When Phil Kessel astonished the hockey world twice and crushed the spirits of the Boston Bruins Wednesday night with his lightning release, Brad Janson was watching from his living room in Kitchener, Ont., and he was not the least bit surprised.
You may not know who Brad Janson is, but hockey players certainly do. Janson has forged a career supplying sticks to some of the biggest stars in the game, which he currently does for Easton, the company that supplies Kessel with what Wednesday night was his Weapon of Rask Destruction. This past summer, at the urging of Kessel and Janson, Easton came up with a stick called the Stealth CX that has made Kessel even more dangerous than he was before.
Now it’s not all stick technology. Kessel’s wrists, which he built up religiously as a young player, are about three times the thickness of the average. And he obviously has a fast-twitch muscle memory that is the envy of any athlete. There is not a player in the league who gets the puck off his stick more quickly than Kessel does – Alex Ovechkin included - and his ability to do so catches goalies so unaware the puck is behind them before they know it. If you’re looking for comparables from the past, start with Steve Shutt and Mike Bossy.
Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle referenced Kessel’s second goal in his team’s 6-1 win over the Bruins as a perfect example of that. “The puck hits areas in the net that you’d never think they’d score from,” Carlyle said of players of Kessel’s ilk. “They puck hits areas in the net that you’d never think they’d score from. That second goal was a real surprise that he put the puck in an area where (Tuukka) Rask just couldn’t get to it, simple as that.”
Back to the stick. First, Kessel knows his sticks the way surgeons know their scalpels, which stands to reason since it’s such a big part of his game. He knows the minutest details of his stick and he’s obsessive about them. And because he shoots the puck so quickly, he needs a stick that has strength at the point where the blade and the shaft meet.
That part of the stick is known as the hosel. Even when traditional one-piece sticks are constructed, they start with a blade that has a hosel that is five-to-six inches long that is inserted into the shaft, then glued and sanded down and fused together. So it’s not really a one-piece stick. But what Easton did this summer at Kessel’s urging was make a true one-piece stick that does not have a hosel, thereby eliminating the weakest point in the stick.
“He doesn’t really take the stick off the ice,” Janson said. “He actually bends the stick and makes the stick snap back. That’s what propels (the puck). He wants that stick to snap back as quickly as possible so the puck flies off the stick. So we had to come up with a design that when he bends it, that it actually wants to snap back to its original state as quickly as possible. So we came up with a design where we eliminated the fusion of the blade and the hosel.”
For his part, the shy and reserved Kessel didn’t tip his hand when asked about the secret behind his shot. “I’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said. “I just kind of shoot it.”
Kessel’s teammates and coach were much more loquacious about his shooting. Linemate James van Riemsdyk sees Kessel’s shot up close every day in practice and in games and marvels at the way he is able to release the puck.
“He’s got that smaller blade and whippy stick and he’s able to just use it like a slingshot,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s the stick, but if you gave that stick to me, I wouldn’t be shooting it like that.”
Carlyle was asked if he’s ever played with or coached anyone with that kind of release and he recalled his days playing with Rick Kehoe in Pittsburgh. In 1980-81, Kehoe had 55 goals using that same kind of pop. “He had the same kind of release,” Carlyle said. “He had that quick wrist shot. A different kind of player, but that release. And that’s the thing those special goal scoring players have. The release is something that is natural to them and they don’t waste any time.”