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Marketers Display Nifty Stick-Handling

Composite metal models are all the rage with pros and the public, but are they better than the wood variety -- and worth the money?

May 19, 2003|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

The grumbling that started early in the season has gathered all the momentum of a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot.

The Los Angeles Kings shelled out $57,000 more this year. The Minnesota Wild swallowed an additional $75,000. And the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who crushed the Wild on their run for the Stanley Cup, already have spent $100,000 more -- and counting.

Add yet another financial headache for the National Hockey League, which has already seen two of its franchises file for bankruptcy this year while others hemorrhage red ink: the soaring cost of hockey sticks.

NHL teams are feeling the economic hangover from a technological binge that has transformed a humble piece of sports equipment into a status symbol and marketing marvel.

What were simple wooden sticks that retailed for $30 are now designer creations that cost more than $170 and promise the ultimate in "flex points," shaft torque and Space Age metal alloys.

Some question whether the sticks give players a quicker, more powerful shot, as advertised. In a league that must pinch pennies to survive, however, there are more practical concerns, such as whether sticks crack too easily and cost too much to replace. A recently launched NHL study promises to examine stick breakage.

"The stick costs three times as much as a wood stick, and the problem is the durability isn't what it should be," said the Mighty Ducks' equipment manager, Mark O'Neill. "If you're paying that much for a stick, you'd think it would last longer."

A lot has changed in the world of hockey sticks. Sales of wood sticks, once the only game in town, now represent just a third of the $123-million North American market, industry figures show. Sales of composite metal models, such as the ones most NHL players use, have skyrocketed 500% since last year.

The story behind this shift serves as a parable for all of sports marketing, where the perceived advantage of using a certain shoe, racquet, club, glove or bat is as important as its actual performance. Time and again, a company reaps a financial benefit by developing a marginally better product and putting it in the hands of a world-class pro.

The trick for today's hockey stick manufacturer has been trying to strike a balance between creating an alloy stick light enough to give the velocity needed to rocket off a shot, yet strong enough to withstand the slashing that comes with the sport's brutal play. By league regulation, however, composite sticks must break under pressure as easily as wood -- to protect players from serious injury.

Until the early 1980s, the biggest innovation to the traditional wood-and-fiberglass hockey sticks was curving the blade. And when those blades broke, players had little alternative except to tape them up or throw out the entire stick.

That changed when a Van Nuys-based sports-equipment manufacturer known for its metal bats cast its eye on the stick market in 1981.

Restless for a new arena in which to flex its metallurgical muscle, Easton Sports Inc. devised a two-piece stick that promised to save players money with a hollow aluminum shaft fitted with replaceable wooden blades.

The stick received a lukewarm welcome in a marketplace that was used to the feel of a traditional stick. Easton turned to hockey great Wayne Gretzky for help after he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It signed him to an endorsement deal that put an Easton stick in his hand and kept it there, through his record-setting 802nd goal in 1994.

"Strategically, we realized that if we were going to be a hockey company, we had to get a little more exposure," said Ned Goldsmith, Easton's vice president for hockey. "So we signed the most famous hockey player in the world to endorse the product. That put us on the map."

Easton's sales jumped 30%, and the company had the makings of the star-based marketing formula that has helped it dominate the industry since 2000, when it introduced its first one-piece composite model, the Synergy. The stick weighed a third less than wood, was made of Kevlar and carbon and was engineered to have a flex point lower on the shaft than the traditional stick that helps disperse greater energy to the blade.

The privately held company selected a few NHL stars to carry its sticks, and eyeballs popped when one, Maple Leaf center Mats Sundin, scored with wicked slap shots. Other players soon began clamoring for the sticks. By Easton's count, 57% of the NHL now uses the Synergy or its latest model, the Si-Core.

"You're using a stick with more flex in it, a little whippier," said Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, also an Easton-sponsored athlete. "It flexes just like a slingshot. It's the same principle."

Consumers flocked to the stick too, wreaking havoc on a tradition-bound industry in which Nova Scotia Indians once hand-carved sticks from tree roots.


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