Gretzky Shift To Aluminum May Change Face Of Hockey

Wayne Gretzky's association with Titan is over. In fact, Gretzky's association with the wooden hockey stick is over. Next season, he will use an Easton aluminum stick. Given Gretzky's influence on the game, his move to aluminum will probably change the face of professional hockey.

There has been no official announcement of the switch, but the circumstantial evidence is so strong that there can be no doubt about it.

In January, Gretzky's business agent, Mike Barnett of Los Angeles, revealed that the contract between Gretzky and Karhu-Titan of Finland, which called for Gretzky to use Titan sticks and wear Karhu's Jofa equipment, would be allowed to lapse after the season.

Last weekend, at the conclusion of the Greg Norman Challenge, a golf match shown on CBS, Gretzky joined in a bit of light entertainment with Norman, Ivan Lendl and Larry Bird while using an Easton aluminum stick.

With an athlete other than Gretzky or an agent other than Barnett, this could be a coincidence. But in this case it will not be. If Gretzky endorses a product, he never allows himself to be seen in public, much less on network television, using a competitor's product.

Gretzky's decision will have a major effect on the hockey-stick industry. He is by far hockey's most recognizable and most emulated player. His switch to an aluminum stick will give the sticks a credibility they have always lacked, even though they have been used for years by quality players, including Gary Suter of the Calgary Flames, Brad McCrimmon of the Detroit Red Wings and Mark Howe of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Last season, when Brett Hull of the St. Louis Blues led the National Hockey League in goals with 72, few people noticed that he was using an aluminum stick.

By switching to Easton, Gretzky will help the company make the kind of substantial inroads into the hockey-stick market that it has made into the baseball-bat market. Easton has become the dominant bat in softball and college baseball in the United States and is poised to make an aggressive move into major-league baseball should the game's rules ever be amended to allow aluminum bats.

Ten years ago, when Gretzky began using Titan sticks, the company ranked 13th in the world in terms of total sales revenue. Now it ranks first. When Gretzky started endorsing Ultra-Wheels, roller-blade skates made by First Team Sports in Minneapolis, the company's stock traded at $1.08. That was in December. Today, that stock trades about $8.50.

Perhaps fearing such a development, and therefore a substantial reduction in their 90 percent share of the market, some wooden-stick manufacturers have reportedly approached the NHL regarding the possibility of a ban on aluminum sticks.

But the league has undertaken studies of the matter and has concluded that aluminum sticks (which are actually aluminum shafts with replaceable wood/fiberglass blades) are no more dangerous than wooden sticks. As a result, they'll stay in the game.

With Gretzky using them, there is little doubt that they'll also garner a much larger share of the the market, just as metal woods have become commonplace on the professional golf tour.

On the retail market, aluminum sticks cost about twice as much as a low-end hockey stick (although both have risen substantially in price since the NHL imposed its surcharge last year) but the aluminum sticks last much longer.

Gretzky earlier had said that he was leaning towards using an aluminum stick. He said that he found the sticks to be strong, yet light and responsive.

It also helps, he said, that the Easton factory is only a short drive (if there is such a thing in Los Angeles) from his home. If there is a problem with the pattern, he can visit the factory himself and get it modified.

Also, he could always get a rush delivery if he needed it. He uses a lot of sticks, but he also gives many away. In an average year with Titan, Gretzky went through more than 700 sticks a year.