Rambler's Top100

27 2003 . 
Stick Work: Players Hone Their Craft. Yashin, Kvasha lovingly whittle while they work - Newsday

By Bob Herzog

The frozen ponds of Sverdlovsk, Russia, beckoned, so Alexei Yashin did what most kids would: He raced down the stairs of his small apartment a bit recklessly, hastily trying to get outside and play hockey with his friends.

"I was 7 and my Dad had just bought me a new stick," the Islanders' center recalled, a smile creasing his face at the memory. "The blade was perfectly straight - no curve. I went running downstairs and the stick got caught in between the rails on the staircase and the blade bent. When I got outside and started shooting the puck around, it went flying in all different directions. I liked that, so I started doing tricks with the puck."

So began a love affair between man and stick that propelled Yashin to the top of his profession, a love affair that is common in the NHL, where many players display extraordinary carpentry skills as they measure, cut, sand, heat, tape and paint the primary tool of their trade. What is uncommon, however, is the level to which Yashin takes his devotion. Some players turn their sticks over to the equipment staff. Yashin takes matters into his own hands. "I didn't have great equipment growing up, so I took care of what I had. Maybe that's it," Yashin said, laughing at his magnificent obsession. "I definitely appreciate my equipment now. I just want it to be perfect, you know?"

Joe McMahon knows. The equipment manager, in his 19th season with the Islanders, said Yashin "is the most caring player on the team regarding his stick. Oleg [Kvasha] is a close second. Yash spends a lot of time working on his stick. He figures if he gives his stick love, it'll love him back."

It had been mostly an unrequited love, until Tueday night's four-goal outburst, which gave him 22 this season. He likely will finish short of 30 for the first time since the 1995-96 season. But that hasn't kept the skilled veteran from making frequent visits to the workshops that are as much a part of NHL arenas as luxury boxes. The side-by-side equipment rooms at Nassau Coliseum look like an advanced high school shop class or an episode of "This Old House." Clearly, it isn't "Tool Time." Yashin and Kvasha know exactly what they are doing.

While one uses a hacksaw to cut his stick to the desired length, the other uses a blowtorch to melt glue before inserting the blade into the stick. While one sands the stick's blade to table-top smoothness - using first a belt sander, then a simple piece of sandpaper - the other carefully spray-paints the blade to a shimmering black finish. "He's a good carpenter. He could build a house," McMahon said of Yashin.

Clearly, Yashin is a proponent of the carpenter's credo: measure twice, cut once. He's just a tad extreme about it. "Yash is so particular that he'll bring his stick in here and use a scalpel on it to trim off any small, loose pieces of wood or glue," McMahon said. "He wants it perfect. He'll set the stick on this table and push it against the wall to make sure that where the shaft meets the blade, it is 100 percent dead-on flush. Even if I tell him, 'Yash, it's flush,' he doesn't believe me. He checks it out himself. He'll re-measure it to be sure."

Measuring is a significant part of this stick-work and a big reason hockey players are different from baseball players, who are equally passionate about their bats. But when Derek Jeter or Mike Piazza get a new shipment of bats, they come from the factory built to exact specifications - right down to thickness of handle, length and weight. "Hockey players have to worry about their sticks being legal. Baseball players don't have to worry about the length of their bats," McMahon explained.

So every stick has to be cut to 63 inches - the NHL maximum length - or less, depending on a player's preference. Yashin says he likes his stick to "come up to my nose," which is very close to the legal limit for the player who stands 6-3. Because NHL players routinely go through so many sticks - often several in a single game - it's not practical for stick-makers to deliver them precut. They come in standard lengths - longer for defensemen, shorter for forwards - plus the completely different goalie variety. Then the players and equipment managers go to work.

"The technology has changed since I started," McMahon said. "[Hall of Fame wing Mike] Bossy used to just open the box, tape them up and go play. When Bossy and [Bryan] Trottier played [in the 1970s and '80s], all the shafts were wood. Today, most guys [including Yashin] use graphite [which is lighter and more flexible]. The blades used to be all wood. Now they are wood or graphite."

Yashin switched blade material before the season from wood to graphite. He is as precise about his equipment as he is about his on-ice passes. "He likes the knobs [at the top of the stick] razor sharp on all corners, not rounded," McMahon said. "He uses a cleaner to clean the shafts. If I change the steel [blades] on his skates, he'll change the length of his stick."

Like a major-league hitter who might use a slightly lighter bat against a fastball pitcher, for pros, the difference is in the details. "Oh yeah, you can tell right away when you put on new skates," Yashin said. "You're like a half-inch taller. So the day before a game I'll [adjust] my stick."

What makes all this tooling around so remarkable is that hockey sticks are quite perishable. All that craftsmanship and in an instant - crack! - there goes a piece of a stick skidding across the ice. "It's not like you use one stick for a month," Yashin observed. "You've got to retape it and change the blades after every game, anyway. The blades break off a lot when guys step on them in the faceoff circles. I don't get too used to one stick."

Instead, each day brings another opportunity to work on another stick; another opportunity for Yashin to put his million-dollar hands in apparent peril. Yet despite the sharpness of the tools and the nearby presence of a steady flame from the blowtorch, neither Yashin nor Kvasha appeared concerned as they carefully went about their handiwork. Both say they've never been seriously hurt working on their sticks. "When you do it every day," Yashin said, "it's not dangerous."

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc. 

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5 . No cash for Yashin, either - The Ottawa Citizen


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