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Evan Grossman | Staff Writer
Feb 11, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

Nobody gets a bigger kick out of the idea that NHL nets need to go bigger in order to improve offense than today’s equipment manufacturers. With the cutting-edge hockey gear that companies are pumping out quicker than machine gun fire, the idea of bigger targets is just laughable to these guys.

It is, after all, their job to come up with new and innovative products for hockey players that will maximize performance on the ice. With the space-age technology going into the current generation of equipment, making hockey nets larger would create a ridiculously unfair advantage for anyone with a stick in their hands or a pair of skates on their feet because the new gear is so much more scientifically advanced than anything we’ve seen before.

Sticks have been turned into one-piece rocket launchers. Sweaters have morphed into sophisticated, aerodynamic uniform systems that will make players faster, drier and better protected. Skates are turning into composite moon boots that will allow players to skate harder than ever before. Gloves, pads, helmets are all getting lighter and stronger, all combining to create the fastest and most powerful game ever played on ice.

So to think about inflating the nets, on top of all that, seems a little unfair. If anything, maybe the nets should get smaller.

The hockey equipment business generates millions of dollars every year and demand for new and exciting gear has companies churning out more and more new stuff each season. Every time a new product hits the shelves of your favorite hockey supply superstore, there are likely a dozen more in production in laboratories and testing facilities around the world. Golf is a game that’s been dramatically transformed over the last 20 years because of the singular impact of the technological advancement of the game.

On the golf course, players can hit it further, straighter and more consistently than ever before. What’s happening on the ice isn’t much different.

“Look at how far golf has come using the composite technology,” Ned Goldsmith, Easton’s vice president of hockey told “And they’re 15 years ahead of us. I think there is still more that can be done. It’s funny, when the composite sticks came out, hockey is a pretty traditional sport, and the old school said, ‘What the heck are these things?’ and, ‘Why do we need them? Guys are going to be shooting 300 miles an hour,’ and I think they missed the point. It’s not that guys are shooting harder, it’s that guys can get great shots off without having to take a full slap shot, in less time, sometimes with one hand on the stick. It’s helped them create these highlight reels.

“Same as golf,” Goldsmith says. “Yes, there were some distance improvements, but now a lot of what you get is optimizing so that you don’t have to hit it absolutely perfectly and still get that distance. So I think that’s really what the opportunity is with sticks, which is very much in line, certainly with what we think the NHL wants to do, and that’s put the puck in the net. It’s in its infancy if you think about it. Wood has been around for so long, but composite sticks are really relatively young.”

Easton has been the top name in hockey sticks for years. The company has always been on the cutting edge, whether it was in producing the first aluminum sticks in the 1980’s, the first one-piece composite twigs a few years ago, or the soon-to-be released composite hockey skates. Easton remains the most popular hockey stick used by NHL players and has maintained its standing at the top of the equipment game by continually improving on its products.

The new line of Synergy products will hit the market this year with an accent on making gear stronger and lighter than ever before. In addition to their sticks, gloves and protective equipment, Easton will roll out the Stealth Skate line that takes traditional stick composites and turns them into skates to produce some of the lightest footwear ever produced.

Goldsmith compares what they do at Easton with the playful shadiness of one of your grandmother’s recipes, but in reality, what hockey companies are working on for the future are guarded as closely as some CIA secrets. Warrior is reluctant to say much about its high-speed motion analysis system similar to the cutting-edge technology golf companies like Titleist use to design their products, same as Easton is tight-lipped when discussing their own production and testing facility. An internet video showing how Easton makes their sticks and tests the strength of their product refers several times to not being able to show much of the process because it includes top-secret material.

“We’re the composites company,” Goldsmith said. “We were really an aluminum and composites company before we were a hockey company. And so when you look at our line, we’ve launched a composite skate that is a very radical piece of equipment. It completely breaks the rules of what’s out there. It’s lighter than any other product by a long shot. So you have a lighter product, but it’s also more protective.

“Literally, it looks like a composite slipper that fits around your foot with a little bit of leather on it,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about it. We’ve grown to about 100 players in the league with the skate. We were really not a meaningful player in the skates three or four years ago, but today we are very much a meaningful player, and growing. This is really in its infancy. Its two years into the market. If you look at what we’ve done with sticks and if you just track what normally happens, we will probably be the first ones to a 600-gram skate, which will really be an accomplishment. And in sticks, I think that there is still room for performance improvement.”

While skate and pad advancements have been speeding up the game and cutting down on hockey injuries, the centerpiece of the hockey gear business always will be sticks. They are the most visible product when watching games on TV and hockey sticks are generally the most readily available product in pro shops around the world. Because the one-piece and composite stick technology is relatively new (hockey has been around for 100 years, but some new sticks have been in existence for less than 10) equipment manufacturers are revolutionizing the game on nearly a daily basis.

“That’s kind of our MO as a company,” Goldsmith said. “Everybody was playing with wood sticks and we came out with aluminum. Other people started to go to aluminum, we went to composites. People went to composites, we went to a one-piece.”

One of the most interesting new stick designs this year comes from Reebok/CCM. The 9KO model, popularized over the last month by Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk, has gotten loads of attention for the holes bored in the shaft right above the blade. A little like the old Mylec street hockey sticks, the 9KO was designed to be more aerodynamic, lighter and stronger than traditional composite one-piece designs.

“I like it,” Datsyuk said, though he didn’t talk about the new twig too much because, “it’s a secret.”

Easton remains the NHL’s most popular stick, but the competitive equipment market saw a new power emerge in the last two years with the arrival of Warrior, which has quickly become the league’s second most popular stick. Originally a lacrosse shaft company that helped to revolutionize that game with the creation of titanium handles that allowed players to shoot harder and throw more effective checks, Warrior got into hockey prior to the 2005-06 season. In just one year, players around the league were picking up Warrior sticks with more frequency and some of the biggest names in the game were lighting the lamp with the outrageously loud designs and colors.

“I started used them last year,” Atlanta’s Slava Kozlov said. “It’s a small company and they made very good sticks in the beginning. This year they started making new colors. Last year, I used a yellow one and this year I tried the blue ones. It’s good marketing for the kids. If kids like it, they buy it in the store. The new, flashier colors I think they sell very well in the store for the kids.”

Warrior sticks are loud. They have wild names like the Mac Daddy, Dolomite and AK27. Players were hesitant to use the products at first and were sometimes razzed by teammates for using bright sticks with wild graphics. But as in any sport, players began to look around and see others using the sticks and they almost became an overnight sensation.

“We haven’t reinvented the graphic world in general, but we’ve done some things that a lot of people were scared to do and just shown that you can have fun with it and can be crazy with it,” Warrior designer Isaac Garcia says. “It’s what the kids want. It’s not just about the Monday night, over-16 league anymore.”

While Easton boasts a client list with names like Jarome Iginla, Peter Forsberg and Chris Drury using their stuff, Warrior gained popularity when guys like Brendan Shanahan, Ilya Kovalchuk and Chris Pronger became loyal users.

“It’s not about cool,” Warrior user Alex Kovalev said. “A lot of players are having problems with sticks that break too often or get weak too quick. There’s a lot of problems, but like anything else, when something comes along and the players like it, consistency is what’s most important. When you’re getting sticks, for example, and they’re not coming consistently with the same shape blade or anything else, players start looking for something else to be more comfortable. But so far, they’ve been a company that can always fix the problem, always looking forward.”

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