The Canadien stick Cam Neely used to hammer pucks past befuddled goalies wasn’t a choice born out of brand loyalty.
“The Western Hockey League had a deal with Canadien,” said the Hall of Famer atop the Bruins masthead, in his 10th year as team president. “Here’s the sticks you’re going to use. Here’s righthanded, here’s lefthanded.”
Neely, a righthanded shot, scored most of his 395 goals with a 6001 model made of layered ash and fiberglass. As a 17-year-old junior with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, he learned how to heat the blade with a blowtorch and bend the pliable wood, giving him his preferred heel curve. Yesterday’s craftsmanship informs his position on today’s composites.
“Everything went to lighter material, lighter material, lighter material,” he said. “The sticks are [expletive], in my opinion. They break all the time.” He would find a sympathetic ear in Ottawa, where this past week young Brady Tkachuk arrived at an open net and left with two pieces.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who spent most of his career in the minors and had a few cups of coffee in the NHL, was used to taking scrap lumber from the Neelys of the game. When his sticks arrived, he never knew what he was going to get.
“In the NHL, you’d get your dozen sticks, and 10 of them were exactly the same, one or two were a little off,” recalled the Bruins coach, a first-round pick of the Blackhawks in 1983 (18th overall; nine slots after the Canucks took Neely). “You get a dozen in the American League, six were this way, three were that way, three were the other.
“It was like a box of chocolates. They gave you a little bit of everything, and they’d stamp your name on it.”
And then came the filing, the shaving, the heating, the glue. The time and effort.
“Now it’s just tape jobs and cutting it down,” Neely said. “They have a machine to cut the thing. You used to have a hacksaw. Their patterns, there are no flaws. When I played, I was lucky to get five, maybe six sticks out of a dozen that I would play with.”
High-end players are fortunate these days. For a few hundred bucks, any well-heeled amateur can go online, customize one from their favorite brand, and have it shipped to their door. The Bruins get concierge service, confabbing with the stick reps who check in at Warrior Arena regularly.
The sticks may be immaculate by yesterday’s standards, but athletes of any generation are finicky.
“It’s amazing what these players can feel,” said Tyson Teplitsky, global brand manager for Bauer Hockey. “If we launch a new stick and there’s a new graphic we introduce, some players can feel the thickness of the graphics.” That’s millimeters of material, mind you.
By the time most players reach the pros, they are loathe to mess with success. Not Brad Marchand.
“I toy with different sticks, combos, kickpoints,” said Marchand, a Warrior endorser who has more points (379, or 1.13 per game, as of Friday) than any left wing since the 2015-16 season. “I don’t know what I have now, I change it so much. I just know what I like.”
Marchand goes post-and-in with flexes between 95 and 85. He’s had the same blade curve since he was about 13: the P92, the popular, open-toe mid curve originally designed by Joe Sakic. Marchand might swap out his stick for another after a bad shift, but they’re all the same length.
Jake DeBrusk is a different bird. On the Bruins’ stick rack, DeBrusk has three Bauers in half-inch increments.
“If I miss a chance, or I miss a couple passes,” he said, “I’ll usually switch it up. Guys always give me a hard time because everyone’s sticks are the same, and mine are a mess.”
DeBrusk, who scored 27 goals last season, explains the different lengths are “like a reset, in a way” — it forces him to adapt, rather than think about the pass he just muffed. A hot streak, of course, means he’s sticking with what works.
“He’s nuts with that,” said linemate Danton Heinen (himself a “big toe-curve,” Bauer kind of guy). “He’s so imprecise that it’s like, genius, almost.”
Marchand gets it, though. Sometimes, he’ll ask equipment manager Matt Falconer to head to the rack after three consecutive shifts. “It’s the stick and not the player,” Marchand kidded. “That’s my mind-set. I blame my tools and not my abilities.”
Speaking of length: It’s widely understood no known NHL player has a longer lance than Zdeno Chara, who got a special exemption for his 67-inch Warrior poles (the league limit is 63). He has ordered them in rebar-like stiffness of 175, and now prefers them around 160. They are among the strongest ever produced.
It follows that 5-foot-9-inch Torey Krug, a foot shorter than Chara, would use a smaller twig. But Krug’s looks like a squirt’s version. When he stands on skates, he can rest his chin on the knob.
