My Ovechkin Story

Alex Ovechkin was one of the most outgoing of the Russians. He always said hello with a crooked smile and asked about me and my Easton equipment. He was known to dress a bit garishly, when not in the NHL mandated travel suit and tie, and caught some flak from his mates because of it: His white apres-ski boots and fur coat ensemble were a highlight.

Beyond the big personality, he was a considerate guy. I witnessed this a few times. I was there late after practice one day helping assemble some of our new helmets with shields and team logos, and someone comes in and says “Ovy bought lunch.” We walked into the team lounge area, with couches and TV’s and Ping-Pong tables, and there was a spread of Sushi and Asian foods that could feed three teams. Apparently, he gave his black Amex card to someone and told them to get something good to eat.

Another time, I walk into practice early, and Ovy is being measured in the hall by a small Frenchman. This was his suit guy. Yes, the guy would fly in to tailor Ovy. I didn’t get a price, but I imagine it was high. With the little fellow down around Ovy’s crotch area, a low-level assistant coach walked by: “Get a room,” the assistant coach joked. Ovy laughed and called him over. “You want a suit?” he asks. The lower-level assistants weren’t paid too much, and did the job more for the experience and the love of the game. The guy probably only had a couple of Men’s Warehouse specials.

“No, I’m okay,” said the assistant, looking at the garishly colored pin-striped number that Ovy was being fitted for. “You need a suit!” Ovy declared. “Okay, okay, as long as it’s not in that ugly pin-stripe,” joked the assistant.

Just like the suit maker, when Ovechkin asked us to make some custom sticks for him, we tailored them to his specific taste, and we hand-delivered them. For most players we’d make two sample sticks, and not always hand-deliver. For Ovechkin we did six, and two of us hand-delivered them.

My plant boss, Mac, and I arrived the evening before and sat down to dinner. We had steak and a bottle of good wine as a kind of pre-celebration. “Do you realize how big this is?” said Mac. “If we can get Ovechkin to like our stick enough that he drops his contract with CCM…. Huge.” This was potentially so big, we didn’t even have to share a hotel room to cut expenses.

That night, from the towel-dimmed light of my hotel room desk, I emailed the Capitals equipment manager Brock, just to reconfirm that the eagle had landed and we would see them in the morning.

We got a few looks, lugging the six sticks across the hotel lobby in the bulky long bag out to our cab. The driver reached down to help with the bag, but Mac held it tight. “This stays with me,” he said, fearful the cabbie might slam a trunk on them. Mac put the stick bag through the middle of the cab and we made our way to the rink.

Once there, we waited impatiently for the players to roll in. We were just inside the rope, where autograph-seekers stood to get a quick look at their heroes. Suddenly, people started shouting; “Ovy, Ovy!” He smiled at us before going over to engage with his fans.

Walking back toward the locker room, he brought us with him. “So, what you got?” he asked. Mac opened the bag and proudly pulled out the black, silver and blue Easton S17 sticks. “Now, the colors can obviously be changed to whatever you want,” said Mac, knowing we were in red, white and blue territory here. “I’m not worried about that,” said Ovechkin. “I just want to see how they play.” As he twirled the blade in the air and took it to the ground to feel the flex on the shaft, there was a slight cracking sound. He looked up at us with a raised eyebrow. “Just the materials settling,” Mac quickly affirmed.

About a half-hour later, Mac and I stood along the boards and watched as Ovechkin took the ice with our stick. After some warm-ups, the team got into a passing and shooting drill: A line of players in each corner; one corner guy skates around past the blue line and comes back in to catch a pass from the opposite corner guy and shoots on the goalie.

Ovechkin’s turn, and he swoops around, grabs a quick pass from the corner, flicks his wrists to take a snapshot… and breaks the Plexiglass behind the goaltender’s head. Mac and I looked at each other and high-fived. We couldn’t believe it. I mean, the power our stick had in Ovy’s hands was out of this world. The shot was from almost 60 feet away. And a snapshot to boot!

