by Justin Swackhamer || AHL On The Beat Archive
With the aid of new technology, hockey stick manufacturers are able to create high-tech sticks that are sworn by their makers to give players harder shots even though they weigh less than the average wooden stick.
Mostly, the ultra-light, ultra-expensive composite sticks are trendy alternatives to the old-fashioned wooden sticks that were commonplace in professional hockey up until the mid-1990s.
Rochester Americans defenseman Noah Welch is not interested in trends, however. He is interested in what works.
“In high school, I used a two-piece — an aluminum shaft with a wooden blade — and I kept breaking my blades,” said Welch, who came to the Amerks after being traded from Pittsburgh to Florida for Gary Roberts on Feb. 27. “I borrowed a buddy’s stick. It was a big log pretty much. I used it and I liked it a lot.”
Welch is a rarity in professional hockey these days, as a vast majority of professional players have made the move to the high-tech composite, aluminum and graphite shaft sticks. For Welch, it was an easy decision to stick with his tried and true wooden puck-flinger, when other players were making the switch.
“My wooden stick didn’t break and my slap shot was a lot harder,” said the 6-foot-4 blueliner. “I felt like I had a lot better feel for the puck. I stuck with it because it was cheaper than the two-piece sticks that I kept breaking. When you’re in high school and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s hard to keep replacing those. I did well with it (the wooden stick) my junior and senior years.”
After attending St. Sebastian’s High School, Welch was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round (54th overall) of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. From there, he chose to attend Harvard University, where he racked up several team and NCAA awards.
Welch’s decision to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the in the world was a relatively simple one to make, although academics were not the only factor in his decision. He says that he would not have attended Harvard if it would have hurt his chances in making it to the NHL.
“They (Harvard) were a school that recruited me pretty adamantly in prep school, and I really liked the coaches,” said Welch, who grew up just outside of Boston in Brighton, Mass. “I grew up watching BC (Boston College), BU (Boston University) and Harvard hockey games. When I was younger, we used to go on Sundays. I knew the equipment manager at Harvard, and he used to get us ice over there. We’d play hockey for five hours and then rollerblade home.
“I grew up in that atmosphere. I knew it was a school that I definitely wanted to go to, but I wasn’t going to go there, unless I thought I could play pro hockey. If I thought it was going to hurt my hockey career at all, I wouldn’t have gone.”
Also a factor in Welch’s decision was his ability to play in the tournament that he had watched as a youngster, the most prestigious tournament in New England – the Beanpot. Featuring the four Division I college hockey teams in Boston (BU, BC, Northeastern University and Harvard), the Beanpot is an annual tournament held to grant bragging rights to its winner. A chance to play in the esteemed tournament was an opportunity that Welch could not pass up.
“It pretty much just came down to the Beanpot schools, and I thought Harvard was the best fit for me,” Welch explained. “Obviously, using hockey to get into a school like that, and getting a degree from there, was also very appealing to me, but it was more of a hockey decision than most people may think.”
Welch got his chance to play in the Beanpot, but unfortunately, never won it. Harvard did not even make an appearance in the final during his four years there. Despite his team’s humble results, Welch relished his opportunity to play in the great Boston-based tourney.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best record in the Beanpot,” said Welch. “But it’s a tournament that I grew up watching. Just being able to participate was very special. It’s one of the things that I regret about my career at Harvard was not winning the Beanpot.”
Welch may not have won the Beanpot, but he did win a heap of individual honors. In 2002, he was named Harvard’s co-Rookie of the Year and earned ECAC All-Rookie honors. In his final three years with the Crimson, he earned several All-ECAC awards and was named a First Team All-American in his senior year.
It was during his senior campaign that he also served as the team’s captain. Even though he was no longer required to buy his own sticks, Welch stuck with his trusty wooden lumber throughout his college career.
“When I went to Harvard, it was kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “I didn’t want to switch anything up, so I stuck with it there. I actually tried a one-piece at one point, but I was awful with it. It was too light and too flexible.”
Besides the fact that Welch enjoys the way his wooden sticks help him on the ice, it is the way they help others off the ice that means the most to him. Welch enjoys the fact that his sticks are inexpensive, relative to costly composite sticks, which allows him to give them away readily to eager children.
When a stick’s life is over on the ice, Welch then uses the lumber as an ambassador to himself and his sport off the ice. After all, what kid does not like getting a hockey stick?
“The good thing about woods is that when they’re getting old and you can’t use them in practice and games, you get to give them away to people,” said Welch. “I give away a lot of sticks to kids, which is a nice thing. It makes me feel good.”
With a quite a bit of NHL experience in his short professional career, Welch looks to be a promising new addition to the Amerks organization. His presence on the blue line will be a formidable obstacle for opposing forwards, and his presence in the locker room will help lead a young Amerks in their lives on and off the ice, as his philanthropic qualities are a good model for any young athlete.
Perhaps he can teach us all an important lesson: it is not what kind of stick you use, it is what you do with it that matters.