GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Twenty-four years ago, the last time the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament was played without NHL players, Peter Forsberg won gold for Sweden in dramatic fashion, beating Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch in the sudden-death round of a shoot out.
In his hands was something also absent at this year's tournament in Pyeongchang -- a wooden stick.
In the near quarter-century since that event in Lillehammer, Norway -- voted Sweden's greatest sporting moment ever and commemorated on a postage stamp -- wooden sticks have gone the way of the dinosaur at the elite levels of hockey. In their place are ultra-lightweight sticks made of composite materials which players say allow them to shoot harder and control the puck better.
Forsberg himself continued playing with a wooden stick for several years after he made his NHL debut with the Quebec Nordiques, now the Colorado Avalanche, because early versions of the new stick were typically of a two-piece construction -- an aluminium or carbon fibre shaft with a wooden blade fitted in.
"I couldn't do the two-piece, I would rather play with the wood," Forsberg said in a recent interview here, where he is providing on-air analysis of the hockey tournament for Eurosport.
During one of the Avalanche's playoff runs in the early 2000s, his team mate Joe Sakic -- like Forsberg a two-time Stanley Cup winner and now a member of the NHL Hall of Fame -- let him try a new one-piece composite stick he had just acquired.
"I was shooting from every single angle, I'd never shot this hard in my entire life. I was shooting from everywhere," Forsberg said. "It kind of changed my game, too."
"I could barely get the puck in the air with a wooden stick but with the new technology and materials of the stick, I could shoot the puck too."
The wooden ice hockey stick dates to the early 19th century and its development is credited to the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia in Canada. The earliest versions were made of maple but eventually ash became the preferred material.
Sticks changed very little until the 1960s when the Chicago Blackhawks' Stan Mikita first popularised the curved blade, which revolutionised the game, improving players' ability to stickhandle and shoot.
Not much changed again for about three decades and then artificial materials began appearing, initially lightweight metals such as aluminium and now carbon fibre composites.
Jeff Dalzell, vice president of product creation and sourcing at CCM, one of the major hockey gear makers, said both wood and composite sticks offered flexibility down the shaft, allowing the player and the stick to share the workload in getting off a shot.
"What's happened now is the shaft is doing a much greater proportion of the work, and we can actually develop the fibres along the shaft at different points to actually work to different types of shooting," Dalzell said.
"That means that someone who likes to take slap shots would use a different product versus someone taking snap shots versus someone taking wrist shots."
Players also say how well they feel the puck with composite sticks as opposed to wood.
With wood, "there was not much feel," Dalzell said. "Today we can fine tune that feel and what they call 'the pop' -- the pop that comes off the stick, which is the stick's release factor off the shaft and off the blade, is so much faster. The puck is moving faster."
It is not just the sticks that have changed in the past quarter-century.
Skates are half the weight they used to be and are custom moulded to players' feet, allowing for greater acceleration from a dead stop, Dalzell said. Pads are lighter and more protective, and helmets are increasingly designed to avert brain injuries, all developments that have helped to reshape the sport, generally making it a much faster game.
But ask someone who played back then and plays now what they see as the big difference?
"Noticeably, it's the stick," said Team USA men's captain Brian Gionta, who was coming up through the junior hockey ranks when the Lillehammer Games were played. "They're so light and the puck just comes off it so easy."
"Before you were carrying around an old tree. It was heavy." (Editing by Clare Fallon)