We cherish some sporting gear: the baseball glove anointed with oils, golf clubs hooded under monogrammed cozies, the handmade, ebony-inlaid, two-piece pool cue caressed with expensive waxes.
But nobody loves the hockey puck. Even the name is cold and hard. Puck: breaker of teeth, blackener of eyes, an obsidian villain that at best evokes indifference from Moose Jaw to Minnetonka. It may sound friendly in French—la rondelle—but even in Quebec, hockey's gelid Garden of Eden, no one thinks much of, or much about, the game's object of contention. Is there nothing, then, to say for this neglected disk? On the contrary.
Ice hockey developed from folk games played in the British Isles and France with balls made of wood or cork. Called hocquet in France, hurley in Ireland, bandy in England and shinny in Scotland, these types of field hockey intersected in 19th-century Canada's French and English culture and were relocated to ice. Today the sport's bucolic roots are reflected in the term shinny hockey, the informal version of the game in which anything handy—a chunk of wood, a shard of ice, a clod of frozen horseplop—will serve as the smackable center of attention.
There is some debate over when the first ice hockey game was played, and the genesis of the modern puck is equally uncertain. But hockey lore holds that the first disk took shape in the 1880s when the proprietor of the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal sliced off the top and bottom of a solid rubber ball, so it would slide rather than bounce across the ice.
Most of the pucks found in sporting-goods stores are Czechoslovakian-made cheapies. But virtually all game pucks used in the National, American, Western, Ontario and Quebec Hockey Leagues, and many of those in collegiate play, are made for In Glas Co Ltd. of Sherbrooke, Que., at the Baron Rubber Ltd. factory in St.-J�r�me, 20 miles north of Montreal.
Light and dark amber blocks of natural and synthetic rubber are the basic ingredients from which pucks spring. Following an industrial recipe, a technician loads the spongy slabs of raw rubber (at a 1:9 ratio of natural to synthetic material) into the bin of a machine called a Banbury. The operator also pours in an activator, a chemical agent such as sulfur, that affects how quickly the rubber will cure. Carbon black, which gives the mixture color and influences the chemical reaction, and oils, which also help in the mixing process, are added to the conglomeration, which is then blended by two large rotor blades.
After being thoroughly mixed for about four minutes, the hot, 65-kilogram glob drops out of the bin onto motorized rollers, which squeeze out bubbles and flatten the wad. The resulting sheet is then cut off the rollers, rolled up and cooled in a bath. Samples are taken to ensure that the batch will produce a rubber of the desired hardness, resiliency and density. When the lab gives the go-ahead, the rolled sheets of rubber are loaded into another machine, called a Barwell, which produces the blanks from which the pucks will be molded. The Barwell pushes the rubber through holes that admit the precise amount of material needed to form each one-inch-thick, three-inch-diameter, six-ounce puck. The blanks then move on a conveyor belt through a refrigerated compartment, which slows the curing process before final molding.
Top-grade pucks are injection-molded out of virgin—first-use, nonrecycled—compound. Less expensive practice pucks are compression-molded and, typically, are made from cheaper grades of rubber or recycled material, such as ground-up automobile tires, as filler. The injection process results in a higher degree of precision in the puck specifications than does compression. But whether they begin life as virgin compound or "tire crumb," the blanks go into molds and are baked at 365� F for six minutes for injection-molding, or 11 minutes for compression-molding. A tread, called a knurling, is imprinted by the mold onto the puck's circumference to allow for better stick-handling. At peak production, the Baron factory can turn out 12,000 pucks daily.
Once they've been rolled, squeezed and cooked into existence, pucks are popped out of the molds and packed in wooden crates, 5,760 to a crate. Those destined for NHL action go to the In Glas Co facility in Sherbrooke, where the league logo is silk-screened on one side, team emblems on the other. In Glas Co sells game pucks to individual NHL clubs for about $1 apiece in boxes of 100; practice pucks cost about 65 cents each.
NHL clubs store game pucks in freezers to deaden their bounce. During games, two or three dozen are kept on hand at the scorer's table. Denis Drolet, In Glas Co's president, says each NHL team buys about 5,000 game and 10,000 practice pucks a year, which means the league as a whole goes through more than 100,000 game pucks and 200,000 unadorned practice disks.