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Fly-By Stick Replacement a Precise Exercise for NHL Benches

Picking up a new stick from the bench requires a well-oiled machine. The process of getting a fresh twig can be the difference between a timely goal or unintentionally being a man down.

“You can’t be sleeping, dude.”

Meet Brock Myles. As head equipment manager for the Washington Capitals, like all of his peers around the league, he performs the type of ‘round-the-clock grunt work that goes unnoticed: sharpening skates, drying gloves, washing jerseys, hanging towels, filling watter bottles, lugging gear … each task equally critical to keep the engine chugging.

But one part of the job description stands above the rest. That is what Myles, a 13-year NHL veteran, is describing right now. “If a puck hits the stick, you can hear the sound,” he says. “So you know that stick’s broke and you watch the guy like a hawk. Because sooner or later he’s going to drop that stick and come right to the bench. You’ve got to be on your game.”

It is a delightful, relatively rare quirk of hockey, and entirely unique in sports altogether. Consider: Where else do equipment managers get to participate? “It’s like a basketball player losing his shoe and you have to get it back on him before he makes the next play,” Myles says. And yet there they are, once or so each night, lunging over the boards and handing a fresh stick to some twigless skater, who grabs it while zipping past to rejoin the ongoing action.

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“Oh, it’s crazy,” says Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

“Panic mode,” says Vancouver center Bo Horvat.

“Definitely a scramble,” says Toronto’s Auston Matthews.

“Hilarious,” says Rangers winger Chris Kreider. “It’s like a NASCAR pit crew.”

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Two seasons ago, the Oilers were midway through the second period against Carolina when Connor McDavid’s CCM model snapped in half near the visiting bench. Dropping both shards on the ice—the NHL rulebook prohibits playing with them—McDavid waited by his offensive blue line while Edmonton’s equipment manager fished a replacement from the row of sticks lined against the glass. “I looked back and there’s a breakaway pass coming my way, and I end up scoring a goal,” McDavid says. “Luckily they were quick on the draw.”

Every equipment manager has a system. Some arrange spare sticks in numerical order, others by position. If a particular skater is prone to breaks—maybe they have a heavy shot, or lean hard on faceoffs—his backups might get bunched toward the front. During the national anthem, Myles always scans the Capitals’ sticks and reciting their corresponding names in his head as a warmup. He prefers hearing names over numbers whenever a stick breaks and the bench erupts in warning. “But you can’t be picky,” Myles says. “Just grab whatever’s there.”

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From the player’s perspective, sticks typically crack at the worst times: blocking a shot, attempting a shot, making a pass … “Your first thought is a swear word or two,” says Stars captain Jamie Benn. “Then you skate to the bench as fast as you can.” From here, they are confronted with two choices. Most often they call for a line change, the easiest solution. But the modern NHL operates at warp speed. Sometimes it’s faster to change a tire than switch drivers.

Even so, there are many factors to consider when conducting a proper fly-by. “You’re trying to figure out,” says Canadiens forward Max Domi, gearing up to deliver a breathless list, “Did the equipment guy see me? Does he have a stick out for me? Will he have a stick out by the time I get to the bench? How fast am I going? How fast do I need to be going? Or do I just grab another guy’s stick? Gotta make sure it’s a lefty, not a righty. Who’s got the shortest stick? Who’s got the curve that’s most similar to mine? All that stuff in three seconds.”

As such, execution isn’t always Zamboni smooth. “You’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening on the ice,” Wild center Eric Staal says, “but you’re also trying not to miss the stick hanging over the board.” Kreider once chucked a broken stick into the bench like a javelin, striking Rangers assistant coach Lindy Ruff in the chest. One Western Conference equipment assistant remembers nearly causing a minor penalty when he dropped a spare onto the ice. (Like relay batons, sticks can’t be tossed, only handed.)

“We’re only human,” Myles says. “We can only grab it as quick as we can.”

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If the equipment managers happen to stumble—a rare sight indeed at the game’s highest level—the rest of the bench readily springs into action. When Benn and his brother Jordie played together in Dallas, they always sought out each other’s sticks in fly-bys because they used the same curve. “Lefties are looking for the lefties and vice versa,” Benn says. But every now and then chaos takes control. One time, Patrice Bergeron was skating away from the bench with a random stick when the right-handed Bruins center heard a shout: “IT’S A LEFTY!” Unwilling to double back, Bergeron played anyway. “I was useless, basically,” he says. “It was 5 on 4.”

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The success stories are equally memorable. Last season, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who uses one of the longest sticks among fellow Coyotes, suffered a break during a power play against Montreal and snatched the first replacement that he saw from the home bench. Beelining back toward the offensive zone, where Arizona had maintained possession, Ekman-Larsson realized his mistake: The stick belonged to forward Brad Richardson, who uses the shortest model on the team. No matter. A few moments later, Ekman-Larsson—and Richardson’s stick—fed Clayton Keller for the game’s first goal.

Most of the time, though, handoff responsibility belongs to the man stationed by the sticks. “Nine times out of 10, we’ll do it,” Myles says. A small bit of glory might come back over the boards, too. Broadcast crews are good about giving shoutouts of appreciation. The Bruins go wild whenever assistant Matt Falconer finishes a flawless exchange: THAT’S IT MATTY! EFFIN’ RIGHT! “I bet you, if there was an All-Star Game for that, he’d win the competition for sure,” Bergeron says. “He’s freakin’ amazing.”

As Myles quickly notes, this is all just part of the fundamental job description. Nothing different than replacing faulty skate blades, for instance, or wiping off visors during games. But those things don’t happen on the fly. A swiftly replaced stick, however, could help lead to a win. “I’ve had assists before,” the Western Conference assistant says. “It’s a good feeling. A guy breaks a stick, then we get it over and we end up scoring, the boys are just f------ hooting and hollering, tapping me, whatever else."

Maybe a nice fat tip around the holidays too?

“Little pat on the ass, that’s about it.”