Ice hockey blog: Rod Sarich goes through a mid-life Stick Crisis

Unorthodox use of the 'broom' by Roddy
Unorthodox use of the 'broom' by Roddy

Rod Sarich - arugably the most unusual ice hockey blogger in the world.

The Canadian-born Sheffield Steelers' defenceman has a unique eye on life, as we have witnessed with his previous blogs.

Steelers in action this weekend

Steelers in action this weekend

Here is his latest contribution.

It is probably his finest - and wackiest - work to date.....

“Select your weapon.”

'Those may not have been the exact words my dad used when he took me to pick out a new hockey stick for the beginning of my first season in novice hockey (ages 10-11), but that’s more or less what I heard.

The local Co-op petrol station/hardware store in the small Saskatchewan town of Davidson, where I played my minor hockey, didn’t have as large a selection as the stores in the city but there was enough on show for me to waste a good half an hour perusing the armoury.

Proper consideration was necessary; it was a big decision as you were only likely to get one or two new sticks per season.

You could go for performance and select a lightweight Sherwood Feather Lamb - maybe one with a highly illegal Steve Yzerman curve, to finally get your feeble ten-year-old attempts at a slap shot off of the ice, thus achieving temporary legendary status in the fifth grade.

However, these sticks were notorious for breaking and you ran the risk of that fat kid from Kenaston, one of our many small rival towns, chopping your stick and breaking it in the first week of the season. Very risky. Unless you could predict that Santa would show mercy and come to your rescue with a mid season restocking of wooden armaments, then your best bet was to choose a heavy duty Torspo.

As left over stock from the 70’s, these brutes were nigh indestructible. You could forget the glory of going “top shelf” but, barring being struck by lightning, one of these behemoths was guaranteed to last two, if not three, seasons. If fact, I think there’s still a few of these relics back on the family farm, propping up a corner of the barn.

The point is, the selection of the right stick has always been an important decision. Even more so when you’re a professional and your job has a certain level of dependency on how well you get along with your equipment. You need the right tool to do the job, right? Well, kind of.

In terms of all the kit that hockey players lug around, sticks and skates, and possibly gloves, are the most important items regarding performance and success on the ice - the rest of the stuff has more to do with survival.

Comparable to golf clubs, sticks can be supplied with all kinds of lies, lofts and varying shaft stiffness. Professional golfers will fine tune the lies, adjust the grips, alter stiffness, and make a hundred other small adjustments in a search of the precise feel and performance required of their tools in order for them to get the job done. Of course they must also have the requisite amount of skill to begin with, practice continuously in order shoot consistently low scores, and some of them are probably talented enough to shoot under par while drunk, blindfolded and wearing oven mitts, but to get the edge over the rest of the equally talented field, they need to have, very specifically, the right tools.

The same is true for hockey players and their sticks.

Admittedly, some players might be better off with a spatula in their hands than a stick (my own stickhandling feels increasingly closer to flipping burgers every season) but you can’t expect your goal scorers to go down the wing at high speed and one time a cross ice pass just over the goalie’s shoulder to win the game in the dying seconds if they’re having a Stick Crisis while skating up the ice. The term “Stick Crisis” may not be officially documented, yet, but I assure you this is a real thing.

Back to the comparison to golf equipment, the one major difference between golf clubs and hockey sticks is the face. The face of a golf club is necessarily flat. For the aforementioned reasons of 5th grade celebrity, a hockey stick blade is not.

Some players will spend an entire career in search of the “right curve”.

The biggest reason for this is that the damn stick manufacturers keep changing the names and stock curve patterns. The Steve Yzerman No. 2 curve you spent your entire youth mastering, was likely, without warning, “updated” to what is now known as a Patrick Kane K1001SJL007WPPK747 and looks more like something belonging to a jai alai court than a hockey rink. It’s precisely these kind of unsolicited changes lead players towards distrusting and unhealthy relationships with their equipment - a.k.a. “Stick Crisis”.

Of course if your curve had you vexed and it was the 80’s, you were most likely using a wooden stick and it wasn’t actually that big of an issue. If you had a blowtorch to hand, the wooden blades were easily altered. More heal curve required? Not a problem. Just heat it up, apply your foot, and voila, you’ve got a new heel curve. But be careful though, too much heat and the fibreglass wood assembly would separate, leaving your stick in ruin. Not something you want to have to explain to your old man after he’s just shelled out for a new twig.

And if it wasn’t the curve that was the problem but the lie, then you could always break out the hand plane, or file, and have a go. If anything, the minor hockey program in Davidson, Saskatchewan turned out some master junior carpenters.

Yet another source of anxiety could be the height of the stick. I played with a guy in Louisiana who was paranoid about the length of his stick (insert joke here…). He would swear that his sticks were either too long or too short - and we’re talking fractions of a millimetre here. He’d even go so far as to take into consideration whether his recent skate sharpening had reduced the steel of his skates, thus carrying him around the ice at a hair’s width lower than the previous week, and therefore he should file off a bit more from the end of his stick with the belt sander to compensate! And regarding his curve, well this was simply too important an issue for him to address personally.

This was a specialist job that required outsourcing.

