My friend Mark is going to his first-ever hockey game tonight after getting two free tickets to a local game in the Dallas metro area. He has never been to a hockey game in his life and he emailed me this morning asking for tips on how better to appreciate the experience. As a Canadian, I am naturally imbued with at least some knowledge of the game, even though I can barely skate, so I felt up to the task of instructing him at least.
He admitted to me that the last time he even SAW a hockey game on TV was in 1980 when the Americans upstaged the heavily favoured Russians during the famous Miracle on Ice.
That was 30 years ago, buddy! We're sure starting from scratch, eh?! Here, then, for the edification of all, is the summary I cobbled together for him this morning.
My first tip, alas, fails before even being given since it is this: When you are at a live hockey game you must partake of the over-priced concession beer. Two cups apiece. But of course, knowing your distaste for the wonderful beverage, I realise that won't happen. Maybe you should smuggle in a couple bottles of Smirnoff Ice and surreptitiously sip them from under your seat while trying to preserve an iota of your masculinity. Pansy.
The game itself consists of three 20-minute periods. There is a 15 minute intermission between periods when the ice is cleaned. Play is stopped (as is the clock) when a goal is scored or some sort of rule infraction occurs. More on infractions later.
The game is overseen by a Referee and two Linesmen. (This has recently been changed to TWO Referees in the NHL, so I'm not sure how many there will be at your game.) They wear zebra-striped shirts, and the Referees are distinguished from the Linesmen by orange armbands and an over-zealous exercise of their authority.
There are five players to a side, plus a goalie (this makes six... try to keep up). There are three forwards and two defensemen. The forwards are comprised of a Centre and two Wingers. The Centre is responsible for taking most of the face-offs and as much credit as he can get away with.
A face-off is not just a bad movie starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, but a key element in all hockey games. It is how the game is started, and how it is re-started after every stoppage in play. The two teams' opposing Centres stand head-to-head in the very middle of the ice rink (at the start of each period or after a goal), or in the middle of one of the four face-off circles at opposite ends of the rink, or at one of the four "face-off spots" between the blue lines. Study the diagram below to see where those are. I'll wait for you, then continue below after you're done.
When the Centres face each other, either the Ref or one of the Linesmen will drop the puck between the two, who then use their sticks to engage in deadly pugilistic combat to see who emerges the victor, and is entitled to skate off with the puck. The loser is usually left gasping and bleeding on the ice while play continues. Broken bones are not uncommon. Pursuing legal recourse is considered bad form.
That last part is totally not true.
What really happens is the Ref drops the puck between the Centres and each tries to pass it to one of his teammates standing nearby. Since this happens after every single stoppage in play, you will see this a LOT. There are certain nuances about exactly how each Centre (or sometimes Winger) is supposed to handle himself during the face-off, depending where on the ice they are, but we won't get into that.
Regular play consists of an elaborate game of "keep-away" where, through skillful passing and dextrous skating, each team attempts to prevent the other team from getting the puck and, more importantly, moving the puck into the opposition's defensive area where shooting the puck at the net has the potential to score a goal.
There is, however, a goalie in the way who will try to prevent this from happening. He does not like to be scored upon, unless maybe he has a wife or girlfriend. Or both. But they likely don't know about each other. Yet.
Most shots on net will be saved, just in case you get too excited about seeing a LOT of scoring. Goalies save about 90% of the shots they face. This varies, naturally, based on the skill of the goalie, the skill of the player taking the shot, the angle from which the shot is taken, the number of players (if any) standing between the shot-taker and the goalie (thereby creating interference), and whether the goalie's wife has learned about his girlfriend -- a fact which will surely affect his mental state during play.
Hockey is a very physical game, and body-checks are a common occurrence. When the puck is sliding along the boards and pursued and intercepted by a player, that player can be assured that a member from the opposing team is also in pursuit of the puck and will use the body of the first player as a cushion between himself and the boards as he refuses to slow down in his pursuit. The fans love this part of the game, and if the body-checking gets too intense, and tempers flare, a fight may ensue. This is the source of the tongue-in-cheek saying: "I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out."
Other than goal scoring, play will be stopped for rule infractions, many of which will result in a penalty for the offending player. He will likely look petulant while skating to the penalty box since the opposing team now has a "Power Play". It is rarely the fault of the penalized player; the referee is just an asshole. Really.
A Power Play means that the teams skate five-on-four for two minutes because of the penalty. Losing 20% of your on-ice manpower is a serious disadvantage, and creates a much higher likelihood that the team with five players will score. That's why you don't want to get penalties. The team who earned the penalty is said to play "short-handed" for those two minutes. Penalties occur because one player somehow interferes with another. Most are pretty easy to understand, like: Tripping, Elbowing, Goalie Interference. "Hooking" is common, though it has nothing to do with how the goalie got involved with his girlfriend in the first place. (Usually.) Hooking is when a player interferes with the opposing (puck-possessing) player by restraining him with his stick. Hooked around the waist, say. This is one of the most common penalties since preventing the other team from scoring is a key element of the game.
If the team with the Power Play scores before the two minute penalty expires, the penalty is automatically ended and the penalized player skates morosely back to his bench, having Learned His Lesson.
Another very common reason for stopping play will be the call of "Off Side". When Team A is in possession of the puck, they want to carry it into the defensive end of Team B in an attempt to score. Each team's defensive end is demarcated by one of the two blue lines on the ice. (Check out that image above again for reference.) The most important thing to note here is this: The offensive player who is in possession of the puck must be the first member of his team to cross the defenders' blue line. Got that? Let's say the Centre for Team A has the puck, and he's standing in the very middle of the rink. Then one of his Wingers skates into the defensive end of Team B and stands right beside the goalie, hoping his Centre will pass him the puck so he can shoot and score!
NO! The Winger cannot do this. Bad Winger! The Off Side rule is in place to prevent "goal sucks" from just hanging out around the opposing team's net and hoping to intercept a pass and score a goal. When Team A has the puck and is proceeding into the defensive zone of Team B, the man carrying the puck must be the first to cross the blue line. Actually, to be more specific, THE PUCK must be the first thing to cross the blue line. After that, it's game on, bitches! But if one of the puck-carrier's teammates is even half a step too fast, and crosses the blue line just ahead of the puck, too bad. One of the Linesmen will blow his whistle, call the play "Off Side", and play must be restarted with a Face Off in the offending team's zone.
The fans will often take exception to stoppages in play called by the Referee or the Linesmen. Especially when it happens to the detriment of the local team. This, Mark, is your time to shine. When you feel the waves of anger and hostility rolling out of the stands and aimed at the guys with the whistles, you can join in the mob mentality by booing, hissing, and yelling invectives that call into question the Referee's eyesight, judgement, and sometimes even his very childhood upbringing. One of my favourite things to yell at a time like that is, "Hey buddy... why don't you bend over and ref with your good eye!"
Then sneak a sip from your Smirnoff Ice because you're not man enough to drink beer at a goddamn hockey game.