Imagine the scene. The Maple Leafs’ season is down to its final few games. Auston Matthews, in a neck-and-neck race with Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer, is fed a puck on a tee in the slot.
He shoots … He snaps his stick!
And instead of doing what NHLers normally do — cuss and head back to the bench for a new one — Matthews digs into his jeans, pulls out a high-limit credit card and sends a dressing-room attendant to the nearest sporting goods retailer for a stack of replacements.
As far-fetched as it might seems, that’s the rough sketch of a potential scenario being bandied about the NHL. There is, after all, a potential shortage of pro-model hockey sticks in the offing. Given that approximately 75 per cent of NHL-used sticks are made in China — and given that the bulk of Chinese production was recently halted in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus — players around the league have been told to ration their usage.
“We’ve been told it could be a problem,” said Jason Spezza, the Maple Leafs centreman. “If it drags on for two months, who knows?”
First, a word of perspective. Nobody in hockey is putting an equipment supply problem on the same level as a public health crisis caused by an infectious disease that’s killed thousands. There are real-world concerns and then there’s sports-world minutiae, and this is, to be clear, very much a discussion around the latter.
Second, nobody is suggesting Matthews, or any player, is ever going to actually have to pay for his stack of sticks. NHL teams, not their well-paid employees, foot the bill for the normally bottomless stock of pricey carbon-fibre sticks. Teams spend in excess of half a million dollars a season on the things. Still, more than one industry insider told the Star that the idea that NHLers might eventually need to forgo their preferred custom models in favour of ones currently sitting on store shelves isn’t out of the realm of possibility. A typical player goes though 100 to 125 sticks a season. A new one every game, plus extras for practice, isn’t out of the ordinary, and some NHLers use far more. Even though teams devote considerable arena square footage to storage — the stick room is an NHL-standard accoutrement — they’ll eventually run out.
“We could end up having to use retail stock for pro players, which is not the ideal situation,” said one representative of a stick manufacturer this past week. “It’s like saying to a PGA Tour player: ‘Use this driver from Golf Town. Yeah, I know it’s not the same one you’re used to getting, but it looks the same, sort of.’”
It’s not ideal, of course, because the sticks typically used by NHL players often bear only a surface resemblance to the ones being sold to the paying public for $300 and more. NHL players can customize every aspect of the primary tool of their trade. They can personalize its curve. They can dial in its flex. They can tweak the precise stickiness of its handle. And if the combination isn’t to their liking — or if they’re looking to blame, say, a scoring slump on something beyond bad luck — they can order up a new shipment made to a new set of specifications on a whim.
At least, that’s how the industry works under normal conditions. This season, it’s different. Key Chinese factories have been shut down over the past month, first for the annual two-week hiatus to celebrate Chinese New Year and more recently in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus. So it’s currently impossible for players who use Chinese-made sticks to request any such changes.
Plenty of Maple Leafs are in that boat. Matthews scored his career-high 41 goals — tied for the league lead with Boston’s David Pastrnak and one ahead of Ovechkin heading into Saturday — using a stick made by CCM. Mitch Marner piled up 58 points in 47 games — a team-best 1.23 points a game — using one made by True. William Nylander’s a Bauer guy. All of CCM, True and Bauer make their sticks in China. While various spokespeople for China-based manufacturers have spoken hopefully of production resuming this coming week — Monday was a target date — all described the situation as fluid. There’d been hope, after all, that production would resume Feb. 10, and yet the factories remained shuttered.
Not that every Maple Leaf seems particularly concerned. Marner, for his part, said that thanks to the foresight of longtime equipment manager Brian Papineau, he’s likely got enough stock to last the rest of the season, barring an unusual rash of broken twigs.
Matthews, mind you, didn’t sound quite as sure.
“I think everybody’s got enough inventory to go around for the next few weeks,” Matthews told the Star’s Kevin McGran before Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Stars. “So we shouldn’t be too worried.”
The only major manufacturer whose supply chain is unaffected by the situation is Warrior, which manufactures its sticks in Tijuana, Mexico in a factory a short drive over the border from San Diego. The company began making sticks there more than a decade ago in part to carve out a competitive advantage. Since players can be notoriously fickle about sticks, the idea was that a factory on the North American continent would reduce the lag time between a player’s whim and the delivery of a bespoke product. While Warrior says it can turn around an order from Mexican factory to NHL rink in less than a week, an order to a Chinese-based manufacturer under normal operating circumstances can take 10 to 14 days to arrive at one’s dressing-room stall.
So Warrior, let’s just say, is well-positioned to earn some potential new business.
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“They’re licking their chops,” said an equipment rep from one of Warrior’s competitors.
If Chinese production doesn’t resume shortly, after all, the options for a replenishment of one’s stick supply could get slim. It could come down to Warrior or retail. It could come down to Auston battling Ovie with a stick plucked off a big-box rack, the pros using equipment normally sold to the Joes.