For the next 15 minutes or so, we watched as Ovy tried to control the puck better. He bobbled a few passes, but hey, he bobbled passes with his CCM stick too—it was his shot that was his money-maker. A few minutes later, he put the Easton stick down and grabbed one of his old CCM’s…. And that was it.

“We made him a Ferrari and he wanted a BMW,” Mac analogized later over beers. “Well, can we soften it up a little, make him a hybrid of the two?” I asked. “Even if we did Kirky, you usually only get one chance with these guys.”

And he was right. The only thing I got out of the whole ordeal was an Ovechkin custom sample stick for myself, and a story to tell.



If The Stick Ain’t Broke

Steel blades cut through ice. Carbon boot fibers groaned. Sticks tic-tac-toed pucks before firing with the accuracy of army snipers. These were the sounds from my “office,” which on this day was the Tampa Bay Lightning home rink.

I watched as one of my pro players Marty St. Louis went through drills. He was one of the most agile players in the league. He could stop on a dime, and turn on a Bluenose (that’s the racing schooner on the back of a Canadian dime, eh). I saw him take a shot and hoped that this time we got his sticks just the way he liked them.

My first big task as a pro hockey rep with Easton was to try to get Marty to change the color of his sticks. Sounds easy, right? Well you try telling a guy who’s in the top tier of all-time points to change even an undergarment, much less his sticks.

Easton hockey didn’t do commercials or print ads, they spent their money trying to get the pros to use their product. Every time a pro hockey player with an Easton stick scored a goal and raised that stick in the air, it was a “free” commercial or print ad. It helped when the stick being raised was one currently for sale at your local store.

Marty had been using a stick that we stopped selling about 5 years prior: besides the old model graphics, it was a canary yellow color that no one else in the pros was using. Our pro plant in Mexico had to order this color just for him.

For the retail market, Easton changed their sticks every year: names, colors, graphics, engineering. For the pros, they preferred them to be up-to-date, but would often put new colors and graphics on an old model stick for guys that refused to try a new model.

I couldn’t talk Marty into the blue or red options we had that year, even though the blue was a good match with his team colors, so I went for a graphic change. At least the stick will look like a newer model on the outside, I thought. “But same yellow, yeah?” asked Marty. “Same yellow,” I promised as I wondered what curse words my plant manager would offer for this bit of news.

Upon receipt, Marty noticed a part of the new graphic, just a few inches in length, that was looking up at him from the top side of the new sticks. He said it might be a problem but he’d try them anyway. He was a good sport- so much so that I think he won the Lady Bing Trophy more than once.

The Lady Bing is not, as it may sound, a trophy for the best cross-dressing Bing Crosby impersonator. No, this is a trophy for the player with the most sportsmanlike conduct throughout the season. Not an easy thing to accomplish, keeping your cool, when you’ve got sticks, and shoulders, and sometimes fists coming at you. Especially for someone like Marty, who was one of the shortest guys in the league, and probably took more elbows than shoulders.

He came off the ice frustrated. The new graphic was too much of a distraction for him, and now he felt like the flex was off, and the curve needed to be bigger…. I could hear the curse words from my plant manager all the way in Mexico.


The Life of A Pro Sports Rep

As a pro hockey rep, I was tasked with getting as many NHL players into Easton gear as possible—by any means necessary. This was the Wild West; like the drug rep days before regulations. There were bags of cash, flat-screen TV’s, golf clubs, even boats and bicycles being thrown around as bribes. I was kind of a cross between Jerry Maguire, the guy at your local sporting good’s store, and a government official in a 3rd world country.

The first day on the job I got a call from my boss: “Kirky, bring your hockey bag, we’re skating today.” I tossed the smelly bag of old hockey equipment in my car, already warmed by the Southern California sun. In the halting traffic, I saw people of all stripes. Most looked like they were late for something they weren’t looking forward to doing anyway. I breathed in and took a bitter whiff of dried sweat and leather coming from my hockey bag. Usually, the odor was not too pleasant. On this day, I smiled as I took in that melancholic smell of games past, and realized… I was going to work.