He would cordially invite the assistant equipment trainer over to his apartment ever Friday evening to alter the curves of his sticks in preparation for the weekend fixtures. I believe I’ve already mentioned that hockey players are a superstitious bunch; apparently the young trainer had provided what he thought was a one off emergency favour by curving a blade for our paranoid friend mid-game to replace a broken stick. However, a subsequent goal resulting from the charitably furnished curve meant that in reality he had signed a season long contract of kitchen carpentry which would result in an unhealthy dependency on red meat - the young protégé’s work was done over the hot elements of the kitchen stove and he was paid in cooked steak and subpar Caesar salad.

Luckily for our kitchen hostage, it wasn’t long before wooden hockey sticks went the way of the Dodo.

More recently stick materials have shifted almost exclusively to reinforced carbon fibre composite and offer twice the performance at a fraction of the weight. And although you can no longer blow torch yourself to a new curve, and you may have to sell one of your kids to purchase one of these extremely expensive sticks isn’t likely to change anytime soon. No one is going back to wood. The light weight and improved performance of these new sticks has turned even the scrawniest youth players into pre-pubescent rocket launchers.

Currently every kid in middle school is going top shelf. Recalling a time when a 10 year old couldn’t even lift a wooden senior stick off the ground, my fifth grade self weeps.

But although composite sticks have recently revolutionised the way players shoot the puck but they weren’t the first great technological leap.

The first true step away from wood was the introduction of aluminium shafts with wooden blades. After the initial higher cost of the shaft, this meant that wooden blades we’re much cheaper to replace. Furthermore, by comparison, if the trusty Torspo 2x4 was propping up the barn, then a first generation aluminium shaft might well have been a steel girder - indestructible in the hands of fifth grader.

Sure they might bend a bit over time, but all you had to do was flip the thing over and suddenly you were back in business, albeit with a slightly warped looking stick. And to add to the allure of the new technology, they even came supplied with gold paint jobs!

In the early 90’s I recall going to watch an NHL preseason game in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (this is a real place) between the Minnesota North Stars and Calgary Flames. During the second intermission my dad and my brother got up to go get something to eat and left me to save our seats and “watch the coats”. I know what you’re thinking, as if I’d miss out on a trip to the hotdog stand! But don’t worry - I’d placed my order for delivery. We’d been sitting in the corner of the arena, near where the Zamboni entered the ice, about ten rows up.

I was staring off into space, ruminating about that fat kid from Kenaston and how I could get my revenge, when I felt a strange tap on the shoulder. Someone standing near the tractor door was poking me with a hockey stick, trying to get my attention for the purpose of asking me if I’d like to come down on the ice with two other contestants to have a chance to win a signed, golden, Mike Modano Easton stick. They had drawn seat numbers but the third contestant hadn’t shown up – so, as I was sitting nearby, the intermission host was asking me if I’d be willing to be a last second replacement.

Yeah, Golden Mike Modano Easton, I think I kind of would.

So there I am out on the ice, standing at the near blue line waiting my turn to take a shot on goal, which was loosely being tended by the local mascot, Helmutt.

He was a large dog… who didn’t wear a helmet?!

The first contestant, a middle aged woman, took the stick in her hands and, holding it like a broom, managed to both slide the puck a pathetic 15 feet and, at the same time, expose herself as quite possibly the only person in our small perpetually frozen province to go 30 plus years with out encountering the winter sport of ice hockey.

Calculating that the contest was now down to myself and the other remaining participant, a young teenage girl, I allowed my self a smug inward smile of confidence - they didn’t know that I was an actual hockey player. My brother was going to be so jealous.

I snatched the broom and began stick handling the puck, getting a feel for things. As luck would have it, it was a Sherwood Feather Lamb! But it wasn’t my curve, which made me a bit

nervous. And it may have been a touch to long for my height. But I was starting to zone in.

The guy orchestrating this bit of inter-period entertainment must have noticed my skilful burger flipping because he leant over and whispered in my ear “You look pretty good with a stick, I bet you could go top shelf “.

A bit creepy to be whispering in a 10 year old’s ear perhaps, but it certainly had an effect – the delusions of grandeur were quick to take hold.

That’s exactly what I was going to do – I was going to wrist one top shelf from the blue line, win myself a signed golden Mike Modano Easton and, in front of all the big league GMs and scouts, solidify myself a contract in the NHL. No big deal.

I gathered puck back in my stance and let rip at the dog. Well I tell you, the man in the dog suit must have been a David Copperfield, or some other of conjurer of the dark arts, because

somehow, magically, the goal ended up five feet left of where I’d shot! Disaster! There was never a blowtorch when you needed one!

I was devastated. I’d blown it in front of 10,000 people. Some of my friends were guaranteed to have been at the game too. I could only pray they were all still in line for a hotdog. I stood there in shock as Helmutt played up the crowd and mocked my errant attempt.

You’d think it couldn’t get any worse, but it did. The final contestant, that 13 year old girl, grabbed the stick from my now feeble hands, dropped a puck on the blue line and proceeded to

unleash a crowd stunning slapshot at the net, a laser beam, two and half feet off the ice the whole way, which beat Helmut on the stick side.

Bloody Hayley Wickenheiser!

Where was my hotdog?!!!'