As is often the case with history, there are varying opinions about the origins of the game of hockey. Historians can generally agree, however, on the origins of the hockey stick from its earliest beginnings to the technological wonders used by players of the game today. Originally resembling something more akin to a field hockey stick, the sticks of today have undergone quite a metamorphosis from their early days.
The very first hockey sticks originated from an Irish sport known as hurling, which has been argued to be the predecessor to the sport of hockey itself. Early hockey sticks were made during the mid-19th century. They were one-piece sticks carved entirely out of ironwood (also known as hornbeam wood) by members of the Mi'kmaq Indian Tribe. Ironwood was valued for its sturdy weight and strength, both a result of the close grain of the wood. At this time, it was also used to create handles for tools, mallets and other things, which contributed to the eventual scarcity of the wood. Wooden sticks continued to be used all throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, when the wood became scarce and, as a result, expensive. Further, the demand for these sticks outstripped the Mi'kmaqs' ability to keep up. As a result, companies began to manufacture hockey sticks at this time, including The Starr Manufacturing company. Starr Manufacturing had already been making hockey skates, so the foray into making hockey sticks was a natural progression. Because ironwood was scarce now, other materials needed to be sourced. Hardwoods like ash and yellow birch were more plentiful and more reasonably priced and were therefore a good choice. Before long, ash was the wood of choice for hockey sticks. They were very durable, but also very heavy.
Famously, "Moose" Johnson carried an ash stick that measured a whopping 99 inches in length! He used that supersized stick to help bring two teams, the Victoria Cougars and the Montreal Wanderers, to the coveted Stanley Cup. In the 1927-28 NHL season, the League instituted a rule that capped the allowable length of a hockey stick at a maximum of 63 inches.
In 1927, Cy Denneny created the first of what came to be known as the "banana blade." Up until this point, hockey sticks featured a straight blade. Denneny bent his blade in an attempt to increase the accuracy of his shots, but National Hockey League players did not start using curved blades as a general rule until the 1960s. It was at this time that Stan Mikita's stick broke during a practice and he found that playing with the broken (and consequently curved) stick actually improved his play. Soon after, curved-blade sticks were used by players throughout the National Hockey League. That tradition continues today.
In the 1940s, hockey stick manufacturers began to laminate the wood used to make sticks. That means that instead of creating a stick out of one solid piece of wood, layers of wood were glued together to create a more flexible and lighter stick. The laminate process also added a snap or a springiness to the stick that was missing from solid-construction sticks. In the 1960s, manufacturers went one step further by coating the laminated sticks with synethetic coatings such as fiberglass.
In the 1970s, companies began to manufacture sticks that were partly wood laminate and party aluminum. They featureed an aluminum shaft and a wood or composite blade. Aluminum sticks are durable but they feel quite heavy in the hands, which is why most players in the NHL don't use them today. The same can be said about fiberglass sticks. Although they are light, they are vulnerable to breakage and are not currently used by anyone in the NHL.
In the 1980s, the first completely non-wooden sticks where made and used in the NHL. These sticks were fashioned out of aluminum, making them much lighter than wooden sticks. Further, these new sticks were more durable than wooden sticks (which broke easily) and the blades could be replaced as they were separate from the shaft of the stick. These sticks were more cost-effective because when a blade split, it could be replaced without having to replace the entire stick. In addition, because it was no longer necessary to source pieces of wood large enough to fashion a one-piece stick, the cost of production was reduced significantly. In an effort to lend credibility to this new kind of stick, superstar Wayne Gretzky was signed to an endorsement deal by one of the manufacturers of aluminun sticks. The thinking was, if it was good enough for Gretzky, imagine what it could do for other players!
The 1990s ushered in the era of the carbon fiber stick in the NHL. Like the original aluminum sticks, the carbon fiber sticks were composed of two parts - a carbon fiber shaft and a composite blade. These sticks were popular because they combine the best of wooden sticks (the springiness) and of aluminum sticks (the durability and precision). These sticks can also be made to specific flex specifications, which means that all kinds of shots - from wrist shots to slap shots - can be improved by using this kind of stick. Because they are constructed from a variety of different kinds of materials, it is easy to swap in or out different materials to customize the stick for each player. The downside of carbon fiber sticks, however, is that they are expensive to make and easily broken.
The sticks of today
Today, most NHL players use sticks that are made of a composite material. In other words, the sticks are not made up of a single material (such as wood or aluminum). Instead, they are made of a combination of materials such as titanium and graphite. These sticks have become the standard because the materials used to make them create a lightweight and flexible stick, allowing players to shoot with both power and accuracy. Unfortunately, composite sticks are also vulnerable to breakage, requiring replacement several times over the course of an average NHL season.
~Will in Denver
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