The infectious disease that has stifled life in China has had ripple effects for National Hockey League players.
The highly customized sticks used by some 75 percent of the NHL are made in small batches at Chinese factories. With work and travel halted since late January as the country combats an outbreak of coronavirus, the NHL has been unable to get fresh stock in the middle of its season.
During last Thursday’s Sabres-Red Wings broadcast, NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said equipment managers told him there was a “major shortage” of sticks.
Hockey manufacturers disputed that, but conceded they are worried.
Bauer, headquartered in Exeter, N.H., makes its pro sticks in China, as does its main competitor, Montreal-based CCM. According to numbers tracked by GearGeek.com, approximately 40 percent of NHL players currently use Bauer sticks, and 36 percent prefer CCM. Another company that makes sticks in China, Ottawa-based True Hockey, has a handful of player clients (1.3 percent).
The only major stick maker seemingly not affected by the situation is Warrior, which is owned by Brighton-based New Balance and counts 22 percent of the league’s players as clients. They make their sticks in Mexico.
At least one of the Bruins was taking precaution to ward off a potential shortage.
“I’ve been kind of looking for some, and I think they’re kind of slowed up a bit for obvious — for a good reason,” said Bruins forward Charlie Coyle, a CCM user, after Saturday’s win over Arizona. “So I am trying to make do. Trying not to break too many right now.”
Coyle’s tools are helping him. Of the three shots he took Saturday, two found the back of the net — one went past Coyotes goalie Adin Hill, the other an empty-netter. He is producing, but he’s not sure whether he should worry about CCM doing the same.
“I don’t really know what’s going on over there, to be honest,” Coyle said. “Hopefully it’s not too slow.”
Most hockey equipment found in retail stores is made in China, but representatives from Bauer said nearly all of this season’s gear is already either on the shelves or in North American storage. Retailers won’t need more stock from overseas until the summer.
It is a different situation with elite performance sticks, which are used by college and junior players, minor leaguers — and world-class millionaire NHLers.
Some players don’t put much thought into what they use. Many are finely attuned to the performance of their most important tool. Tweaking a stick’s properties — the curve of the blade, the stiffness of the shaft — or switching to a different model entirely can bring a player more goals and assists, and his team more wins.
Players state their preferences to traveling sales reps, who place orders. Bundles of 12 typically arrive at NHL rinks within 7-10 days. Players typically keep a few dozen in storage. But they go through them fast.
While an adult recreational player might hope their stick lasts the season, NHLers prep a fresh twig for every game, and typically have at least three available every time they step on the ice.
A one-piece stick that breaks in two is clearly unusable, but pros know when a stick lacks “pop.” Rather than the wood slices of the past, today’s sticks are tightly woven, glued, and pressed layers of composite fibers. The force produced by slap shots and other stresses of the game makes those fibers crack, fray, and lose their strength. An unlucky player can go through a half-dozen sticks in a game.
McGuire, the TV analyst and former NHL coach, said, “A lot of players, especially the better, more skilled, scoring-type players, they’re worried about where their next batch of sticks is coming from. It’s a big problem.”
McGuire said an equipment manager for either the Sabres or Red Wings — he wouldn’t reveal which — said most of that team’s players were “using a one-stick limit for practice and maybe two for games.”
The Chinese government halted travel and work in the country late last month after the outbreak of the deadly virus in the central Wuhan province. As of Friday, the World Health Organization reported nearly 35,000 cases of the virus and 724 deaths.
Factories closed for a week beginning Jan. 25 to observe Chinese New Year. The government extended the shutdown until Monday, but workers and families could still be affected.
There could be additional stresses. The cost of raw materials could increase. Shipments could be delayed. Once healthy and on the clock, workers will be backed up with orders.
Numerous other industries, from automakers to Apple, are similarly concerned.
In an e-mail, Bauer Hockey CEO Ed Kinnaly said the company was monitoring the “fluid and dynamic global situation.” He anticipated no impact to retailers worldwide, which he said are stocked through the end of the hockey season.
Kinnaly said Bauer’s custom stick operation has been halted, but “the most recent update suggests we can restart operations on February 10,” he wrote. “We have backup stock in the U.S. and Canada to meet these needs, and we are working closely with equipment managers to understand their inventory levels and ensure players have what they need.”
Corey Gregory, marketing manager for True Hockey, said his company is “in pretty good shape. But saying that, if this drags on for three months, who knows? Everybody’s probably in the same situation.”
Not Warrior, which sources its carbon fiber material from the United States and makes its sticks in Tijuana. Dan Mecrones, who oversees the company’s pro league and player endorsements, said 300 factory employees were making sticks six days a week. They were prepared to add another shift if needed.
“We’re open for business,” Mecrones said Saturday. “We’re prepared for anything that comes our way.
“You don’t like to take a situation like this where it’s a health scare and there’s a lot of concerns out there. From our perspective, we will take any type of business that came our way to help out the situation as well. We would be helping the game if we can provide the equipment that others couldn’t.”
He said players endorsing other companies have approached Warrior about possibly switching brands.
Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk, a Bauer endorser, is carefully guarding his sticks. He is one of a handful of NHLers using Bauer’s new Nexus ADV model,which has a unique design (a hole in the blade. He began using them a week before the virus outbreak and loves them, and Bauer can’t make more until the slowdown ends.
DeBrusk estimated that he had 10 sticks.
“I’m not sure what’s going on with that coronavirus there, in China,” he said. “That’s where everything’s made in the world.
“I’m not conserving anything. I love firing the puck with it. Obviously if it gets down to the wire, we’ll start talking about different, I guess, tactics.”
That means fans who want a free stick from their favorite player might have to wait.
“Those things are gold right now,” DeBrusk said. “I kind of want to keep as many as possible.”