Commentary

To each his own

No bond in sports is stronger than the one between an NHL player and his stick

Originally Published: March 10, 2010
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the March 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Bruce Boudreau is thinking about tea.

It's early on a cold winter morning in Arlington, Va., and with practice about to start, the coach of the red-hot Capitals has a million things on his mind. As Boudreau makes his way to the ice, a fan reaches over a gate and hands him an old hockey stick. It's dingy and bulky enough to pass for a railroad tie, but without hesitating, Boudreau stops and cradles the wood stick in his hands. Hockey players and their sticks form the most sacred connection in sports, and by the time Boudreau closes his fingers around the familiar teardrop-shape knob of white tape at the stick's end, he knows: This one was his. Instantly he's transported to a kitchen in the heart of Toronto during the greatest hockey season of his life.

In 1974-75, while playing for the Toronto Marlboros, the Maple Leafs' junior team, Boudreau and his sticks scored an astronomical 165 points. Before games, the 20-year-old Boudreau would sit in his kitchen and customize the fiberglass curve of his weapon by carefully steaming it over a teakettle. Then he'd wedge it under a door hinge and bend it until it was perfect, race outside and plunge it into the snow to set the blade. With the kettle at a boil, he'd have a cup of tea while waiting for the snow to complete its work. "Even after 35 years, when I felt that stick in my hands and saw the blade, I instinctively knew it was mine," says Boudreau. "Hockey players have always been a little crazy about their sticks. We're different, I guess. Our sticks become a part of our DNA."

Although the connection rarely reaches such depths, most professional athletes have complex relationships with their equipment. Tennis legend Ivan Lendl always switched rackets at the ball change (every seventh and ninth games). Ted Williams used to go to the Louisville Slugger factory every spring and spend hours inspecting wood samples to find the perfect piece for his bats. The ties that bind are especially strong when the equipment in question is an implement -- be it stick, mallet, racket or club. Just ask Phil Mickelson, who, until recently, was exploiting a loophole in USGA rules so he could continue using a 20-year-old wedge that would have otherwise been illegal.

But in no other sport does the connection between athlete and equipment involve contact with the tongue. Hockey players have always been superstitious, dunking sticks into toilets or garbage cans before games for good luck. They also use athletic tape as if they were tattoo artists, branding each blade and knob with a unique style and pattern. Then, last winter, after watching teammate Maxime Talbot spit on his stick for luck, Pittsburgh's Tyler Kennedy became a YouTube sensation when a camera caught him giving his stick a tongue bath after a shift against Florida. "Tyler Kennedy's stick is made of peppermint!" posted Deadspin. Go ahead and gag. Kennedy and his cohorts will only shrug and point out that he scored two goals in that game.

Modern sticks are made of aerospace-grade carbon fiber that is five times stronger than steel and two times stiffer, making slap shots north of 100 mph commonplace.

It was a onetime gesture for Kennedy, but no more disgust-causing than sucking on a finger after a pin prick would be for the rest of us. "To a hockey player sticks aren't equipment," says Caps star Alex Ovechkin. "They are a piece of your body." That's in no small part a function of time spent in close contact. In no other major league sport does an athlete spend so many hours cradling his or her, ahem, implement. Counting practice, the typical NHL player holds his stick for nearly 15 hours a week during the season, versus roughly three (counting batting practice) for the average MLB player. By comparison, a typical married father in the U.S. spends less than seven hours per week with his kids.


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