“I’ve been talked to a couple times about it, people trying to get me to use a longer stick to help with defending,“ said Krug, who began cutting a bit off the top after college, turning a 77-flex Warrior into about an 85. “Puckhandling is my strength. It’s the reason I’m in this league, making passes, making plays. I haven’t messed with my stick in five years.”
Fellow defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, a few hairs taller than Krug, likes his CCMs extra long. “I think that surprises people,” he said. “ If they’re coming down on me, they might think I’m smaller, so they have a little bit of space. It helps me a lot playing against bigger bodies to have that extra reach. I try to hide it . . . at the same time, you can get exposed with a longer stick, too, because there’s that much more space between your blade and your feet. It can make you look silly sometimes.”
The Bruins’ model of consistency, Patrice Bergeron, will change his flex from an 85 to a 75 — the latter is more whip-like and helps him release quicker one-timers from the power-play bumper. Other than that, it’s the same CCM he’s used for 1,000-plus games.
“It’s like anything,” he said. “I can’t really change anymore. I’m kind of used to it.”
As is Cassidy, who directs his charges at practice with a model similar to the Canadiens and Kohos he used as a player — just in a composite Warrior version. Whenever they arrive, he’s happy to tape them up and go.
“I could probably use it for three years and not break it, but every once in a while they give me a new one,” he said. “I didn’t break a lot of sticks as a player. I wasn’t a slasher, I wasn’t a cross-checker. They were all wood. I’d have to step on it to break it. They didn’t snap on a shot very often . . . unless someone sawed it on you as a joke.”
Sharks’ DeBoer the latest to go
We’re at the point that a coaching change arrived with a necessary disclaimer: It was a hockey decision, nothing more.
The Sharks turfed Peter DeBoer this past Wednesday simply because of lackluster results: five losses in a row, and a 15-16-2 record with a roster ostensibly loaded to contend, as has become the standard in Silicon Valley. The goaltending — .884 save percentage the last two years, worst in the NHL — did him no favors, but San Jose was 25th in scoring as of Friday.
Five coaches — Mike Babcock, Bill Peters, John Hynes, Jim Montgomery, and DeBoer — were fired in a span of five weeks, beginning with Babcock’s dismissal Nov. 20. The Maple Leafs were displeased with the product, but Babcock is now seen in a different light: His players called him a bully.
Peters, Babcock’s protege, got the ax in Calgary after several of his former charges in Carolina and Chicago’s farm system said he assaulted them and used racist language. The NHL is investigating abuse charges against Blackhawks assistant Marc Crawford. Hynes was fired because New Jersey is the second-worst team in the league. As of Friday, three days after pink-slipping Montgomery, Dallas hadn’t expanded its explanation beyond “unprofessional conduct.”
Which gets the mind racing, considering what’s been living under the rocks overturned of late. Commissioner Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to stop this madness: zero tolerance, mandatory training for all employees, establishing disciplinary guidelines, and a hotline for anonymous reporting. Good ideas, much-needed . . . but a deep-seated cultural problem deserves a skeptical eye. Prove that “hockey is for everyone” isn’t just a marketing slogan.
“You certainly do your due diligence when you’re talking about hiring anybody,” said Bruins president Cam Neely, who oversaw the promotion of former teammate Don Sweeney to general manager and Bruce Cassidy to coach. “But this makes you dig a little deeper . . . not that we weren’t before.”
In Neely’s view, the more open dialogue in the game, the better.
“That’s not to say a coach can’t get upset with you if you’re not playing well or doing the right things,” he said. “But there’s a certain line that was accepted for the whole time that I played, that’s not acceptable anymore.
“I never got whacked or kicked. Coaches used to come in and break sticks and throw Gatorade jugs. That wouldn’t happen anymore.”
Breakdown lane in the Motor City
The Dead Wings are back.
Jeff Blashill’s club in Detroit has raised the specter of those woeful 1980s teams, a rare sight in this era of pucks parity.
The Red Wings were 8-22-3 as of Friday, taking just 19 points in their first 33 games. They lost 12 straight before beating Winnipeg, 5-2, on Thursday. Despite that win, they remained on track to be the worst team of this millennium.
Since the 1999-2000 season ended, only one team has approached a worse points percentage than the .288 clip by those in the Motor City. That would be Colorado, which in 2016-17 finished 22-56-4 (.293). Detroit’s point-getting acumen is the lowest since 2000, when the first-year Atlanta Thrashers went 14-57-7-4 (.238).
