent of aluminum bats. They have never been permitted in Major League Baseball but are still used in the college leagues. "Aluminum bats are quite different than wooden ones. They're much lighter (more than 5 ounces), the barrels are bigger, and because they are lighter they can be swung faster" says George Manning, H & B Vice President of Technical Services. According to Manning, the most significant difference between wooden and aluminum bats is that " with the aluminum bat a phenomenon occurs called the 'trampoline effect'. The walls of the bat are thin enough that they deform or flex when the ball hits the bat. Some of the energy is transferred into the bat instead of the ball. That energy is almost totally elastic. Because of the trampoline effect you can hit the ball faster and farther.
The primary reason that aluminum bats are not allowed in Major League Baseball and that they have a "wooden bats only policy" is due to this performance difference. "The pro leagues want to protect their historical records, and they want the performance of the game to be the result of human ability and not the technology of the bats", says Manning.
Some of the college rules' committees of baseball are not only concerned about the integrity of the game but they are also concerned about safety. The high speed of the ball coming off the base of the bats has put pitchers in danger, as a line drive may be going too fast for them to react. And baseball organizations from college to Little League are considering a return to a "wooden bats only" policy.
So it appears that the people around professional baseball had tremendous foresight when they banned aluminum bats from entering their leagues. Unlike hockey which unfortunately has not had the foresight to anticipate these consequences on the game, ie. harder faster shots that can cause injury due to lack of reaction time, etc. And once they allowed the two-piece composite stick to replace the wooden stick, they opened Pandora's box and now it is "anything goes" as to what a manufacturer decides to use in the design and construction of the hockey stick.
I applaud the powers that be in baseball for understanding the significance of the wooden bat to their game and the impact that aluminum bats would have had on the legacy of their sport. It appears that there was not the same perspective by the custodians of professional hockey.
The impact on the game of hockey has been drastic. Some would argue that the impact is positive because the players can shoot harder. But is that necessarily a positive thing? In the days of the wooden hockey stick there were players that we looked forward to watching because they stood out from the pack with their big shot. It was their "human ability" that made them special. Players like "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, "Rocket" Richard, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Guy Lafleur in the 50's-70's. Then in the 80's and early 90's it was Al MacInnis, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. Now everyone from the 1st line player to the 4th line player can shoot the puck. As a consequence no one really stands out. And goaltenders need to protect themselves even more which leads to the oversized equipment they wear. I don't blame them. It would be madness for them to wear anything close to what was worn by goalies prior to 1995. And goalies have to face a thousand shots in practice too. I recall Hall of Famer, Glenn Hall talking about how much he hated practices with the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita firing 100 mph rubber at him 50 times a day.
In conclusion, I often think about what the game of hockey would look like had the wooden stick not been replaced. I think the players with the stronger shots would be more visible and appreciated. I think there would be fewer players waving their sticks up high around the opponent's head. I believe there would be less injuries from players' shots. I believe the goalies would have smaller equipment. And most importantly we would not have lost a piece of equipment that was essential to the very essence and character of the game.
I know we are in a different time and the game of hockey will always evolve. But when you hear a baby boomer talking about how they miss the way the game was played, maybe they are referring to the art of the game and the days when they played with a hockey "stick".