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Twelve-Skater Dilemmas: What Do You Do When Twelve Skaters Show Up On Game Night?

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Twelve is my least favorite number.  There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that no matter how many skaters are on the roster of any of the recreational teams of which I’m a member, most nights we will end up with twelve skaters.  

Most rec hockey players know that ten is a fairly ideal number of skaters to have show up–two full lines, and equal ice time for everyone.  If eleven skaters show up, well, three centers is a very viable option, as the centers theoretically do most of the skating in any game, and can get just as much bang for their buck by skating their butts off in a rotation of three.  What usually happens in my team’s change room is that, very close to game time, we do a quick count, and we find we have ten skaters.  We start sorting out the lines, then another gal shows up rushing through the door, and we quickly re-calculate and re-align and decide to go with three centers, two lines of wings and two sets of defense.  Everyone is content with this until, while the Zamboni is on its last lap, one more of our teammates rushes into the changeroom.  So now we have twelve skaters.  Time to recalculate and realign again.  No big deal, right?

For reasons unbeknownst to me, several people chime in all at once, "Ok, we can have two centers and three lines of wings.  Everyone good?  Good!"

Not so fast.  A closer examination of this twelve skater formation really has no logical place in women’s rec hockey or in hockey at any level, for that matter.  

First of all, the biggest problem with this line configuration, as mentioned above, is that centers theoretically and most probably are required to cover the most ice in the least amount of time almost every shift.  I think this is a claim that would be difficult to dispute.  So for the moment, let’s accept this as a hockey reality.  So, in the above-discribed situation, a team has only TWO people responsible for the most aerobically strenuous and energy-consuming position on the ice while six other forwards are playing every third shift?  

Second, at least in true rec leagues, the rule is equal pay for equal time, meaning every skater on the team has paid the same amount to play, and therefore the amount of ice time for each skater should be as equal as possible.  With the two-center/six-winger/four-defense configuration, half of the skaters are playing about half of the game, and the other half of the skaters are only playing a third of the game.  

Assuming that most rec players would agree with both premises above, the question remains–why is this so typically what happens when twelve skaters show up for a game?

The obvious answer is that this allocation is the easiest and quickest way to get everyone organized when the last-minute arrival bumps the number of skaters to twelve.  The other obvious answer is that so many of us have always been told and led to believe that is what arrangement should be made with twelve skaters.  We’ve been on teams so often where this how the ice time is allocated that we don’t question it anymore. 

The not-so-obvious answer is that there are some players on every team who have a vested interest in perpetuating this arrangement.  The defense will be adamant that they should be in pairs and adding an extra defense will certainly spell doom for the team.  As the strongest and most experienced skaters on the team are the ones who prefer to play center, they are very vocal in expressing their preference for two centers.  What is implied, intentionally or not, is that players who are perceived to be less experienced or less-skilled skaters should be on the ice less often.

Again, I’m generalizing here, but I have played on enough different rec, tournament, and co-ed teams to know that the less-experienced players or the skaters who aren’t as strong are usually asked to play winger.  These less-experienced players are also less likely to speak up about the ice-time inequity because they are, in the same sense, less confident about participating in discussion of strategy, especially if it could alienate teammates and threaten someone else’s ice time.

The next time you are in your changeroom before a game and find you have twelve skaters, pay close attention to who it is suggesting the two-center/six-winger/four-defense configuration–all bets are that the centers and defenders are the most vociferous advocates.

So what are some alternatives for twelve-skater games then?  Below are a few options for you to consider if your goal is truly equal ice time for your team. 

Rotating centers–this is really the best option for equal ice time, especially if you really don’t want to annoy your defense.  Rotating centers sounds complicated, and I am using it in a different sense here than I’ve heard it used (some people inexplicably refer to two centers and three lines of wings as rotating centers).  What I mean is that, sure, go ahead and go with two centers, but have two different centers each period.  Or, if your team is playing in a tournament, have two different centers for each game.  This will get more of the usual wingers more ice time and it will also help to not wear out your centers.  One important consideration of using this method is that the centers for each game or each period must be pre-determined, before the game or before the tournament.  Otherwise what happens if you wait until the end of the first period or the first game to see who will move from wing to center, players are reluctant to step up and take the spot and the ice time from the gals who have been playing center.   An obvious flaw with this idea is that there are still two wingers who will be playing winger for the whole game or tournament.  But more than likely, there are two wingers who don’t have the energy for more ice time or a desire to play center.

Six defense/six forwards–I know this is unthinkable to most defenders, but honestly, in a majority of the games, there are four defensemen.  Any extra skaters, as discussed, get allocated to the forward lines.  There’s not a reason that every once in a great while, the defense can have three lines while the forwards have two.  And the best part of this configuration is that, because the team is divided in half, the entire section of forwards and defense could be swapped mid-game, especially in a game where the result isn’t as important as having fun and playing new positions.

Five defense/three centers/four wingers–The odd numbers of defense and centers and the resulting difficulty in changing as regular lines make this option sound confusing, but as with all the proposed solutions here, the goal is for more equal ice time.  With this configuration, you have the five defense each playing approximately 40% of the game, the four wingers each playing half the game, and the three centers each playing a third of the game.  This configuration is slightly more equitable than the two-center/six-winger/four-defense lines.  And, as with any lineup, the positions could conceivably be changed each period.

In truth, the two-center/six-winger/four-defense line setup can be used occasionally when required and when the majority of the team voices agreement.  However, when teams regularly have twelve skaters showing up for games and the same six players are always being put on winger game after game, shift after shift, they aren’t getting the value for the money they paid to play nor are they getting as much of an opportunity on the ice to improve their hockey skills.

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