NOT YOUR MOTHER'S FIELD HOCKEY STICK
By Al Mattei
The field hockey stick has gone from the cousin of an ice hockey stick -- complete with a big blade and thick rows of black tape -- to a light, technologically enhanced weapon that can make the ball do things unthinkable even in the early 1990s.
Indeed, when you check out the vendor tables at any national field hockey event, the sticks for sale are steadily evolving away from the traditional standards of composition and construction.
Some now have a large bend from the handle down to the toe. Others are made of two space-age composite tubes, bonded together with carbon fiber.
There are sticks with a noticable groove all the way up the front side -- making it look like the obverse of the back side. Others have a very long toe that is literally in the shape of a flat ring.
And, according to the rules, they're all legal.
International rules, published by Le Federation International de Hockee (FIH), are simple enough. The stick is destribed as having a "traditional" J-shape with a curve, a flat left side, and with no rough or sharp edges.
But for Andrew Smith and a number of outside-the-box thinkers, there are loopholes in those words large enough to drive an SUV through.
Smith, an assistant coach at Dartmouth College, started experimenting with field hockey stick shapes in the early 1990s while on the club level.
"All I would do is strip off the outer coating and soak the wood so that I could shape it how I wanted to," he says. "Then, I had to try to get the outside coating back onto the stick."
Sticks have gotten a lot lighter and shorter even since the mid-1980s, when teams from Asia fancied the use of short-toed sticks to better control the ball.
The mid-1990s, however, saw two major innovations that were quickly squelched by the powers-that-be. The first came in 1994 with the introduction of the aluminum field hockey stick. But just as quickly as these sticks came into wide use, they were outlawed because of the weakest part of the stick -- the wooden heads that had to be replaced when broken.
The act of breaking a head would lead to sticks with splinters and sharp edges. There were also incidents involving injuries when the metal shafts hit players. All artificial materials were subsequently banned; sticks were to be made of wood.
The second outlawed innovation surrounded a particular model of stick: the Mercian Zig-Zag. The stick became very popular among weak-side block-tacklers because a player did not have to go all the way down to the ground; the Zig-Zag's shaft was bent to allow a player to simply reverse the stick to make a solid tackle on the left.
But radical stick technologies were not favored by many rules committees, from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to the NCAA to FIH, and the radical shape was outlawed.
Just as quickly as these loopholes were closed, others were opened or even reversed. Manufacturers argued that making field hockey sticks with any number of exotic plastics and carbons was fine if wrapped around a wooden core. These sticks started appearing in the late 1990s.
Not long after, all pretenses were dropped as to the presence of wood in the average stick. The true "composite" was born.
At the same time, however, field hockey players started experimenting with a devastating offensive weapon that was, in and of itself, a loophole in the rules.
That weapon is known as a drag flick, which is a low, powerful sweep of the ball which has many of the same principles as a forehand lacrosse shot, only with the ball and player close to the ground rather than being upright.
If the correct contact is maintained between the stick and the ball during the forehand sweep, a fast and powerful shot results.
The drag flick is legal as a first shot (as it is not a struck ball), and it can only be called back subject to danger, which is not often called at the game's highest levels. As such, a good drag-flicker is a dangerous, game-changing weapon.
The drag flick has been gaining importance in men's hockey worldwide; some 62 percent of all goals scored at the 2002 World Cup in Perth came as a result of the drag flick.
The FIH, however, is taking notice, especially when many players started using sticks with radical bowing in the shaft, which allows for greater control and speed of the resulting drag flick. The FIH mandated in 2003 that there be a limit of 50 millimeters (about two inches) for any offset.
But the debate over dragflicking came to conflict in the United States in 2003 when Smith's Dartmouth team started scoring an unusual amount of goals off penalty corner drag flicks.
The secret: an even more radical stick than those presently available.
"What we had was made out of wood," Smith says. "It was much narrower than the regular stick, but we had put a groove along the top edge of it to control the ball off the drag flick."
Senior back Rebekka Stucker was the player who was entrusted with scoring the goals, but could not use the thin wooden stick during normal play because of its fragility. Hence, the stick remained at the scorer's table (having been put through the two-inch test ring before the match), and Stucker would run and get the stick in the customary 20-second interval between the awarding of a corner and its insertion.
Stucker would lead the Big Green in scoring in 2003 with 17 goals, including all four in a road overtime win over Harvard, one which hurt the Crimson's chances of getting an NCAA at-large berth.
The situation, which got head coach Sue Caples sent off the pitch in overtime, led to rapid changes -- especially given Caples' position on the NCAA Advisory Committee. The substition of a stick was banned from NCAA and NFHS competition beginning in 2004.
Smith, however, is working with the Brine sporting goods company to create a carbon fiber version of his drag-flick stick, one which is trying to compete with a number of revolutionary sticks on the market which take their cues from not only ice hockey and baseball, but cricket.
"You're getting that cricket influence, with the scoops being taken out of the back and the coating of the wood," Smith says.
Many of these sticks, however, are unsuitable for the vast majority of players. Bows and bends both in the shaft and on the face of the stick won't help the average ball-striker. Indeed, a miss by as little as 3/4 of an inch could divert the ball in any direction -- including upward.
"I can't see youth players being allowed to have this kind of stick," Smith says. "I'd like to see them banned for the younger age groups because it would very hard to control the ball."