Stop trying to play hockey without a stick!

Even at the highest levels of the sport, strategic response to equipment malfunction is lacking

As sticks break more often, teams need to develop a coherent response to the situation. - Photo credit / CBC

By: Dylan Webb, Sports Editor

In ice hockey, especially at the higher levels, a broken stick for one team leads to high quality scoring opportunities and goals for the other team. Most hockey fans have seen it happen. 

A team controls the puck in the offensive zone. Defenders on the opposing team are getting tired, and the structure of the defending team is beginning to break down. Maybe it’s even a powerplay situation, in which the team with control of the puck also has an extra player on the ice. Then, maybe from a point shot, or a slash from the other team, one of the defending players breaks their stick. 

The possibility of the defending team securing possession of the puck immediately decreases, as one of their players no longer has their most important piece of equipment. Further chaos ensues as the defending player, now operating at a significantly lower level of efficacy, flails around attempting to kick the puck away or get in the way of something or someone. Once in a while, a dramatic shot block or body check by the stickless player allows their team to successfully exit the defensive zone. More often than not though, unsurprisingly, the stickless defender proves largely ineffective, and the opposing team scores with relative ease. In my opinion, the increase in stick breakage during play necessitates some strategic adjustments. 

Of course, broken equipment is part of any sport. Ice hockey is anything but an exception since it requires a head-to-toe suit of armour, one of the most extensive, and expensive, sets of equipment required for any organized sport. The most commonly broken piece of this set of equipment is the stick. It’s also the most important piece of equipment, since it is used to control the puck, hockey’s central focus. While statistics on this are inadequate and sticks have always broken in high-level ice hockey, even when they were more like painted lumber, the instances of broken sticks during game play have significantly increased in recent years. 

This increase is hotly debated, and is likely due to multiple factors, including but not limited to, the increased strength of professional athletes supported by personal trainers and scientifically refined workout routines, and the manufacture of hockey sticks primarily for increased shot velocity, rather than durability. This article won’t delve into the causes of all of these broken sticks though. Instead, I want to suggest a change in the tactical response to the broken stick. 

Now, I admit that there is an immense amount of variation in the circumstances surrounding a broken stick during play that would provide a host of exceptions and qualifications to any guidelines I lay out. Despite this, I do think that there are some general changes that, at least to some extent, could limit the negative impact of the broken stick during play. 

Currently, it seems the response to a broken stick varies between team, player, and even league. Especially when it comes to a broken stick in the defensive zone when the other team has control of the puck, most often, players will stay in the zone and attempt to contribute to the defensive effort either by blocking a shot or using their body to obstruct one of the opposing players. 

Given that being on the ice without a stick is only slightly more effective than not being on the ice at all, I’m convinced that a better response to the situation is to immediately skate to the bench for a new stick, or, even better, leave the ice to allow a teammate to come on in your place. If players react immediately to a broken stick by skating to the bench for a new one, or a change, the 10 or so seconds of being completely short a player will still be far less dangerous than having a player attempt to play until the next whistle, up to an entire shift, without a stick. 

Further to this, while I understand the excitement of the dramatic moments equipment managers face when a player breaks their stick and comes rushing by the bench for a new one, the more pragmatic response would be to simply leave the ice so a teammate, fully equipped, can take your place. Why submit to all the risks of a frantic stick exchange between trainer and active player, like it not being ready or getting a wrong handed stick, when a quick change will serve the same purpose and be completed just as quickly, if not faster? More importantly, why attempt to continue playing without your stick, even for a few seconds, when a new stick or a fully equipped teammate are waiting at the bench just a few strides away? 

This is one area where I think analytics and gamesmanship should, and eventually will, outweigh ideals of personal heroism and stickless defense. While my general suggestions here may not be fully developed or suitable, I’m certain that professional hockey teams, and their analytics departments, have room to update and strengthen their tactical response to broken sticks during play in ways that would reduce the obvious competitive disadvantage that arises in these situations. 

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