Like any serious stick collector, Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner has a carefully thought-out wish list. His favorites have a story, so he made sure to get one from Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price last year because Price went on to win the NHL’s MVP award. Now, he wants Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin’s stick, suspecting Panarin will be the rookie of the year.
“I’m always thinking about it, so I can go back and be like, ‘Oh yeah, this was Panarin’s rookie of the year stick,’ ” Alzner said.
In the NFL and professional soccer, players often exchange jerseys on the field after games. In the NHL, mementos from peers are acquired in private, members of teams’ equipment staffs often making the actual swap. Sticks and blades are bartered, and teams typically have at least one player who collects.
There is that oft-repeated adage that there are no friends on the ice, but off it, players are fans, too — and some will go to great lengths for a stick they really want.
“If anybody ever asks for my stick, I think it’s pretty cool,” Colorado forward Matt Duchene said. “It’s a bit of an honor to have your peers want one.”
Alzner and Alex Ovechkin are the Capitals’ most avid collectors. For Ovechkin, swaps are simple because his own stick is sought after due to his elite status and the blade’s unique curve. Ovechkin estimated he has 60 sticks — legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull represented — displayed along the walls of his home gym.
“If you’re a guy like me,” Alzner said, “you just hope that they give you one.”
Though a steady and valued defenseman for Washington, Alzner isn’t a hockey household name, so acquiring stars’ sticks when they likely don’t want yours takes some ingenuity. Alzner laughed that his stick has only been requested back twice, with one occasion being this season. He asked Detroit Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin for a stick as they lined up for a faceoff, and a flattered Larkin wanted to trade, so Alzner inscribed a message to the speedy 19-year-old to “slow down.”
“Those are kind of the cool ones that I’ll look back in 20 or 30 years and be able to see that, especially a player of his caliber,”Alzner said. “He can have one heck of a career, so it’s neat to have that.”
That the practice is considered to be what Ottawa’s Zack Smith called an “elite players’ ritual” makes some players hesitant to participate. Smith said he wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for someone’s stick because of the occasionally abrasive role he plays on the ice. Washington’s Tom Wilson agreed. “It’s kind of tough when you go out and hammer a guy and then ask for a stick after,” Wilson said with a shrug.
Though not everyone collects, opposing players’ sticks can be acquired for the purpose of testing them in practice, as Wilson did with Jack Eichel’s earlier this season. Others request signed sticks for charity auctions.
“As a young guy, I haven’t pushed my hand yet, but that’s something I think I really want to get involved in,” Senators forward Curtis Lazar said. “It’s cool. I’m 21, but playing against guys at the end of their career, you’re going to keep those as keepsakes. I lived with Chris Phillips last year, and he has a bit of a collection. It’s something you’re going to keep for a while. I guess when I get more comfortable and get more games in, for sure I’ll join the trade.”
Exchanges are particularly popular at All-Star Games or international tournaments. Some in-season swaps are arranged through connections, a player texting his friend on an opposing team before a game to ask a teammate if he’s willing to sacrifice a stick. If it’s a trade, both players will notify a member of their respective equipment staff, and a stick unlikely to be used again is picked out, autographed, set aside and then later exchanged.
Other players prefer to ask themselves. The negotiations will occasionally occur in warmups or even during a game. Alzner asked Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara for a stick before a faceoff; when Chara skated by Alzner as the period expired, he asked whether Alzner wanted it autographed.
Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan agreed to give Alzner a stick, but then forgot after the game. A few days later, Doan relayed an apology through the teams’ equipment managers and promised to have a stick for Alzner next time.
The more unique a stick is, the more desirable. Alzner pines for the stick of San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, in part because he uses so few a year. It’s in two pieces, so Thornton typically just changes out the blade. Alzner has tried and failed to get one for three or four years, but is hopeful former Capitals winger Joel Ward, now with the Sharks, can help facilitate an acquisition.
The best stories seem to always involve the pursuit of a Jaromir Jagr stick — or as Ottawa’s Smith accurately put it, “the most sought-after stick right now.” The 44-year-old Florida Panthers forward has a reputation for not giving away many sticks.
“I think it took [Jason] Spezza five or six years to finally get one from him,” Smith said.
“I probably tried to ask Jags for three or four years,” the Dallas Stars center later clarified. “He was a guy that I really liked as a younger player coming up and a guy that I kind of tried to watch. He’s really particular with his stick, so it took me a few years to track down his stick, but I got one.
“It’s definitely one of the jewels of my collection. . . . It became a bit of a joke. I’d send the trainers over, and they’d ask. I think the first time I asked him myself. Eventually, it ended up filtering over my way.”
Colorado’s Duchene has an even better Jagr stick story.
“[Devils goaltender] Cory Schneider is a friend of mine, so when [Jagr] was in Jersey, I asked Schneids to get me one,” Duchene said. “He got me one, put it aside and someone stole it before it got to me. It took two more years to get one.”
Alzner got a Jagr stick through Martin Erat, who knew Jagr well because of their shared Czech roots. He considers that the coolest of his collection, along with the stick of former Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Duchene’s favorite in his stock is the last stick with which Peter Forsberg ever played.
Asked about the sticks he still wants, Alzner is reminded to check on one hunt.
“You know who is the toughest right now? [Edmonton Oilers rookie] Connor McDavid,” Alzner said. “They’re not giving out many of his sticks this year. I have two hookups though, so I’m hoping they can come through for me. They haven’t . . . yet.”