What Is an Assist in Hockey? Assists Easily Explained

Posted on April 19, 2024 by Dan Kent
Regulation and Overtime Wins

Ice hockey has plenty of slang. So much so that it's hard to keep up if you're a new fan; in this article, we're going to go over what exactly an assist is, one of the more critical statistics in the game.

What is an assist in hockey?

An assist is a statistic that reflects a player's contribution to scoring goals. It occurs when a player makes a pass, shot, deflection, or plays the puck in a way that directly leads to a teammate's goal. Unlike in basketball, where only one assist can be awarded per basket, in ice hockey, up to two players can be recognized for their assists on any single goal.

The official definition of an assist as per the rulebook

According to the official rulebook, an assist is awarded to up to two players performing assist-scoring plays on a successful goal. 

These plays involve passing, shooting, or deflecting the puck to the player who scores. Not every pass that leads to a goal results in an assist; the pass must be deliberate, directly contributing to the scoring of the goal. For example, in the event of a blocked shot, statisticians may not award the player blocking the shot with an assist if it led to a goal.

For statistical purposes, assists carry weight as each assist is valued at one point, just as much as a goal.

Primary vs secondary assists

Although not every goal will have an assist, there is the potential for a goal to have a single or even multiple assists. They call these the primary and secondary assists.

Primary assists are awarded to the last offensive player passing the puck to the goal scorer, directly setting up the goal. Secondary assists are credited to the player who passes the puck to the primary assister, hence contributing to the scoring sequence. 

Sometimes, stats keepers are fairly generous regarding secondary assists, and it's often a hotly debated topic in hockey.

If you're looking in-depth into a player, you often compare their secondary to primary assists to judge their playmaking skills. Many hockey fans believe secondary assists are "easy" points to get and can often bloat point totals of perimeter or ineffective players.

The impact of playmaking ability on assists

A player's assist totals are often predicated upon exceptional passing skills. A player with outstanding passing abilities has a tangible impact on the game.

That is not to say pure goal scorers don't impact the game. However, playmakers often get the puck to the goal scorers in situations that give them the best chance to score.

Precision and timing are key; even a well-intentioned pass can quickly go the other way if not executed properly. A hockey assist is not just a measure of a player's skill; it's a testament to their situational awareness, especially at the higher leagues where the pace of play is blistering fast.

You'll often see the best playmakers out on the power play. Because their team has a one-player advantage, or potentially even two players in the event of a five-on-three, it opens up the ice even further for talented playmakers.

Can goalies get assists?

Goaltenders can get assists in hockey, yes. If the goaltender plays the puck to an attacking player who goes up the ice and scores a goal, the goalie will be credited with an assist. If that attacking player passes to another teammate who scores the goal, they will get the primary assist while the goalie will get the secondary assist.

How can a goal go unassisted?

There are multiple ways a goal can go unassisted. If the goal is off of a penalty shot, no assists will be given. Alternatively, if the goal is a solo effort by a player and they are the only player on their team to touch it after possessing the puck, it will result in an unassisted goal.

And finally, if a player attempts to make a pass to another player, but the defender plays the puck, only to lose possession again and get scored on, the goal will be unassisted because the defensive player interacted with the puck, despite the teammate attempting to pass the puck to the goal-scorer.

Contribution of assists to total points

Assists are integral to a player's point total because they sum both goals and assists.

For instance, Wayne Gretzky, who is renowned for his playmaking abilities, has accumulated a staggering number of assists throughout his career, so much so that if you removed all of the goals from his career and only counted his assists, he'd still be the all-time leading point scorer in the NHL.

Assists on the box score

The official scoresheet, often called the box score of a hockey game, provides a comprehensive view of the game's statistics, with assists featured prominently alongside goals. Each assist that contributes to a goal is listed, and you'll often see the goal scorer listed first, followed by the primary assister and secondary assister, if there are any.

Historical leaders when it comes to assists

Wayne Gretzky holds the record for all-time assists in a career, demonstrating an unparalleled vision on the ice that contributed to his team's success and his legendary status. As mentioned above, you could remove all of his goals, and he'd still have the most points in the National Hockey League.

Who has the most assists in a single season?

Wayne Gretzky holds the record for most assists in a single season. It happened in the 1985-86 season, and he would get 163 assists that year. To put this into perspective, Connor McDavid is one of the highest-scoring players in decades, and he even got only 153 total points during the 2022-2023 NHL season.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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