When it comes to hockey sticks, I never made it far enough to experience the NHL's policy of "use whatever you want, and if you can get paid to use a certain brand of stick, more power to you."
Instead, I dabbled in the glories of the minor leagues, where they support the slightly-less-flexible "use Reebok or don't play" model. The AHL does allow for three exemptions per team, and smart players go out of their way to negotiate one of those spots into their contract. But beyond that, it's black and white: use this or beat it.
I'm going to be doing some periodic work for Easton in the next few months, so they flew me up to Minnesota to meet the team last weekend. There, I had the opportunity to talk with one of their major stick reps — a guy who deals with the players of eight NHL teams — and ask him how NHLers deal with major stick companies.
Shocker of all shockers, turns out the players get a pretty decent deal.
First, they start with a blank slate — they can use, try, or mess with whatever stick in the world they want. If they're second or third liners in a good market — and the "good market" part is key here — then they can probably finagle some cash or product out of a company for using their twigs.
In great markets like Toronto, rest assured every player on that team is cashing a cheque from the company clearly displayed on their stick. (Yes, that includes players who don't even need sticks for anything but slashing).
In Atlanta or Phoenix? It's unlikely you're seeing a whole lot of kickback.
If your preference in twigs is Bauer, and Bauer offers you nine bucks to use their sticks for the year, it makes sense: you were going to use them anyway, so you might as well take that lunch money and carry on as usual. If you're torn between brands, the stick sponsorship can serve as a decider for you.
What shocked me is just how close the actual dollar amounts are to the nine-dollar example I just used. It's not uncommon that a second-or-third line player in a decent market would get a one-year deal for a number somewhere between two and four thousand dollars. That two-to-four thousand may come in the form of golf clubs or other sports products (small kickbacks of product or cash not totalling very much money — four thousand or less — are referred to as "spiffs" in the industry.)
That said, one brand has really upped the ante and is snapping up NHL players left and right for way above average, possibly moving the status quo in regards to how much cash these guys will want from other companies in the future.
This year, a good number of these second and third liners in decent markets started receiving between 10 and 15 thousand dollars (in general, 5K in gear, 10K in cash) for the season.
What blows me away about that is, compared to what these players earn, that dollar amount is peanuts. Not even. It's packing peanuts. You might think it'd be worth it to take nothing and keep your options open, but apparently not to most pros.
Cash is king and, like most humans, pro hockey players can be bought.
Of course, the NHLs' top dogs see figures that leave the rest of the league and their measly pittances in the dust, regardless of where they play. Once you start talking about studs like Sidney Crosby(notes), Alexander Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos(notes), you can sleep easy knowing that some real cheques with some real zeroes are being cashed.
Interestingly, they get the big bucks, and aren't necessarily confined to their sponsor brand in rare cases.
When I played in the minors, I learned about NHLers with endorsement deals who didn't even use the products of the company that was paying them, despite appearances. Here's a random example: say Joe Thornton(notes) likes Eagle gloves, but has a deal to use CCM. Well, CCM will get him Eagle gloves, then custom-modify them to look like their latest CCM's — if your name is big enough, this can be made to work with sticks (and skates) as well. Talk about the best of both worlds.
All in all, it seems like a pretty good deal to me, even though I thought the dollars and cents would be bigger: You pick the sticks, the team buys the sticks, then the companies gives you some cash or swag.
I think I could live with that.
It certainly sounds better than my current setup, which is to take my debit card to the local hockey shop and give it a swipe.
That's where they really stick it to you.