[Editor’s Note: Today’s entry marks the weekday-entry debut of bench coach Phil Hecken. Please join me in giving him a hand. I’ll rejoin you down at the Ticker. — PL]
By Phil Hecken
One of the more underappreciated and overlooked sports in the United States is field hockey. Although played by both men and women around the globe, in America it’s primarily viewed as a “girls’ sport” and a marginal one, at best. Uni Watch reader Terri King played field hockey for St. Francis University and feels it’s been underrepresented, so she’s helped me prepare this in-depth look at the sport and its gear.
A cross between ice hockey and soccer, the sport is played on a field roughly the size of a soccer pitch. It can be played on grass, but artificial turf is preferred due to its smoother consistency. A goal can only be scored from within the “circle” (called a “D” outside the States — a semi-circle around the goal that extends 16 yards). If a ball is struck outside the circle and goes into the goal without being touched by an offensive player inside the circle, it’s simply as if the ball went out of bounds. Terri explains, “This leads to a very confused crowd when the goalie purposely lets the ball in the goal, which is pretty entertaining for the players.”
Each side has 11 players, much like soccer (with roughly equivalent positions as well). Every player carries a stick, one side of which is flat, the other rounded. There are no left-handed sticks — everyone must play right-handed. The ball can only be hit with the flat side and cannot be touched or hit with any part of the body, including the hands on the stick. The ball cannot be lifted in the air above the knee, unless no other players are around or unless it is directed at the goalie (who resembles an ice hockey goalie), in which case it can be lifted to any height. Terri, an ex-goaler herself, explains that the goalie’s equipment is, from head to toe, helmet, neck protector, chest/shoulder pads, gloves (one of which holds the stick, the other is the blocker), girdle (which Terri calls “butt pads”), leg pads, and kickers.
The main difference with field hockey pads is the material — the leg pads, kickers, and gloves are all made of high-density foam. Since the goalie cannot catch or cover the ball (this results in a penalty stroke — like a penalty kick), the ball is cleared out of the circle using what basically amounts to deflections (preferably with the kickers), and the foam gives better rebounds.
“The rules can get pretty complicated,” says Terri, “but the important ones are (1) you can only use one side of the stick, (2) you can’t touch the ball with any part of your body, and (3) you can’t block an opposing player from the ball using your body.”
Jerseys started out as very modest long-sleeved garments. Eventually, they moved on to polos, which were pretty common just a few years ago. “They were horribly hot and uncomfortable,” says Terri. Jerseys are now generally made up of the same material as skirts, but unlike soccer kits, they are getting tighter, because arms and upper body have a lot to do with playing hockey and, as Terri puts it, “a blousy shirt can get in the way.” For this reason, jerseys are almost exclusively sleeveless these days. The material is usually spandex, which can potentially cause problems: “Spandex isn’t very flattering for every woman, athlete or not,” says Terri, “and in my opinion, if you’re not confident in how you look, it affects your play.”
On to the skirts — or as some purists call them, kilts. “When hockey (as it is called everywhere but North America) became an ‘acceptable sport’ for women, it was the first team sport women could play, but it was still not acceptable for women to wear shorts or pants,” says Terri. “So they wore long skirts. As is the case with cheerleading, the skirts stayed, but they kept getting shorter and shorter.”
Until very recently, plaid skirts were the most popular kind. Although old-school kilts are still available, most teams wear skirts made of the high-tech material. Most skirts are no longer the wrap-around kilt style; now, the spandex is built in. In case you’re wondering, Terri says, “No, they were not passed down year to year, ’cuz seriously, who wants to share spandex. Ew.”
In the 1990s there was a brief (but strong) push to switch to shorts. “The big reason was the girls felt like maybe skirts were giving people the wrong idea, and like they were being forced to be girly.” But the switch was short-lived. Why? Terry says, “Suddenly, there was nothing to separate hockey players from soccer players. It felt like the sport’s identity was being lost. My high school reverted back to skirts after (I think) two seasons. Now, most hockey players are proud of their skirts.”
As for the sticks, they were originally made completely of wood and had a long, fairly thin head. The grip was made out of thread. In the past 15 years, however, manufacturers have started reinforcing the wood sticks with fiberglass, carbon, Kevlar and Dyneema. Composite sticks are made from a mold, so every stick of a certain model is the same. There are also different kinds of heads (shortis and midis), used by forwards and mids for better ball control. And then there are goalie sticks, which are used more for deflecting the ball than for hitting it.
Sticks are also becoming more and more bowed — so much so that the NCAA had to institute regulations to limit the amount of bow a stick could have. “Bows in the stick have a number of benefits,” explains Terri, “but the most important are being easier to lift the balls and giving harder drives.” Most players tape their sticks “at the shaft, not the head,” as some feel this softens the stick for when the ball strikes it, providing less rebound and more control. The amount of tape on a stick is also regulated.
Of course, logos now adorn sticks. Since the onset of composites, sticks are available in many colors and designs. “Don’t think for a second that doesn’t matter to a player when she’s are selecting her stick,” says Terri.
Finally, the last pieces of equipment are shin guard and gloves. “Shin guards are fairly minor, but vitally important,” explains Terri. “At the lower levels, they are typically the soft, sock type shin guards, while at the higher levels, harder shin guards are more common.”
Here are some pics of Terri and her teammates. In classic Uni Watch-speak, she says, “No, black is not an official school color, and technically we were supposed to wear red skirts on the road, but we liked this look better.”
Uni Watch News Ticker: Paul here. Let’s begin this holiday-getaway Ticker with something from yesterday’s comments — a really great photo gallery of college football trophies. … Jeremy Brahm reports that the Hiroshima Carp have unveiled their 2009 uniforms and that the FIFA Confederations Cup soccer tourney in South Africa will be using this ball design. Further info here. … Lots of cool stuff in the current Mastro Legends auction, including a Jack Youngblood jersey with double-decker FNOB (big thanks to Jared Wheeler). … Here’s schedule of when the Blackhawks will be wearing their alts (with thanks to James Huening). … Two Aussie-rules football notes from Jeremy Brahm: The Brisbane Lions have announced that they’ll wear their old jerseys in games played in the State of Victoria (Melbourne), and North Melbourne will soon come out with a new clash uniform. … Been meaning to mention that Collateral Gammage and I spent Saturday afternoon at Christie’s, where we checked out the pre-sale viewing of the “Punk/Rock” auction. Amidst all the posters, flyers, photos, zines, and highly progressive apparel, there was one vaguely uni-related item: a poster showing Andy Warhol and Jean Michael Basquiat wearing boxing gear. … Matthew Garrett sent along some great pics of his father’s high school basketball uni, circa 1969, complete with belted shorts, snug-crotch jersey (here’s a slightly closer look), and stirrups. Matthew, who attended the same high school as his dad, reports that he wore these same stirrups as part of his uniform during his senior year. … HNOB alert (thanks, Phil). … Also from Phil: major footwear graffiti by UNC’s Rashanda McCants. … Nice little video clip here showing hand-painted bubble hockey players (excellent find by Jeremy Brahm).
Holiday Schedule: I’ll open the floor to your jibber-jabbering tomorrow, and probably Friday too, and Phil will handle the weekend as usual. Safe travel to those who are on the move today and tonight, remember not to let Mom do all the kitchen work tomorrow while you sit on the couch and watch football (after all, it’s just the Lions).