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Super-stick-ious

MIAMI -- The first thing Detroit's Brett Lebda does when he gets a new shipment of hockey sticks is grab a marker and write an inscription on the back.

MIAMI -- The first thing Detroit's Brett Lebda does when he gets a new shipment of hockey sticks is grab a marker and write an inscription on the back.

"I have a little superstition," says Lebda, who has religiously adhered to the practice since he was a kid playing on the frozen ponds of Illinois. "Just something that means something to me."

Keith Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, makes sure he takes his three kids with him every time he steps on the ice, writing their names -- Matthew, Braeden and Taryn -- in neat script on the nob of his stick.

And on the Florida Panthers' bench, there are players who won't touch a stick if there's anything written on it.

"We have some guys who won't even let me put a number on their stick," equipment manager Rob McLean says. "Whether it's bad luck or what, I don't know."

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Welcome to the modern NHL, where players will call on everything from old myths to new mechanics if they think it will give them an edge.

"I find most players have some little thing," McLean says.

Some of the Blues, for example, insist on placing their equipment in the same place during every game while Red Wings' defenseman Chris Chelios won't change sticks during a winning streak.

Most of the rituals somehow involve the tape players apply to the shaft, simultaneously improving their grip on the stick while challenging their grip on reality.

"Whether it's how they tape their stick -- 35 turns up, 35 down -- or Marty Gelinas always putting his kids' initials on his stick," McLean says. "Eddie Belfour has several things that he does to his. So there's all kinds of guys who have things like that; something to make them feel comfortable."

What makes them feel uncomfortable, though, is talking about it.

"I'd rather keep it a secret," Lebda says when asked what he writes on his stick.

LIGHTER, STRONGER

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Yet while superstitions and tape-borne talismans have been around hockey almost as long as ice, the way sticks are made and used today is definitely changing.

During the last 15 years the NHL has gradually moved from all-wood sticks to aluminum shafts with wood blades, then to graphite shafts with composite blades and finally to one-piece composites made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and epoxy.

The new sticks are stronger, lighter and -- at as much as $300 a pop -- way more expensive than their wood counterparts.

But in the NHL, at least, they're way more popular as well, so much so that forward Jozef Stumpel is the only Panther -- and just one of about 30 players leaguewide -- still using wood.

"I like the feel of the stick and I don't care if it's a little heavier because I really have a feel for the puck," Stumpel says. "I like the feeling, the sound. That's the way it is. I'm staying with what I have."

He's one of the last holdouts, though, and the reason why is simple: performance.

Lee Stempniak of the St. Louis Blues, who changed to a one-piece stick while at Dartmouth, says he couldn't play if the league went back to wood. Or even aluminum.

"I couldn't imagine using that," he says. "You just have a big heavy piece of metal in your hands. It's unbelievable. The composite is so light."

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The Panthers' Joel Kwiatkowski agrees. He used wood sticks exclusively until this season but now swears by the one-piece.

"Once I switched, I went on a little streak and I stayed with them," he says. "Once you find the kick point, it just whips the puck to the net. Modern technology, you know.

"Wood used to slow the game down for you. With one-piece sticks the puck doesn't pop up on you once it hits your stick. The one-pieces are being built so good right now. They are solid to the core."

THE NEED FOR SPEED

Light. Strong. Durable. Put all that together and even the weakest player can get incredible stick speed behind a shot. There is a trade-off, however. Most players agree wood sticks are more responsive and have a better "touch," making it easier to handle the puck and receive passes. But "at the end of the day that one-piece stick shoots cannons," McLean says. "And everybody wants to shot the puck hard."

Before the one-piece composites became wildly available, just a handful of players -- such as Chelios and retired defenseman Al MacInnis -- had slapshots that regularly topped 100 mph. Now shots that hard are, if not common, at least not rare.

"It really leveled the playing field. Now everybody shoots it hard," says McLean, a hockey equipment manager for more than 15 years. "And that is the big deal. I compare it to baseball. Everyone wants to hit the home run."

And, as in baseball, advances in technology have not only improved performance but they've raised questions about safety as well.

A baseball struck with a metal bat comes off so much faster than one hit with a wood club -- more than 7 mph, according to a 2002 Brown University study -- that aluminum bats have been banned from both professional and international competitions.

In hockey, meanwhile, the advent of the one-piece composite stick inspired goalies to wear extra padding in practice. And defensemen who once routinely laid down in front of shots rarely go to the ice nowadays.

"There are some dangers here," McLean says. "Maybe there will be some limitations down the road that the NHL will have to put in place to keep the goaltenders safe. At some point you have to top it off and say this is where we're going to limit the stick."

NEXT GENERATION

Or maybe not. Reebok, which entered the hockey market less than two years ago, is reportedly developing a new stick design, while Easton, which says it supplies sticks to 40 percent of the players in the league, has three new generations of sticks in the prototype stage.

"We've always got things that we're working on," says Ron Herschbach, an Easton rep who serves six NHL teams. "Goals are worth too much money nowadays to keep a stick that's past its time."

Despite all that, McLean longs for the simpler days when a player with some spare time, a piece of sandpaper and an acetylene torch could turn a plain wooden hockey stick into a work of art.

"You've lost a lot of the old magic that they used to put into their sticks," he says. "Guys used to spend an hour on their sticks sometimes, just making sure it was perfect for them. "You don't have that any more."

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