Hockey Primer

Other people have done this before, and better than I am likely to:

The MAD Ice Hockey Primer, from Mad Magazine Issue 125, March 1969, is correct in all particulars and only very slightly dated.

The Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL have put together a wonderful primer to help Ohioans learn about hockey. I'm going to be ripping off the Blue Jackets' graphics. And possibly other stuff.

If you read (er, and retain) this primer, you can probably skip a lot of the footnotes in the story. If you click through all the footnotes in the story, you can probably do without reading the primer. If you're a hockey fan, feel free to correct my mistakes.


The top professional hockey league in North America is the National Hockey League (NHL). In 1995, the NHL was comprised of 26 teams (18 in the US, 8 in Canada), divided into two conferences and four divisions:
Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division

Philadelphia Flyers
New York Rangers
Florida Panthers
Washington Capitals
Tampa Bay Lightning
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders

Northeast Division
Pittsburgh Penguins
Boston Bruins
Montreal Canadiens
Hartford Whalers
Buffalo Sabres
Ottawa Senators

Western Conference
Central Division

Detroit Red Wings
Chicago Blackhawks
Toronto Maple Leafs
St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg Jets
Dallas Stars

Pacific Division
Colorado Avalanche
Calgary Flames
Vancouver Canucks
Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Edmonton Oilers
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks

Teams play other teams within their division five to six times in a season, other teams within the conference abour four times, and teams in the opposite conference twice.

NHL teams are affiliated with minor league "farm" teams, mainly in the American Hockey League (AHL). For instance, the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL are affiliated with the Indianapolis Ice of the AHL. The affiliation requires that a certain number of players who have contracts with the Blackhawks will be sent to play with the Ice, and in return, the Blackhawks may call up Ice players to play in the NHL when they need backups.

Making it to the NHL, or even the AHL, is usually the culmination of a lifetime of competitive hockey. NHL players are typically men who first played hockey at about three or four years of age. Organized youth hockey can begin as young as age three, and five is typical in both the United States and Canada. In the US, boys progress from Mini-Mites (5/6) to Mites (7/8) to Squirts (9/10), while in Canada they begin as Mites (3-5), then Tykes (5/6), then Novice (7/8), then Atom (9/10). In both countries, 11- and 12-year-olds play Peewee, 13- and 14-year-olds play Bantam, and 15- to 17-year-olds play Midget. Hockey becomes the same full-contact sport played by adults when boys enter Peewee, and travel leagues are open to the very best players of all ages.

Starting around age 16 or 17, boys may try out for junior teams; these are amateur leagues which feed into the minor and major leagues. In the late seventies, around the time Fraser and Kowalski were finishing Midget, the junior leagues likeliest to lead to the NHL were the Ontario Hockey Association, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Western Canada Hockey League. The other route to professional hockey is through college hockey. NCAA schools are the only significant source of players from the US into professional hockey; if an American player doesn't want to go to college, he'd best go to Canada.

The Game

Hockey is played in three twenty-minute periods. There is no halftime. There are two intermissions. Intermissions typically last about fifteen minutes.

Hockey is played on a rink. In the NHL, the rink should look something like this:

The area in front of the goal is called the goal crease; it's painted blue and usually has a goalie in it, as you see:

Pictured: Ed Belfour, starting goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks, and Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

The object of hockey is to knock the puck into the goal with a stick. A few of the things players are not allowed to do are illustrated below:

There will not be a quiz. Illegal maneuvers like those demonstrated above will result in a stoppage of play and a faceoff.

Illegal maneuvers that involve potential, attempted, or actual bodily harm to your opponents will result in a penalty. Penalties can be minor or major. A minor penalty lasts two minutes or until the penalized player's team is scored on, and consists of the penalized player sitting in the penalty box without being replaced, so that his team is at a one-man disadvantage. This is referred to as being shorthanded or on the penalty kill. The team with the man advantage is on a power play. A major penalty is similar to a minor penalty, but it lasts five minutes regardless of whether the shorthanded team is scored on. If a player really pisses off a referee, he can be given a ten minute major penalty or a game misconduct, neither of which results in a shorthanded situation.

