New Stick, Old School

Although I played in goal, I always had a small stick to throw around with, usually with my good buddy, Ed. My first stick (shown above, top) was a middie stick cut to attack length. Meh — not a very good stick. Later, with this example of mediocrity as my guide, I chose a really beautiful attack stick from the lot my coach brought back from the East Coast (there was no equipment to be had in the West). Somewhere along the line, I lost it. Boy, I’d love to have that stick back. Anyway, I started coaching 7th and 8th graders last season, all part of trying to come to terms with the game anew. I knew I needed a short stick to feed with, demo with, and generally pitch balls about with.

But I wanted a stick that fit me. Let’s face it, I’m old school. I wanted a stick that said that and owned it. I wanted a stick that did all the amazing things modern sticks do with the magical feel the old sticks had. Today’s sticks, with their gleaming white plastic heads, composite or metal shafts and synthetic stringing feel a bit machine-like. I was looking for an organic feel, not a synthetic one. To make it mine, I wanted to construct as much of the stick as I could with my own hands. Plus, there’s no better way to learn about new-age equipment than by taking it apart and putting it back together.

Choosing a head. To start with, I needed to source the one part I really am in no shape to make myself: the head (though I looked into how it could be done!). God knows there are tons of choices. Thinking old-school, I decided to go back to the source, to go back to the people who had made my wooden sticks years ago, the Iroquoi. So I chose a Mohawk head, the MIL Mission. I got it online (there’s nowhere in Seattle I can buy one). Only the offset felt modern, and it’s comforting to know I can get a version without the offset, the Mission Extreme, if I want to really enter the Wayback Machine. But the idea was to have a stick at the end of the day that would embody the best of the old world, and the best of the new. Looked at this way, an offset head just made sense. Out of the box, the Mission had the kind of mass and stiffness that a wood-stick guy like me could appreciate. But it sure was white, and it sure was plastic. White plastic is undoubtedly is what’s accepted. All the coaches I work with and the pros I see on the ’Net, mostly have sticks that are pretty much unaltered — it’s only the kids who fool around with dying and taping and bright colored stringing, it seems. Their sticks can get a bit gaudy, but I want to say here that I’m with the kids on this. In the days of wooden sticks, when each stick was a one-of-a-kind object, when you finally got the right stick, is was yours, it was a statement about you and your game. The kids are doing something really natural and I think good; as they evolve into lacrosse players with highly individual skills, their stick evolves with them, marking the occasion. Their sticks are an organic part of their lives.

Developing a Palette. So the first thing I wanted to change about it was the color, to kind of erase the shock of plastic. But if not white, what color or colors should the head be? I’m a designer, and designers are trained to develop a color palette as a starting point.

Since I wanted a stick that felt old-school, I decided to return to the fountainhead, design-wise. As stated, I decided to have my stick’s design hark back to the first people to play the game. I did some research on what colors the Iroquoi (or in their own tongue, Haudenosaunee) would have used. What better choice, in this regard, for the game that is the “little brother of war” than the colors of Iroquoi war paint? The “peoples of the long house” apparently used dramatic reds and blacks to announce to the world that ass-kicking time had arrived, modeled in the period painting above right. If you look at the painting, and compare it to the pic of the finished stick (top, lower), you can see how I chose my palette. It’s good design to restrict your palette, and mine is all in earth tones, natural hickory and walnut, leather tones and a splash of red between blood and sienna. By the way, as the hickory in the new shaft oxidizes, it will become more yellow, like the old stick, and slowly come to match the tawny shade of the head better.

Dying the Head. When it came to methods of altering the head’s color, I was in luck. It turns out there is a whole subculture of plastic-head dyers. There are even contests for the best results. The Internet yielded a cornucopia of good advice on dying heads. I got some Rit dyes in various colors, though one of my 8th graders, Jake, scoffed at the choice. I look forward to the da when I know more about sticks than the kids do. Anyway, the dyes I got worked fine.

My first thought was a two-tone, diagonal dye job, to give the stick the off-balance look the old sticks had, you know, with one sidewall the hickory of the shaft and the other the gut wall. Comparing my old middie head with my new head in the pic at the top of the page, I think you can see what I was getting at. The biggest surprise was how quickly and securely the dye took to the plastic of the heads. You can see my apparatus dying a Brine “Money” goalie head with the same scheme (right). The dye also mixes well on the stick, creating nice overlays and pleasing gradients.

Stringing the New Head “Old School.” I’d repaired the stringing on my old sticks before, but had never strung a traditional pocket before. It was listed on one of the sites I visited for advice as pretty easy, but I found it pretty tricky. I purchased leather laces at a leather shop, cut them and scored them. It was clear which holes the leathers should go through at the top of the head, a little less clear how they fit near the throat. Still, I got it right, I think. I had neglected to stretch the leather thongs before I started, so I treated them with mink oil, drew them tight and blocked them up to stretch (as shown).

I got the lacing online. It was bright orange (the closest I could get), so I dyed the nylon string with blue, which turned it to a color between Chinese orange and rust. The lacing is one continuous piece, and getting the knots and diamonds more or less consistent required doing it twice. It’s still not perfect, indicating more practice is needed.

I had three white hockey laces I tinted tan and used initially for the shooting strings. But the top string just couldn’t be tightened enough to avoid the ball catching on the plastic of the scoop, so I replaced that with more nylon. It worked well. At some point, I’m going to try some rawhide for the top shooting string; it should give just a tiny bit, and be just the right transition from the soft laces to the hard plastic.

Giving it the Shaft. If you’ve followed any of what I’ve written before, you’ve heard all you want about the virtues of a wooden shaft. I’ll just say that the tactile combination of the hickory on your hands and the ball rolling up the leathers is what really makes this stick “old school,” much more than the looks. This shaft is made from a fine grain hickory billet, split into two, the two halves reverse grained, glued and pegged with walnut dowels. It’s finished off with a walnut knob.

The Critics Speak. Taking “old school” to practice, the response was as I would have predicted: the other coaches were cool to it but the kids ate it up. Several asked me if it was made of wood — mission accomplished. In any event, I got what I wanted, a stick that bridged my playing days with the new era.

Frozen in a freak accident called life, Mark Bocek was only recently thawed. Upon his resuscitation, he discovered that the game of lacrosse had changed in a multitude of ways. Back when men were men and sticks were made from trees, Bocek was a four-year starter in goal for Bishop Dagwell Hall, now Oregon Episcopal School. Back in the swing, Mark coaches goal and D for North Seattle Lacrosse. He writes a blog, “The Gut Wall,” which appears on his own site, In the big picture, Bocek is a partner at Dreamhand Design Studios, a firm specializing web and print design and implementation.

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