When Tiger Woods switches drivers, it's front page news. But what happens when hockey players decide to change the tools of their trade?
Whether they're just looking for an edge on the competition or trying to break out of a prolonged slump, the pros in the rinks are every bit as particular about their equipment as those on the links.
And then some.
Take Brett Hull for example. One of the NHL's most prolific goal scorers -- he of two Stanley Cups, 716 goals and almost 1,200 games -- doesn't fool around when it comes to his weapons of choice. If something's not to his liking, he changes it and makes no apologies. Look back over the course of his 16-year NHL career, and you'll see Hull sporting logos of just about every company that has ever supplied gear to the NHL.
Hull's newest equipment supplier, however, hopes to put an end to this trend. Mission Hockey, of Santa Ana, Calif., recently signed the Detroit Red Wings right winger to a two-year endorsement deal to use their gloves, skates and sticks.
It's those last two items about which Hull is especially demanding.
"Those are the tools of his game," Paul Boyer, Detroit's head equipment manager, told ESPN.com. "For the most part, skates and sticks are the game for these guys. They're the most important tools in their tool box, and if something's not right they've got to change it."
The fact that Hull, who is vacationing in Mexico, sees the need to change anything after scoring 37 goals and 39 assists for 76 points last season (improving on his 30-33-63 totals the previous year), is somewhat surprising.
But the reason, he says, is simple -- performance. For 2003-04, Hull will have a noticeably different look as he exchanges his Graf skates, Eagle gloves and Easton and Innovative sticks for everything Mission. All but his helmet, a model from Itech, will be new for Hull this coming season.
"Brett just likes to use the latest and greatest," Boyer added. "Why fight technology? He's one of the guys who's very knowledgeable about hockey equipment."
Charged with meeting the demands of Mission's newest and highest-profile endorsee is John Kirk, vice-president of pro team services.
"Everyone in hockey circles knows that Brett is very, very particular about his equipment, as he should be," said Kirk. "And for him to say he wants to be with Mission, it's a huge signing for us."
Kirk, who joined Mission late last year after 14 years of servicing pro players for Bauer Nike Hockey, said his long-standing relationship with Hull dates back to 1987-88 when Hull was traded from the Calgary Flames to the St. Louis Blues.
"If a player is demanding, that's their right," Kirk added. "This is their livelihood, and it's up to the companies to take care of their needs. I don't have a problem with a player being demanding, because we're demanding of ourselves."
Catering to a player's needs under the terms of a paid endorsement contract involves a lot more than greasing palms. Craig Johnson, Mission's global director of ice hockey, declined to divulge the financial details of the deal, but stressed money is only part of the company's commitment to Hull.
"You can't sign long term deals with these guys any more," he said. "If they stop performing with your brand, they will switch out. If the product itself is not performing, a player's not going to stick with an inferior product just because he's being paid."
Mission actually began working with Hull during the latter half of last season, and was hoping to get him to use the company's new M1 one-piece composite stick during the playoffs. That is, until the Anaheim Mighty Ducks scuttled those plans by sweeping the Red Wings in the opening round.
Hull has exacting requirements for his sticks, and is well known for using one that is extremely flexible. Had Hull made the switch, it would have been a bold step during a crucial time, and could have translated into a significant amount of exposure for Mission.
"That's his game," said Boyer. "He uses a very, very whippy stick, and it works. Nobody shoots the puck like him."
For an equipment supplier such as Mission, this means delivering a senior stick that has the flex equivalent somewhere between a junior and intermediate model, but which also has enough strength in the lower part of the shaft to provide accuracy.
"Making the shaft, in relation to the blade, is the most difficult thing in Brett's case," said Johnson. "The key is to provide the shaft flexibility he wants, yet not having the blade torque or fan open on one of his shots."
Mission's composite sticks are actually made by California-based golf club manufacturer Aldila, which faces similar requests in its core business, Johnson adds.
By itself, the Hull signing could be a groundbreaking deal at the pro hockey level for Mission, with NHL sales expected to multiply many times over during the 2003-04 season. And considering some unfortunate news Mission received recently, the Hull signing has become even more significant
The Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization that oversees all Canadian major junior teams in the Ontario, Quebec Major Junior and Western hockey leagues, has limited the number of brands supplying its teams. Early this year the CHL signed a five-year, multimillion-dollar deal with The Hockey Company of Montreal -- maker of the CCM, Jofa and Koho brands -- to become exclusive supplier of helmets, gloves, pants, protective equipment and uniforms to all 55 CHL teams.
The skate and stick categories, however, were non-exclusive and were to be open to other companies. However, Mission recently learned it would not be able to sell its products into either category for at least three years when the licenses expire.
Considering how popular hockey is in Canada, the number of CHL players who graduate to the NHL, and the fact the CHL's licensing deals apply to the Canadian national junior team, such a development could represent a significant barrier for the company.
"It's pretty significant with regard to making headway into the important Canadian market," Johnson says. "A lot of kids look up to players in the CHL, as well as members of the Canadian junior team. It's difficult to be on the outside looking in."
Meanwhile, Mission said it plans to forge ahead with a continued focus on U.S. college hockey, where it has equipment supply arrangements with teams such as the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the two-time defending national champions.
All of this means that at the 2004 World Junior Championship, beginning in December in Helsinki, the Mission brand will not be used by any Canadian players, but may be worn by some of the other nations in the tournament.
This point would not be especially noteworthy, if it not for this irony: The last time Canada was on the international hockey stage, at the 2003 IIHF World Championships in May, Canada beat Sweden for its first gold medal since 1997. Who should score the winning goal in overtime, but Anson Carter of the New York Rangers, who just happens to be a head-to-toe Mission endorsee.
Wayne Karl is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.