Despite a 52 percent chance of landing the first overall pick, the Avalanche fell to fourth in the 2017 lottery. No one in Denver has a problem with the pick: Cale Makar, the superstar-in-training on the back line. They took the UMass Amherst product after New Jersey (Nico Hischier), Philadelphia (Nolan Patrick), and Dallas (Miro Heiskanen) made picks 1-3. Also couldn’t have gone wrong with Elias Pettersson, who went fifth to Vancouver.
By June 26, when the draft roll is called in Montreal, the Wings could be in line for a front-line forward, one of many commodities lacking on that roster. It might be a winger, given that four of the top five prospects on the NHL’s latest rankings are not centers, defensemen or goalies.
Alexis Lafreniere, the QMJHL Rimouski left wing, is considered the top choice for his playmaking and competitiveness. Big and fast centers are always attractive, and that’s a description of OHL Sudbury’s Quinton Byfield (6-4, 215 pounds). Ahead of the World Junior Championship, which kicks off Dec. 26 in the Czech Republic, NHL.com rated those players 1-2 on their draft board. The rest of the top five includes Swedish winger Alexander Holtz (Djurgarden), OHL Saginaw left wing Cole Perfetti, and another right wing from Sweden, Frolunda’s Lucas Raymond.
Unified women’s league the dream
The NWHL’s Boston Pride started the season 11-0, outscoring opponents, 63-19. Meanwhile, many of the world’s top women, who pulled out of that league last summer, continue to participate in the Dream Gap Tour and work out on their own.
Amanda Kessel told the “ESPN on Ice” podcast she spends $5,000 to $10,000 a year on training, commuting from her home in New York City to rinks in North New Jersey for ice time. What’s the status of a unified women’s league?
“At this point, I’m really not sure,” Kessel said. “We want it to be done the right way. We don’t want it to be thrown together. We want it to be a strong league from the beginning.”
On Saturday, Hartford was scheduled to host Kessel and other Team USA standouts in the opening game of a five-game series with Canada. The second game (televised on NHL Network) is Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Technology advancements and beefed-up staffing mean there are few secrets in hockey anymore, but the Avalanche might have a better bead on Tuukka Rask than most teams. Their goalie coach is 42-year-old Jussi Parkkila, who, at the first stop in his career, had a rail-thin Rask as his prize pupil. Parkkila was goalie coach for Ilves Tampere (2003-07) when Rask, a 2005 first-round pick of the Maple Leafs, was tearing up the Finnish league . . . Another young Tampere native, Sanna Marin, this past week was elected Finland’s prime minister. At 34, she is the youngest ever PM, the world’s youngest sitting PM, and world’s youngest ever PM. Rask, 32, thought that was cool. He barely let an inquisitor finish the next question: post-hockey, what are the odds he gets into politics? “Zero!” . . . Twelve teams have new head coaches since the end of last season, some 38 percent of the NHL turning over. In less than two years, that’s nearly 60 percent. Dallas, which handed the keys to Bruins short-timer Rick Bowness, is on its sixth coach since 2011. Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, who took over in 2013, is the league’s longest-tenured coach. Bruce Cassidy, on the job with the Bruins for two years and 10 months, has been at his post longer than all but eight of his peers . . . Was disappointed to see Gary Bettman and Co. kick the can down the road on a World Cup, which will not return in 2021. Hockey fans want a best-on-best tournament, and since there’s no Olympic participation on the table at the moment, the World Cup is the next-best option. Please figure it out . . . Those Tkachuk boys keep stirring it up. Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk was fined $2,486.56, the maximum allowable under the CBA, for his cross-check on Scott Laughton in the waning minutes of a loss to Philadelphia this past week. Older brother Matthew Tkachuk, meanwhile, continues to get the better of his beef with Drew Doughty. The defenseman, in a sound bite posted by the Kings’ Twitter account, fanned the flames by claiming the Calgary forward “thinks he’s something, but he’s not even getting close to anything I’ve done in my career. I’m over him.” Sure about that? . . . Following Boston-Colorado last Saturday, we got Brad Marchand’s definitive ranking of the top players in the league. It may have been a tad biased. “Sid one, Nate two,” said Marchand, ranking fellow Nova Scotians Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon ahead of everyone else. Who’s three? “Bergy,” said Marchand, naming teammate Patrice Bergeron. Their bromance is a light that never goes out.
Ex-Bruins defenseman Ian Moran signed on with Wellesley-based Matt Keator’s Win Hockey Agency as a director of player development and recruitment.