Hockey: Day of the Banana Stick

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During a practice session seven years ago, the Chicago Black Hawks' Stan Mi-kita split the flat, straight blade of his hockey stick into a haphazard V-shape.

Without pausing to change sticks, Mi-kita continued playing and to his sur prise found that he could rip off a shot faster and harder with his crooked cud gel. Soon he and Teammate Bobby Hull were warping the wooden blades of their sticks into scooplike curves by soaking them in hot water and wedging them under door jambs overnight.

Changing the Style. While some rival players scoffed at the "silly sticks," the fact that Mikita and Hull developed into the most potent one-two scoring combination in hockey induced many other pros to experiment with the new blades. Now more than half of the players in the National Hockey League are using the bowed blades, ranging from the slight bend favored by the Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe to the severe 1½-in. hook of Mikita's "banana stick." The innovation, comparable to the introduction of fiber-glass poles in pole vaulting or metal rackets in tennis, has revved up the pace of hockey and changed the entire style of play.

The New York Rangers' Rod Gilbert, for example, explains that from his right-wing position "with a straight stick and a fast play the shot will slide off my stick like a golfer's slice. But with the curved stick I can hold the puck a second longer, have better control when I fake the goalie, and then whip it into the corner with the left-hand spin and know it won't trail off." Other players say that the sickle stick helps them to scoop the puck off the boards and, by cradling it inside the curve, shield it from the goalie's vision. This new-found control, which is roughly similar to that afforded by the lacrosse stick or the jai-alai cesta, has worked wonders for such so-so scorers as Ranger Vic Hadfield, who has already scored more goals this season than he has in seven previous seasons in the N.H.L.

The biggest advantage of the new sticks, though, is what Bobby Hull calls "the element of surprise. I can pull the puck in and shoot it all in one motion before the goaltender knows I'm shooting. The hook hugs the puck, and I can get a little action on it. It'll drop or rise, and I know which way it's going by the way I follow through."

Shots at Spectators. Though Hull swears by the curved sticks, more than a few players swear at them. The "little action" Hull refers to is a certain spin given to the puck that makes it dip-sydoodle through the air like a knuckleball, fluttering and dropping as much as 18 in.—at 100-plus m.p.h. For the hapless goalie, says Toronto Maple Leaf Coach Punch Imlach, fielding these unguided missiles is "like standing up at the plate while a baseball pitcher without control throws dust-off pitches at your head."

The Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Rutledge says that "the big curve should be outlawed, and goalies should go on strike to see that it's done." In lieu of that, Chicago's Dave Dryden feels that at the very least goalies should be equipped with their own curved sticks. "That way," he says ruefully, "we can fire the puck back at them."

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