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NHL players picky about their equipment

| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007

Penguins forward Petr Sykora may have the most recognizable and unique stick in the NHL.

It has a royal blue shaft, and instead of a rounded end to the blade, his has a straight edge that is perpendicular to the ice.

And he's never really happy about it.

"I work on my stick daily," Sykora said. "I try up-shoe, down-shoe, a little bit more toe curve, and I don't have the same stick every day. I just go with what feels right."

Welcome to the world of hockey stick terminology, which sounds confusing to fans but not to the NHL's best, who take these things seriously.

Up-shoe is when the break in the curve of a stick begins toward the toe. Down-shoe is when the break starts toward the heel. Toe curve is the bend in the blade.

To get his stick just so, it takes Sykora hours of tedious work and examination. There are even times when he changes things during games.

"I just go to the game, and if I score a goal, I'll think that it's because I had a little up-shoe, and that's why I scored the goal, so the next day I come into practice and try to work on it," Sykora said.

"Sometimes it feels long or short, and I'm never happy. Sometimes I change sticks between periods if it feels too long, and I'll make it shorter by like half a millimeter so I can get it in my head that it feels good."

Believe it or not, all of this comes after the stick companies receive a template for each player's curve preference and produce each stick to their exact specifications.

"Some guys like (Evgeni) Malkin aren't very picky, so once he finds one, all he wants to do is tape it up and go, and it's that simple, where other guys are in there working feverishly on these things," Penguins equipment manager Dana Heinze said. "With the curves, every single guy has his niche in what he likes, and who knows why?"

Options aplenty

Though it may sound as if Sykora has gone off the deep end in regards to his stick work, he's not alone. Nearly every NHL player has some kind of quirk about his stick, shaft or blade.

Whether it's an old-fashioned single-piece wood stick such as the one used by Georges Laraque, the composite shaft with the wooden blade insert preferred by team captain Sidney Crosby, or the one-piece composite stick of center Maxime Talbot, every player has an idiosyncrasy.

Crosby may be as picky as anyone about his blades. Every time he receives a shipment, he'll sit in the equipment room going through up to 72 a day. He discards many before finally coming up with a select few that suit his needs.

"I like my stick to be pretty straight, so if there's any bit of curve on it, I try to make it straight as possible," Crosby said. "The ones you buy in a store are never the same pattern, but the one I used to use growing up was Wendel Clark, and it was a little bigger curve than what I use now. My dad always told me to use a straighter stick because you learn the technique of shooting a lot more with a straighter stick and, if you have a curve, you might try to flick the puck and try to put it upstairs (on the goal) all the time."

Ahead of the curve

According to NHL rules, a player is allowed to have up to three-quarters of an inch of curve on his stick blade. That curvature was increased from the half-inch allowed by the league before the 2004-05 lockout.

If a player is caught using an illegal stick during a game, he will be assessed a minor penalty. But the last time that happened to a Penguins player was Nov. 29, 2003, when defenseman Marc Bergevin was sent off 23 seconds into the second period of a 4-3 loss to Carolina.

However, that shouldn't happen again anytime soon.

"We have a team rule when (general manager) Ray Shero came on board that every player's stick has to be legal, and the manufacturers know that we don't accept sticks that aren't legal," Heinze said. "Last year when (Malkin) came on board, his curves were a little illegal, and immediately, we had to work with him, and that was hard because European players are used to that huge curve, and they can handle the puck like that."

A stick's curvature is measured from the heel to the toe, but that doesn't necessarily mean the actual curve starts at the heel. Some players prefer that their curve begins all the way at the back of the stick (down-shoe), while others allow the blade to go straight, then taper more as it goes more toward the toe (up-shoe).

"There's some weirdos out there when it comes to their sticks, I'll tell you that," New York Rangers center Scott Gomez said. "Some guys have the same curve their whole career, and some of them switch, but it's different. It all depends on how you're going and what you're doing."

Changing times

One of the differences between today and 10 years ago has been the influx of composite blades. Because they're not made of wood that can be made malleable with a blowtorch, there is a tendency for them to crack under extreme heat.

That doesn't mean players don't try. But even though a player may like the curve he's using now, it doesn't mean that was the way it's always been.

"The longer you play, you change it a bit, because when I first started, I had a way different curve," Carolina center Rod Brind'Amour said. "I had more of a heel curve when I was younger, but when I played with Brett Hull (in St. Louis) ... especially as a young kid, you want to do what he was doing, so I tried to get more of a toe curve, but it just changes. As a centerman, I don't necessarily get a lot of shots, so I want one I can handle a little better, so I take the curve out."

A change in position can necessitate a curve alteration. But whatever the case, players will find an excuse to fuss over their stick.

"Over the last few years, I've been expected to get one-timers on the power play, so I made my stick to hit the puck as hard as I can," Sykora said. "Maybe I gave up a little on my backhand and when the ice is bad, my stick gets really whippy, so it's hard to pick up passes and stuff like that, so you have to really find yourself in a situation where you're comfortable with your stick.

Not that Sykora -- or anyone else, for that matter -- ever really is.

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