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Broken sticks and broken plays just a part of the game

The puck was basically put on a tee for Brent Seabrook, who stood tall at the blue line and reared back, locked and loaded for the one-timer during a game at the United Center on Feb. 18. As the Blackhawks defenseman uncoiled and whipped the stick down toward the ice, the Red Wings on the ice between him and goaltender Jimmy Howard braced for the inevitable impact.

The shot went about a foot.

In fact, the bottom shard of Seabrook’s shattered stick flew farther down the ice than the puck did. Detroit pounced, turning what should have been a scoring chance for the Hawks into a 3-on-1 the other way, with Corey Crawford bailing out Seabrook with a nice save on Joakim Andersson.

“It’s frustrating when that happens,” Seabrook said. “Sometimes you have an opportunity to score or to get a good shot on net to create rebounds and chances, and the stick just breaks. I guess it’s luck of the draw. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

It seems like it’s been happening quite a bit during the playoffs, throughout the league. It was a full-blown story line in the Eastern Conference, as the New York Islanders saw three broken sticks become goals the other way during their first-round series loss to the Washington Capitals. At one point in Game 5 in Nashville, there were three broken sticks lying on the ice at one time — two from Hawks players, one from a Predators player.

Players are bigger and stronger than ever, and the composite sticks are lighter and more brittle than ever. So while the high-tech sticks give players better feel, more consistent customization and more power, there’s often a price to pay.

“It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, you’re kicking yourself,” Jonathan Toews said.

The worst part is, you never know when it’s going to happen. Block a shot off the shaft of your stick in the first period, and it might crumble in your hands in the second. A violent collision along the boards, a run-in with a post, or a few too many one-timers in warmups can compromise the integrity of a stick to the point where any contact at all will shatter it. Bryan Bickell said whenever he blocks a shot on the ice — “I don’t block too many,” he quipped — he always double-checks the stick when he gets back to the bench.

“You don’t want to go out there with a stick that’s just waiting to break,” he said.

Bickell estimated he uses about 80 sticks a year. Patrick Kane goes through as many as 100. Duncan Keith, one of the most finicky Hawks when it comes to his equipment, goes through even more.

Toews said he uses a new stick every game, because his take a beating. The slashing and crashing that goes on during a faceoff takes its toll.

“I usually have three on the bench,” Toews said. “I take a lot of draws, and there are always chips. Sometimes, you see a gash and you know it might be good for a few more shifts, but you don’t want to risk it, because you could be getting a good chance out there, and the next thing you know, you’re folding your stick in half.”

The instant that happens, players are required to drop the remains of the stick immediately to avoid a penalty. That triggers a mad scramble both on and off the ice. If a player loses his stick in the defensive zone, he’ll usually stay there and just use his body to prevent scoring chances. If a goalie loses or breaks his stick, a skater will usually hand off his for the remainder of the shift. But if it happens in the offensive zone, you’ll often see a skater race back to the bench, where an equipment manager has already leapt into action.

In one memorable moment on Feb. 6 of last season, Winnipeg’s Toby Enstrom broke his stick in the offensive zone against the Hawks. He rushed back to the bench, caught a replacement stick from an equipment manager in mid-air, and received the puck in stride — all in one remarkably fluid motion.

“The equipment guys are usually pretty quick if someone breaks a stick,” said Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose sticks take a pounding from all the shots he blocks. “The players [on the bench] usually scream what number it is, too, so they’re usually really quick with grabbing a stick there and getting it out to the guy.”

The irony is, the cheaper the sticks are in terms of sturdiness, the more expensive they are in terms of real money. Every shattered stick is several hundred bucks, just lying there on the ice. But that’s the price of technology. The old wood sticks pale in comparison to the power, lightness and customization that one-piece composites give a player.

But, man, they sure were durable.

“I haven’t played with a wood stick since I’ve been a pro,” Bickell said. “I remember back when I was younger, you’d use wood and it would last and last and last. Then you’d use it for a poker in the fire afterward. They never died.”

The new ones die. Early and often. But the players breaking them say it’s a small price to pay. (Of course, it helps that they’re not the ones paying for them.)

“You never want your stick to fail you,” Seabrook said. “But the technology’s come a long way. Broken sticks are just something you deal with. It’s just part of the game now.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus