Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hockey South of the Border: The Man Behind Big Z's Slapshot

Mike McGrath knows what it takes to put the puck in the net.

Quick -- make a mental list of the top 5 most important places in hockey.

Ok, time's up. Chances are your list included Toronto, Montreal, and three states that start with "M". Maybe you threw in Moose Jaw, just for fun. But as Mike McGrath can tell you, you're not a real hockey insider unless your list includes Tijuana.

Yes, that Tijuana. It's the birthplace of nearly 60% of the NHL's composite sticks, the space-age technology that has altered the boundaries of possibility for players as diverse as Zdeno Chara and Joe Sakic. Composite sticks are perhaps the most revolutionary piece of hockey equipment since the goalie mask.

McGrath has spent the past 10 years as Pro Hockey Product Manager for Easton, the world's largest composite stick manufacturer. He spoke with me via telephone from Easton's plant in Tijuana, which turns out 7,000 sticks in a typical week -- including personalized sticks for some of the NHL's biggest stars.

HCTB: The audience might be surprised to find out that the majority of NHL sticks are made in Mexico.

MM: You know, it's funny. Back when it was wood sticks, they were all made in and around Quebec. But since we've moved to composite shafts, there's been a shift toward San Diego, and across the border in Mexico. There's now a slow migration toward China, but for now most composite sticks are made in this area.

HCTB: What's the state of the game in Tijuana... are the locals aware of ice hockey?

MM: Not really. I don't think they have any idea about how important the area is for us... there are no ice rinks in Tijuana, just a little roller hockey.

*Easton isn't the only brand which has moved its operations outside of US and Canadian borders. Warrior also produces its sticks in Tijuana. Nike/Bauer and RBK/CCM make their composite sticks in China. *

HCTB: For youth and amateur players, composite sticks can be cost-prohibitive. Do you forsee a future in which they can be produced cheaply, and made more widely available?

MM: We're always striving to bring price points down. You kinda get stuck in providing the highest performing product, because that's where we get the most demand. But the retail side encourages our engineers to get passionate about providing products in the $29.99 range. Everyone's trying to pace themselves down so that we don't cannibalize our higher end products. Eventually you have to start using cheaper and cheaper materials. The challenge is to design less expensive equipment that can still perform.

*In this year's playoffs, several Bruins used Easton sticks: Zdeno Chara, Michael Ryder, Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward, PJ Axelsson, Steve Montador, and Vlad Sobotka. They combined for 28 points in 11 games. *

HCTB: If you're in a pro shop, what do you look for in a stick?

MM: I look at two things: durability and performance. You're going to get more mileage out of certain models. The size of the player and the style of play, even at the amateur level... some kids are so big nowadays that they have to get more durability out of a stick. The size of the players and the force of the impact really affects the durability.

Z, you might want to send Mike McGrath a Christmas card this year.

HCTB: At the All-Star Game back in February, the Bruins' Zdeno Chara broke the longstanding slapshot record using an Easton S15. What was going through your head when you saw that?

MM: We [at Easton] had done well on accuracy and skating already, so when we saw it was down to Souray, Shea [Weber] and Z, we got pretty excited because they all use our sticks. I was at the game with the general manager and when Z broke the record we were all very excited, to put it mildly.

Chara's stick is unique because of the length -- we have to engineer it for the full 60 inches. Basically the stick we build for him is two times as stiff as for any other player. We provided him with 20 sticks, with 3 flex models that he can change according to how he feels. So he uses a different stick at the beginning of the season, or when he's injured because his body feels a little different.

*The top 3 shooters in the Hardest Shot competition used McGrath's sticks. So did 5th-place Mark Streit. *

HCTB: Without revealing trade secrets, what is Easton doing to improve the quality of its sticks?

MM: There's a different stiffness to each model. We make a particular region of the shaft stiffer and softer to have a smoother and nicer feel. Each has a unique profile, and we always work back to a profile that the players like.

HCTB: Broken sticks have been a growing issue in the NHL. How do you respond to criticism that sticks are breaking too frequently?

MM: We had a horrible run in 2004 with the Wild, where a lot of shafts were breaking, and that traced to a materials issue. After that the NHL actually implemented a drop-test that the sticks now have to pass before they can be used.

I wouldn't agree that breakage has increased. When you see a stick breaking on a pass, something like that, you know it had to have been compromised already, and that was just the last straw. And right now the challenge is to provide lighter products, not necessarily more durability. That's what teams are demanding today.

"You know it had to have been compromised already." Either that or AO has really been working on his torque.

HCTB: Will we get to a point at which NHL players choose their stick based on the game situation, similar to the way a golfer chooses his clubs? For example, choosing a longer and sturdier stick during a penalty kill.

MM: We currently do make some situational sticks. I can't go into detail, but we're already doing it. There are more than 10 guys in the league right now using them. I hope it spreads because we have the facility to do it as a competitve advantage. It keeps us in the lead because we can go that extra mile. The higher level of customization I can provide my players, the more difficult it is for other companies to go after them.

HCTB: How do you feel about propositions to end the "illegal curve" rule in order to increase scoring?

MM: Ovechkin has what I consider one of the bigger curves. It really adds to the velocity that a stick can propel the puck. But Sid has a pretty flat blade and you see what he can do.

The thing that will keep it in check is when the owner sees a guy missing pucks, he'll go down and start asking questions. He'll want to know why a guy is missing passes, not able to make certain plays. I've seen it done. There are so many things you have to do in a game, you just can't get away with it [having an extreme curve].

HCTB: Which player has the most unusual stick configuration?

MM: Out of 370 players, probably 50 have a special designed blade or shaft. Joe Sakic has a special soft blade and a specially designed shaft. The only players who use it need to get special permission to use his pattern. Right now there are only 3 guys in the league who have done it.

*Note: Caps defenseman Mike Green used a Stealth S17 modelled after Joe Sakic's pattern... until it was discontinued during the playoffs. After scoring 31 goals in 68 games during the regular season, he tallied only once in 14 playoff games. *

HCTB: Finally, we're down to the Final Four. Who are you cheering for?

MM: You know, I'm really just cheering for the sport.... we get these millionaire guys on the ice, but when he scores a goal and you see his face up close, he looks like a 10-year-old kid on an ice pond. You don't really see that in other sports, not in the same way. These guys have a passion that is just different than anything you've ever seen. I really believe the speed and power and grace of this game will hook anyone if they can see it in person... that's why I cheer for the sport.

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