Sports Summary Logo
Pro Sports Summary Header

Hockey… The Basics      Share

Unique among sports (other than curling, but that’s a story for another day), hockey is played on a sheet of ice with all the players carrying sticks and wearing ice skates.  It is a fast-paced sport that involves equal parts finesse and violence.  The sport is so fast paced that player generally only stay on the ice for 45 seconds to a minute during their “shift.” 

Hockey is considered the fourth of the major four sports in the US (including football, baseball, and basketball).  It is a distant fourth in terms of popularity and an afterthought for average sports fans.  The main reason is that most people don’t grow up playing hockey.  While the other three sports are widespread youth sports, even at the high school level, only schools in certain regions have hockey teams.  Unless you grew up in New England or Wisconsin plus or minus one state, you probably didn’t have the opportunity to play hockey as a kid.  The rules can be pretty confusing for a new fan to learn, which also turns off some new fans. 

How the game is played

Games last for three periods of twenty minutes each (thus there are no quarters or half-time).  Six players on a team are on the ice at a time, including the goalie.  Teams play three forwards (a center and two wings on the sides) and two defensemen.  As I mentioned, shifts change almost every minute with substitutions being made “on the fly” (see “line change”).  Each team also has a goalie who wears a much more modern version of the famous white mask seen in horror movies for decades.  This goalie defends a goal that is 6 feet wide by 4 feet tall in the pros. 
 
Hockey is unique in several aspects.  For one, the playing service is completely enclosed by walls around the ice or rink.  The walls (or boards) are in play, so players can make passes off of the boards to get around defenders.  They can also get hit into this board, which hurts and usually gets the crowd going.  The substitutions while the play is still going on are rare among major sports, too.     
 
Another interesting thing about hockey is that the area behind the goal is in play.  An offensive team can work the puck back there.  This makes the goalie watch the puck with his back to the rest of the players or look over his shoulder trying to keep the puck in sight. 
 
Critics (and non-fans) complain that the low scoring games are not exciting enough for the average American fan.  Most games are low scoring and a 1-0 game is not uncommon.  In the past few years the NHL took steps to make the game more exciting by doing away with ties and changing rules that benefitted the offenses and ramped up scoring.  In the past, teams could tie during the regular season and often times teams late in the game would be content with the tie and start playing a very conservative (and boring) game to pass the time.  In 2010, NHL teams each scored an average of almost 3 goals per game, which was a significant uptick over games of just a few years ago. 
 
Other critics complain about the violence that I alluded to earlier.  Hockey is known for hard hitting and fights (at the professional level) are common.  There are standard penalties in place for players who provoke or participate in a fight on the ice.  Hitting another player with your own body, known as checking, is allowed and often rewarded with a turnover if the targeted player had possession of the puck.  Contrary to the uneducated fans’ opinion, there are restrictions on who can be hit and when.  Generally the player has to be involved in the current play and has to be hit from the front.  This is not to say that players are not (often) blindsided by a brutal check, but there is a fine line between a hard hit and an illegal hit.  For example, a player coming across the middle may be looking back over his shoulder for a pass.  When the defensive player arrives at the same time as the puck, often the results are an entertaining and violent collision. 
 
The fact that hockey has remained as mainstream as it has is a credit to the excitement of the great sport.  Given that a small percentage of Americans played hockey growing up, most of the fans that it generates are new fans that do not have the sport in their blood.

Send comments to: Mike@notasportsguy.com

Terminology:

Blue Line: This is the most important line on the ice to understand.  It defines the offensive zone for the attacking team and is critical to offsides. 
 
Offsides: The puck has to enter the offensive zone before any of the players on offense.  Any offensive player on the offensive side of the blue line prior to the puck entering the offensive zone is offsides.  If the defense “clears” the puck out of the zone, all the offensive players have to get back across the line before that team can try to attack again and bring the puck back across the blue line.   
 
Crease: The area around the goal that is designed to protect the goal keeper.  It has changed size and shape over the years, but it is usually blue.  Only the defensive team is allowed inside the crease.  
 
Face Off: How the game is started and restarted after any break in action.  Two players “face-off” and the referee drops the puck in between them.  The quicker of the two players passes it out to their teammates. 
 
Penalty Box: The seat (boxed in by themselves) where the player who committed a foul has to sit until his penalty is up.  This is one of those things that has hung around in a sport for the sake of tradition.  It’s obviously easy enough to keep track of the one guy who is in trouble, but it is pretty amusing to see one guy sitting by himself in the plexiglass “box” dubbed the penalty box. 
  
Powerplay: A team is on (or has) a Powerplay when the other team has a player in the “penalty box.”  In hockey, teams who commit fouls or penalties play with one fewer player until the punishment is served (usually for two minutes).  The other team has a significant advantage playing with an extra player during the powerplay. 
 
Line change: In hockey teams make substitutions “on-the-fly,” meaning there is no stoppage of the game just for substitutions.  Generally the players sub out in “lines,” so all three of the offensive players (two wings and a center) or both of the defensive players will sub out at the same time.  This seemingly frantic few seconds when players are sprinting to and from the bench is called the “line change.” 
 
Hockey Hair:  (my favorite of all hockey terms) it is a moniker for the mullet style that is alarmingly common among hockey players. 
 
Frozen Four:  NCAA tournament that produces the collegiate national champs.  The Frozen Four specifically refers to the last four teams remaining in the tournament, which will almost always include a team from the Dakotas or Minnesota and at least one New England team.

Stanley Cup: NHL Championship trophy.  It is the most traditional of all the major sports trophies.  It is a giant silver cup that has rings around it underneath the cup with every player’s name who has ever been on a Stanley Cup Champion.  It is also referred to as “Lord Stanley’s Cup.”