Penalties include but are not limited to:

Holding - Impeding another player by holding on to his jersey, stick, or any body part.
Slashing - Slashing at another player with the stick, regardless of whether contact is made or not.
High-sticking - Striking a player with the stick on the head or neck, whether intentionally or not.
Cross-checking - Striking the player with the shaft of the stick held in two hands.
Roughing - A minor altercation that does not warrant a major penalty (usually pushing and shoving as opposed to actual fighting).
Delay of game - What it sounds like. Usually called when a goalie knocks the net off its moorings to force a stop in play.

Checking is legal hitting. A check is a hit delivered with the hip and/or shoulder on the player who is in possession of the puck, or--to allow for the effects of momentum--the player who most recently handled the puck. Players, especially young players, are constantly admonished to keep their heads up, i.e. to watch out for people coming to hit them when they are handling the puck. Young players are taught how to take a hit; players skating with their heads down are most likely to get badly hurt by a check.

The most commonly called major penalty is fighting (hence "Five for Fighting").

Fighting is regarded as an important part of hockey in North America (it is vanishingly rare in European hockey, except when North Americans are somehow involved). The biggest proponents of fighting in hockey are Canadian. In the world of hockey, the biggest thugs are Canadians.

Feel free to take a moment to adjust your worldview.

This is what hockey fights look like:

There are some important rules in hockey fights: sucker punching is considered deeply dishonorable, though it does happen. Fights are almost always one-on-one, and uninvolved players will pair off with uninvolved members of opposing teams to hold each other back and keep it that way. The fight absolutely, positively is over when the Ref grabs one of you or steps in between; a player who doesn't stop fighting when an official intervenes faces mandatory suspension. But the most important rule is Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same force with which you punch your opponent is the force that pushes you away from him and you're on skates. This is why it is so necessary for players to clutch each other's jerseys or, if necessary, bare skin, while fighting, and why quickly losing your jersey in a fight places you at such an advantage: if you can hold on to the other guy, but he can't hold on to you, only one of you is going to be landing any punches.

Despite what the MAD Magazine Ice Hockey Primer would have you believe, fighting is clearly distinguished from celebration after a goal, which looks like this:

The main differences are that when celebrating, players are still wearing gloves and holding sticks and are wearing matching jerseys.

The Players

During normal play, each team has six players on the ice: five skaters and the goalie. At the first faceoff, they would be arranged something like this:

Once the game was underway, if the red team was controlling the puck and trying to score, it might look a bit like this (Mockup done by me, in Paint. Stop laughing.) Defensemen are marked "D" and forwards (the center and two wings) are marked "F":

Forwards push up to the goal to try to score; Defensemen hang back so that they'll be ready when the action goes the other way and they need to defend their own goal. On the blue team, defenders stay near the goal, while Forwards hang back and wait for a chance to rush the other way. Theoretically. In reality things get a bit messy and happen very fast.

The Gear

Hockey is a violent and dangerous sport. There are 200-pound defensemen knocking you into the boards every time you try to move the puck; there are 90 mph slapshots flying around. Hockey players are thus required to wear a certain amount of protective padding. Required. Some of them give the impression that they would play in nothing but a cup and a jersey if they were allowed to do so; helmets were not always required and, when they became mandatory, there was a grandfather clause which allowed players who had entered the NHL before the rule took effect to leave their helmets off. Craig MacTavish, the last holdout, retired in the late nineties. Players tend to value mobility and (in the case of head/face protection) visibility above actual safety; if they wanted to be safe on the ice, they'd be curlers. The standard equipment for a skater (not a goalie) looks like this, although the illustration for some reason does not point out the cup which is, of course, very very standard:

This leaves a few areas unprotected: most of the midsection, the forearms, and the calves, above the skates and below the pants. Shoulder and elbow pads are hidden by the player's jersey, which is secured in the back to his pants by something called a "fighting strap" which is meant to keep your jersey on for a reasonable percentage of a fight. Playing with your fighting strap unfastened is an illegal-equipment penalty.

A player wears a t-shirt and shorts under his gear. Hockey pants are usually laced and held up with suspenders. Below his pants, a player wears hockey socks, which extend from his skate to his thigh, and should not be confused with the regular socks he wears between his feet and his skates. Hockey socks cover the shin and knee pads. They have to be held up somehow; most players now use various combinations of tape, but garter-belt-jock-strap combinations were once common.

The complete package, with jersey, socks, and all, looks something like this:

Pictured: Chris Chelios, team captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.

This primer was composed almost entirely off the top of my head. If you have further hockey-related questions or suggestions as to how the primer could be improved, let me know at

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