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Hockey and Engineering combine forces

By Staff, 11/21/11, 9:45PM CST

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The Western Women’s Hockey League creates great opportunities for elite female athletes to play the game they love while also achieving careers in their respective areas of expertise. This holds true for Minnesota Whitecaps forward Amy Stech.

Stech is in the beginning stages of a project that could revolutionize the way hockey sticks are made. She is conducting a project on the mechanical properties of hockey sticks by studying the stiffness and vibration properties of the sticks.

Stech is currently working on her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Maine with her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. The University of Minnesota doesn’t have a concentration in sports engineering, so Stech chose a mix of classes that would help her achieve a career in said area of expertise.

After attending the USA Hockey Expo in the Twin Cities in Feb. 2011, Stech began to get an idea of what she wanted to accomplish with her project. As most hockey players know, different styles of hockey sticks have a different feel. Stech explained different sticks can also feel different to the handlers in different settings. For example, any given stick could feel different in a colder arena than in a warmer arena to some skaters.

“I wanted to figure out exactly what that meant,” Stech said. “It will be defining the terminology that we grow up with playing hockey.”

Stech will be testing different hockey sticks right out of the box with different controlled parameters. The sticks will go through two testing methods. The first is vibration. The sticks will be put through a simulation where a couple of hundred shots, passes and stick handling will be applied, which will create micro fractures in the stick. Stech will then test the sticks a second time to see if they have been worn down to a point where they become ineffective.

Stech will also test the deflection of the sticks. When one shoots a puck, their stick actually hits the ice before it strikes the puck and causes the stick to bend. The hockey sticks will be deflected and measured physically using a high-resolution camera. Stech will then analyze the deflection profile to find the stiffness of the each stick.

Testing the sticks isn’t easy. There has to be a consistent mass, which means the puck hitting the stick has to be the same load from the same distance every time.
“You can’t just staple the stick to a board,” Stech said. “You have to simulate what our hands are.”

Humans are not capable of holding the sticks to a consistent, controlled environment for the sticks by holding them exactly the same way every time. Stech will create a simulated human hand clamp that will hold the sticks and can be controlled and will be able to produce consistent, reliable results.

With every study, there are challenges. Stech cited getting useful information right away, making everything “extremely consistent and reliable,” and the budget as the major challenges she expects to face.
“A lot the money will be coming out of my own pocket,” Stech said. “Finally getting the results will be nice, and I do enjoy the design process.”

Hockey is, of course, a passion of Stech’s and one day she’d like to hold her ideal job of designing sporting equipment. Right now, though, it is about revolutionizing the way manufacturers think about making their hockey sticks.

“My project is the very beginning,” Stech said. “Nothing has been done in this much detail, and it can still branch out more.”