Dear Sports Fan,
I’ve been watching a bunch of hockey lately and really liking it, but there’s one thing I don’t get. When a defender’s stick breaks, the announcers usually make a big deal out of the fact that a forward will give his stick to the defender. What is this all about? Why do hockey forwards give their sticks to a defenseman? Wouldn’t it be better for the forward to just hold on to his own and let the defender get a new one?
There’s a rule in ice hockey that forces any player except the goalie who breaks his or her stick to drop it immediately. I’m pretty sure that this is a safety rule. A broken stick becomes an unpredictable and extremely sharp tool. Playing a sport with what is basically a weapon in your hands is dangerous enough, there’s no reason to allow that weapon to get more dangerous. Sticks do break pretty frequently though — at least a few times a game. When a stick breaks, its player is forced to continue playing without the benefit of a stick. There are a few options for this player. Substitutions are free-flowing in hockey, so the player can skate to her bench and have another player replace her on the ice. If the player was just starting his shift on the ice and doesn’t want to come off, he can skate past his bench and grab a stick that someone on the bench hands him and keep playing. Among the coaches on every hockey team’s bench is an equipment manager. At least at the NHL level, equipment managers stock several sticks per player and are incredibly adept at noticing when a player breaks his stick, grabbing the right one from their stock of extras, and having it ready to be handed to him within seconds. One of these two options, either substitute quickly and get off the ice, or skate by the bench and get a new stick, is the solution for maybe 75% of the situations when an ice hockey player breaks a stick. The other 25% of the time is when things get tricky.
When a player breaks her stick while she is in her own third of the rink, playing defense, there isn’t as simple of a solution. In the defensive zone, the cost of skating to the bench to get a new stick or to substitute is generally thought to be too great for the benefit of getting a new stick to outweigh. Conventional wisdom says that it’s better to play defense with all your players, even if one doesn’t have a stick, than it would be to give the other team a brief numerical advantage. Okay, so, there’s no easy way out. The difficult way involves playing defense without a stick. It’s probably worth taking a minute to think about why this is such a disadvantage. A hockey player without his stick is not completely lost, but he’s very close to it. Hockey players on defense use their sticks to try to intercept or prevent passes, to tie up opposing players’ sticks so they can’t pass or shoot, and to check an opponent with. A player without a stick has to use her hands or feet to do all of those things, which reduces the radius that they can defend from a circle as wide as their stick is long (four to six feet) to just a few feet on either side. It reduces their effectiveness defensively and it means that even if they do get the puck, they’ll have to awkwardly try to kick it to pass it to a teammate or clear the puck to mid-ice. It’s not fun for anyone to play hockey without a stick.
When one of the three forwards on the ice breaks her stick, she keeps playing if the play is in her defensive zone. When one of the two defenders breaks his stick, one of the forwards on his team will try to sneak back and hand him his stick. Even when this move is successful, it means the forward has to play without a stick and the defender has to play with one that’s unfamiliar and could be too short or too long or even curved the wrong way. As you pointed out, this seems like it could be a bad move. It’s worth it for two reasons. First, if the defensive team is able to get the puck back, it’s far easier for a forward to get to the bench for a new stick or a change. Forwards play closer to the middle of the ice where the team benches are. The second reason is about what responsibilities each position has on defense. The role of a forward playing defense is largely obstructive. They try to get in the way of the offense – to not let them get comfortable with the puck, to get into places where attackers would like to pass the puck and to throw their bodies in front of shots. Defenders are more controlled and targeted in the defensive zone. Each defender will be responsible for one side of the ice near the goal. They clear offensive players away from the net with their bodies and use their sticks as a last line of defense to prevent passes or shots from close range. If there’s a rebound in front of the net or a scramble for a loose puck, they’re going to be the ones to get the puck and smack it out of a dangerous position.
Given their jobs while playing defense, offensive players are marginally less affected by losing their sticks and their jobs are slightly more expendable. That, plus the fact that it’s going to be easier for them to get a new stick or a quick substitution, is why they give up their sticks to a defender without one. The same thing is true, but even more so, when a team is killing a power play. When a four player, or three player penalty kill unit breaks a stick, their team is in serious trouble but it’s still better for a forward to be without a stick than a defender.