I walked into the locker room and saw the shine of new equipment and a rack of colorful carbon fiber hockey sticks. I embarrassingly put my old wood stick to the side and dropped my tattered bag. Yes, I was still using wood in this new age of carbon fiber. I looked over at a familiar face and nodded.

Ned Goldsmith was a friend of mine from youth hockey days. He was a goalie back when goalie pads were basically giant leather mops. They absorbed ice and sweat, and nearly doubled in weight during play. Back then, Ned was as thin as a scarecrow, so this extra weight couldn’t have been good for his game. In fact, I could always score on him at will.

Ned was a thinker and a tinkerer and he decided that there had to be a better way. Growing up in the 70’s, fashion and technology were fusing right before our eyes, and Ned was smart enough to use it for more than just plumage. He hand-stitched polyester fibers over new foam-core materials for protection to create his own lightweight goalie pads. The first pair wasn’t much to look at, but it caught the attention of other goalies who were tired of being weighed down, and before you knew it, Ned had a business going.

Fast-forward to many years later, while working at Easton, Ned figured out how to make a stick out of woven carbon fibers. This became the one-piece composite stick that 99.99% of the NHL uses today. The stick that I was hired to sell, among other things. The stick that had revolutionized the game. The stick which I had yet to adopt into my own game.

For me, it was always out of my budget and hard to get used to. Sure it was light, but it was also bouncy. With my old wood stick, I was able to catch any pass and make plays from delicate to explosive. With the new carbon composite, I felt like I was playing pond hockey with someone else’s stick.

So the first thing they handed me that first day of work: three different composite sticks. “We’re testing these babies out today, Kirky. You need to tell us how each of these plays.” Fortunately, I wasn’t alone on the ice, since I spent more time trying to control the puck than comparing and contrasting sticks.

Ned was in goal. It was surreal to be shooting a puck at my old friend, with the stick he invented, and getting paid for doing it. And Ned, with his new-fangled goalie pads and a few more muscles now, actually stopping me cold more than once!

Coming off the ice, one of the other Easton employees looked at my beat-up old leather skates and shook his head. “What size skate are you?” I hadn’t bought skates in so long, I had to think about it. “I’ll set you up with some composites,” he said referring to the new carbon-based skate that was a byproduct of the stick technology.

By our next session, I had composite skates that weighed less than a pair of leather shoes, gloves that were as comfortable as ski mittens, and a brand new bag to put all the rest of my new equipment in. Needless to say, the ride to the rink was a bit less musky that day.


Parking as a Sport

Finding a good parking spot is like a sport. There’s the jockeying for position, patience, impatience, cursing, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

The other day, I was in full game-day mode when I thought I’d scored with the best spot on the lot. It was just past the row of handicap signs. “Today is our lucky day!” I almost sang to my wife as I turned the steering wheel, only to see a strange sign I’d not seen before: It had a picture of a stork on it with a swaddled baby in its beak. “What the…?” I uttered.

The sign said “Reserved for Expectant Mothers.” Now the Oxford Dictionary defines expectant as: Having or showing an excited feeling that something is about to happen, especially something good. So I tried to talk Alex into it. “You’re excited to be here today, right?” “Maybe you’re expecting? I mean, ya’ never know?” But she wasn’t buying my game-day logic. We ended up in the back row near what had to have been employee parking. Unless you’re employee of the month of course, then you’re up front with the expectant mothers.

The rules of the game have changed. Along with the stork and other newcomers, we’ve now got “Hybrid” parking and “Electric Vehicle” parking, for example. Now I own a Hybrid, so I’m always happy to get that spot, but a small part of me feels like I just played a game resulting in a tie. I didn’t really earn that spot through my cat-like reflexes, brilliant hand-eye coordination or freakishly-wide peripheral vision now did I?