Friday, 7 September 2012

Evolution of Hockey Positions

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you know what rovers, points and cover-points are. Or were. They're part of the history of the game; before defencemen we had points and cover-points (or simply covers), the former playing close to the goalkeeper, and the latter being a conduit between the defence and the forwards. The rover was phased out of eastern hockey around 1911/12, while the point/cover positions morphed into side-by-side defenders soon thereafter.

But that's not all there is to the story of positional changes in hockey. If you go far back enough, specifically to 1875 when the first organized, indoor games between two opposing clubs took place in Montreal, there were typically nine men on the ice for either side, rather than the seven we're used to dealing with in early hockey history. They played four forwards as we're used to from the rover era, but had two extra men on defence. Not only that, but the defensive positions were not yet called point and cover, they were back and half-back, a clear indication of the fact that the rules of the game were adapted from football.

I can't be 100% of how the players typically lined up, but I think the following makes sense. The goalkeeper is marked with GK, the backs with B, the half-backs with HB, and the forwards with F.
The first big change in hockey positions came around 1880, when two men were dropped from the standard lineup. I'm not sure of the impetus for this change. The number nine had basically been chosen to fit the practical limits of the Victoria Skating Rink (which bequeathed its 200' by 85' rink size to North American hockey); when played outdoors hockey was played with more men than that. At some point they may have simply decided that 18 men on the ice made it a bit too crowded, and reduced it to 7-on-7.

However, they did not immediately adopt the seven-with-a-rover lineup. They dropped a back and a forward, still playing with two half-backs, thusly:
This standard seems to have lasted about a decade, after which one of the half-backs transmogrified into a fourth forward (the rover), and the other became the cover-point (CP), while the back was now called the point (P). This change from four defenders and three forwards to three defenders and four forwards probably had some effect on goal-scoring, which did uptick at this time, as we'll be looking at in the near future.
This was the standard in eastern hockey for about 20 years, when the decision was made, at least at the game's highest level, to eliminate the rover (as discussed here). That opened the ice up a bit, and brings us close to the setup we're used to today:
It took only another season or so before the point/cover-point setup gave way to the modern lineup, which we still have today...
...which, I think it's safe to say, is not going to change any time soon. It's worked well for almost a century now.

The usual caveats for this sort of general discussion apply, of course. The years mentioned may not be entirely precise, and it's unlikely that every team adopted the same lineup at the same time. Each change would have taken a bit of time to become standard.

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