Ice Hockey for Dummies

Tomorrow the NHL Finals gets underway between the Chicago Blackhawks and my Boston Bruins. Many of you are probably already bored just reading that first sentence because you have no interest or knowledge about ice hockey, but hopefully I can convince you to give it a go.

Ice hockey is a sport Australians simply don’t get because it’s not a sport we grew up with as we don’t have the climate for it. Only in recent times have we started to develop athletes who can compete at an elite level in winter sports and even that is typically only in two or three events.

But as the sports addict that I am, I took an interest into learning about ice hockey as a kid, mostly through the EA Sports NHL series of video games and then after attending a game in person several years ago my passion for the game only increased.

The first thing you need to know about hockey is that it is the best sport to see in person in the world. That may sound like a very big statement, but ask any of your friends who have been to a game and very few will disagree. Now I will qualify my statement by saying that you do need to have decent seats, close enough to the ice, because the puck is small and can be hard to see from a distance. For the same reason, hockey was a terrible sport to watch on TV for a long time, until screen got bigger and TVs got to HD and just general higher quality.

But because of the speed and exciting nature of play, hockey is incredible in person. If you ever travel to the US and want to catch a sporting event, I strongly recommend getting to a hockey game.

Now, none of that actually explains the game itself so I should probably teach you a bit about the game.

Hockey has a lot of similarities to basketball and soccer in the way you score and move the puck or ball. The aim is of course to score a goal and you have five outfield players and one goalie. Much like basketball and soccer you pass the puck around, try to create angles or take the puck past an opponent to then take a shot. The score lines are typically comparable to soccer but on average a little bit higher.

Hockey also invented the idea of the sin bin, or as it is known in hockey the penalty box. Any foul committed results in that player being sent to the box for two minutes, or for some more serious fouls 5 minutes. However, if the team with the extra player scores in that time, the penalised player gets to come back out on the ice. It’s a system I have advocated for to be used in the NRL for years.

Whilst controlling the pick and passing is difficult enough whilst ice skating, the game is also very tough. Guys get smashed onto the ice and into the boards/glass on the edge of the ice. A good legal hit in ice hockey is a thing of beauty. However there are rules for how and when you can smash a bloke and if you do a hit that is considered dirty, your reputation takes a nosedive and you often will face retribution.

Whilst fighting is considered common in hockey and it would be hypocritical of me to praise it after I wrote about Paul Gallen in State of Origin, all fighters are immediately sent to the penalty box for a 5 minute major penalty and depending on the cause of the fight can also be suspended afterwards. Hockey fights are a lot better policed than you might imagine. Then again hockey players are known as the nicest, most down to Earth professional athletes around.

When I was in Boston and was staying in a hotel where visiting NBA and NHL teams stay, I got to experience the difference between NBA players and NHL players firsthand. You truly wouldn’t know that hockey players were famous, because they sure as hell don’t show it externally, nor do they want that lifestyle. Any player who seems to embrace that lifestyle is actually laughed at. NBA players on the other hand… well that’s a different story.

But what makes hockey so interesting an exciting?

Well the game is played at such a frenetic pace and the action is constant. As soon as a team takes a shot, they either get the puck again for another one or the other team is off to the races to get one of their own. The pace is so tiring that attacking players typically only play for about a minute at a time before subbing out. You see in hockey, you don’t just make substitutions at breaks but on the fly mid game. A team will dump the puck at the other end and several of their players will race to get back onto the bench, whilst their teammates jump over the railing and take their place.

On the ice at a time a team has a goalie, two defensemen, two wingers and a centre. The wingers and centre are considered the forwards or attacking players, but defensemen nowadays have to be proficient attackers too, especially with the always entertaining slap shots from distance. Overall a team during a game has three ‘lines’ of defensemen and four ‘lines’ of forwards. So the forwards sub between the four lines regularly and the defensemen sub between the three lines a little less. Of course they have more backups beyond that in case of injury, but they tend to play 19 players a game or 20 if they decide they need to switch to their backup goalie.

One downside to hockey is that every time their CBA is up for negotiation between the players and the league, they seem to end up having a lockout and either missing an entire season or at least having a shortened season like the one we are coming to the end of right now. The biggest reason for this is that the league is run by a man named Gary Bettman, who may be the most incompetent man in the history of humanity. But that is a story for another article one day.

Another awesome thing about hockey is the Stanley Cup itself. Without question it is the best trophy in sports, it is over 120 years old, although the current version is just short of 60. Unlike other sports, they don’t make a new version each year for teams to keep, they simply give each winning team the actual cup for one year and each player gets to take it home and do all sorts of crazy shenanigans with it. Then they give it back, with a whole bunch of new stories. If only the cup could talk. Just look at this beautiful thing.

Obviously I haven’t gone into the nitty gritty details of the rules or the strategy, although I’m always happy to talk hockey if you contact me. I hope this gives you a taste of an amazing sport that is about to have its 7 game Finals series get underway between two of the ‘Original 6’ franchises of the NHL. It is going to be an amazing series and I implore you to try to watch.

Finally, my friend Sarah demanded I include this wonderful ‘Together We Can’ video that came out during the recent lockout. It’s goose bumps stuff.

Go Bruins.

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