The Appeal of Hockey, Explained by an Actual Canadian
With Los Angeles and New York making it to the finals, this year will mark the 20th consecutive time the Stanley Cup – hockey’s own Vince Lombardi trophy – is won by an American team. To celebrate this Muricah-Fuck Yeah milestone, we’ve put together a primer on the sport with the help of an actual Canadian; they dig this shit so bad they actually put it on their money.
Hockey is a full contact sport in which two opposing teams of 20 players (12 offence, 6 defence, 2 goaltenders) take 5-man shifts on an ice rink and attempt to outscore each other. They have to wear skates and full body armor. Goals are scored, and the game is won, by using a weird stick to shoot a piece of rubber (the puck) into a net defended by a goaltender. Despite its reputation as a team combat sport, you cannot win a game by punching opposing players in the mouth, although it sometimes happens around goals.
The brunt of player contacts happen during hits, or checking. This is when a player in control of the puck is slammed by another player, with the intent of making him lose his shit for a moment. There are numerous rules about what kind of hits are legal, and generally dangerous or vicious attacks are penalized. In fact, while full on fighting is still tolerated, is is increasingly rare and always leads to double penalties. You can even get thrown out of the game, as you would in ANY OTHER SPORT, if you’re being a dick about it.
Hockey is fast.
Players skate at about 25 MPH. They pass the puck around at speeds varying between 30 and 60 MPH. They shoot at up to 100 MPH. The rink they play on is 155 feet long and they frequently move the play from one side to the other in less than 5 seconds. The shifts on the ice average at about 50 seconds, and players are expected to play between 15 and 30 minutes per one-hour game. Sportsballs to the wall, if you will.
Hockey is hard.
Goals should be impossible to score in professional hockey. At any moment, players have to move the puck smartly to get a good chance to take a shot at a net mostly covered by a goaltender in full riot gear. They have to do this while five other players are attempting to hit them out of position. This is like pouring a cup of coffee in a rocking boat while an angry man is trying to body slam you and punch the pot out of your hand.
Goals do happen, still, and much more frequently than in soccer. Shutouts are infrequent but still exciting: they usually depend on goalies making hair-pulling saves. Still, they key to enjoying hockey is to understand how stupidly hard it is to score goals.
Hockey is a game of inches.
Since the opposition is so stiff, players absolutely have to work as a team to achieve results. No one can skate faster than they can pass, and there are strict rules that outright ban Hail Mary plays: players can only pass the puck so far, and can never shoot it from one end of the ice to the other.
This means that games are won and lost in the details: moving the puck gradually towards the goal, smooth transitioning between offensive and defensive lines, good positioning around the puck, precise passes, smart reading of the plays. Like this guy here.
All this being said, the matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers will be an especially exciting one for hockey aficionados: the Kings have 6 of the top 10 hitters in the league, while the Rangers have exhibited incredible speed during the play-offs. This should lead to games where the Rangers attempt to skate circles against players who are doing their best to physically remove them from the rink. This is exactly how boss fights went down in Super Mario 64.
And goddamn it’s awesome.