One day after a Toronto Maple Leafs practice last season, I told forward Frederik Gauthier that I was the proud owner of a pair of his game-worn pants. They were a birthday gift through a gear sale that NHL clubs and their AHL affiliates occasionally hold at the end of each season.
I told him they were nothing like what I could have bought off the shelf. The padding across the back and sides was much thicker and adjustable. Despite the increased bulk and protection, the pants were also much tighter and lighter than what I was used to.
Gauthier’s response was short, but telling.
“It’s been a long time since I bought my own pants,” he said.
Gauthier wasn’t trying to sound like an uppity pro hockey player. He was simply stating that he wouldn’t know what is available in stores because NHL players, along with most elite juniors and those in other pro leagues, get their equipment directly from suppliers.
The gear provided is specifically suited for each player. Virtually without exception, skates and sticks are custom-made.
“We have professional reps in dressing rooms,” says Jeff Dalzell, vice-president of product creation at Montreal-based CCM. “We talk to players, trainers and equipment managers who know what works and the science behind [it].”
This current reality is dramatically different from the previous generation.
John Cooper once ran the venerable sporting goods company that bears his name. He fondly recalls his dealings with Dave Dryden, the former NHL goaltender and older brother of Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, but is quick to point out that direct dealings with players were rare at the time.
“Dave Dryden wanted to make our equipment more protective for kids,” Cooper says. “He was [passionate] about teaching and was a teacher himself. Dave enjoyed that experience, as did our design and engineering guys working with him.”
Cooper recalls how Gordie Howe once dropped by his company’s plant on Alliance Avenue in Toronto, but his visit was more tied to an Eaton’s department store product line to which he was lending his name. Howe gave Cooper free rein to design whatever he felt was best.
“Even with elbow pads,” Cooper says of the equipment that Howe famously used to gain leverage over opponents.
The majority of Cooper’s dealings came with trainers. In the 1960s, he would regularly meet NHL teams arriving by train at Toronto’s Union Station to pick up bags of equipment that needed repairing.
“I’d meet the train, grab the equipment, deliver them to the gals we had on standby to fix them, and they’d be ready by their game-day skates,” he says. “Players were more superstitious and didn’t want to use new equipment.”
If there is a common element across generations, it’s that players often want comfort mixed with familiarity. The problem is that comfort can stunt performance – a player who opts for a reliable pair of skates or an old stick might be missing out in other ways.
“Players know what they want equipment to do, but not necessarily how to get there,” Dalzell says. “They know how it fits, but not how it performs … we try to combine those [elements] to maximize performance.”
That balancing act isn’t always easy. Dalzell recalls Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid once telling him that he would love a stick that maximizes his shot velocity and accuracy, but also one that was optimized for handling the puck.
In other words, he was aiming for two objectives in one piece of equipment, which isn’t always possible.
“Players want to get better, but not necessarily give up what they already have to get there,” Dalzell says.
CCM opened a stick lab in its Montreal-area headquarters five years ago, then expanded it into a larger operation last year. Elite players drop by in the summer and test shooting and passing, which gives baseline results and data points for the company’s product development division to work with.
The benefits of this arrangement go both ways.
“Kids are now learning what they need to eat, when and what to do in the gym and even when and how to rest,” Dalzell says. “The equipment component is just as important, and we have to [show] players that aspect.”
Most of all, change and innovation are fluid. What works now could soon be obsolete and potentially hold players back in the future. Having ongoing conversations is in everyone’s best interests.
“The road to the next level never ends,” he says.