Hockey for Beginners - The Ins and Outs of the Sport

Hockey for Beginners - The Ins and Outs of the Sport

All About Ice Hockey

Today, hockey ranks among the most popular sports in the Western world, played professionally in North America, and in the Olympics by dozens of countries around the world. It offers up a great many physical, mental, and social benefits to those participating in it. Still, many do not know enough about it to give it a try.

The game of hockey, even for beginners, is a fast-paced, often physical team winter sport played in an ice rink or on a frozen water body. Players move about on ice skates as they maneuver a puck past their opponents and into the opposing side’s goal using hockey sticks.

Referred to as ice hockey in countries where field hockey is a popular sport, hockey in the United States and Canada continues to grow in popularity as more and more people, young and old, strap on their skates and take to the ice every day. Read on to learn all you need to know about this great winter sport.

Playing the Game of Hockey

Hockey is one of the most challenging, thrilling, and rewarding sports one can choose to participate in. The fact that it can only be played on frozen surfaces is, perhaps, the only reason it is not popular across all world regions.

The game can be said to be the same all over the countries in which it is played, obeying similar sets of rules instituted by the IIHF and the NHL. Six players on each of the opposing teams will battle it out on the ice to score goals by sending the hockey puck into the other team’s net.

Whichever team has scored more goals at the end of the game will be declared the winner.

That is the broad outline. There is plenty more going on, of course. Let us make a quick go-over of what you can expect to see in a live hockey game.

The Players on the Ice

The six players on each side of a hockey matchup have specific roles to play as part of their team’s efforts.

  • Forwards: Three players fill this role, with one occupying the left-wing, one in the center, and the last one on the arena’s right-wing. Forwards are the ones you will be looking at for the most goals scored in a match.
  • Defencemen: Two of these players are found on each team, and their role is to generally keep the opposing side’s forwards from getting to their goal and scoring.
  • Goaltenders: Only one player per team fills this role on the ice, and their mission is to stop the puck from getting past them and into their net. You will usually find them in a blue semi-circle known as the crease.

Starting Things Off

Each game will start with a face-off, where two players from each of the teams in the competition will face each other on the centerline, where a match official will drop the puck between them to signify the start of the game.

During games, teams can make changes or substitutions to their lineup at any time. This can be done even while the puck is in play, referred to as changing on the fly, or during a stoppage of play. The home team during a matchup is the one given the last substitution of any particular game.

Games last for a total of sixty minutes of playtime, divided into three twenty-minute periods. If the puck is not actively in play, the referees will blow their whistles to stop the timer. This is different from what happens in soccer, where the clock is continuously running regardless of whether the game is actively ongoing or not.

For a more in-depth look at the total duration of a hockey game, we’ve written an article on the subject.

Moving Things Along

Players move the game along by passing the puck among themselves and shooting it into the opposing team’s net using their hockey sticks. The game rules do not prohibit the use of most body parts to control or direct the puck, although players are not allowed to kick it to score goals. Accidental hits are not a problem. The use of one’s hands to pass or hold the puck is also prohibited.

Hockey allows for forwarding passes, unlike sports such as rugby. It used to be an onside game up until 1930 when the regulations were changed. This change made hockey more team-oriented since no single player was forced to handle the puck all the way to the opposing team’s net on their own.

You will find boards surrounding your typical hockey rink designed to keep the puck restricted to the play area while also being used as a tool players can use to bounce the puck off intentionally. In some leagues, players are also permitted to bodycheck their opponents against these boards to stop their progress.

The Endgame

The sixty minutes dedicated to each game is known as regulation time. At the end of which, the team that has managed to score more goals will be declared the winner of the contest. In instances where the two teams are tied on points or no goal has been scored, the game may go into overtime, which can be an extra five-minute period where only four players per team – three skaters and one goaltender – are allowed on the ice. Some leagues vary the time and number of players.

This reduction in the number of players is meant to encourage faster, more aggressive gameplay, facilitating goal scoring. This is crucial in overtime scenarios since overtime is a sudden-death situation. This means that whichever team scores will be declared the winner and the game put to an end.

Should both teams fail to score this all-important goal within the allocated five minutes, the game will move on to a shootout. This involves the taking of one-on-one (skater versus goalie) penalty shots in a best-of-three format. Should this prove to be indecisive, the teams will take turns taking one penalty shot until one team scores, and the other fails on the same turn.

The Rules of Hockey

A sport without rules will quickly degenerate into a brawl, and hockey is no exception. In the interests of safety, fairness, and overall enjoyment of the game, rules have to be formalized and followed by all parties involved.

One critical aspect of learning about how hockey works is to understand the rule about icing the puck. To learn more about this, read our article describing what icing is in hockey and why it matters.

To ensure that rules are followed, there have to be consequences for those who break or fail to observe them. In hockey, these illegal acts are referred to as penalties. There are various penalties that referees may charge a player or even a coach with after their assessment, and these penalties can again be grouped into different types of penalties. Let us take a quick look.

List of Penalty Offences in Hockey

  • Cross Checking: This is an easily identified offence involving the hockey stick of a player as part of a check on their opponent. To be on the safe side, professionals rarely raise their sticks at all while checking other players.
  • Boarding and Charging: Although hockey can be a very physical sport, there are certain limits to what will be allowed in the course of play. Boarding refers to checking an opponent who is defenceless (with their back to the offender, without the puck, etc.) violently into the boards surrounding the ice. Charging is similar but takes place on the open ice away from the boards.
  • High Sticking: Every player on the ice is held responsible for their stick and what it does. High sticking refers to any occasion where a player’s stick makes contact with another player on any part of their body above the shoulders. Accidents will sometimes happen, of course, but the referee will assess the damage, if any, and make the decision whether a penalty is merited or not.
  • Holding the Stick and Holding: The rulebook puts these offences in straightforward terms as any actions that prevent an opposing movement of the player. In real terms, it is the holding of a player’s uniform or sticks to stop them from moving past or away from you.
  • Hooking: Hooking is another very easily identified offence. Here, the offending player uses their stick to restrict the movement of an opposing player. It will usually take place with the stick in question held up and parallel to the ground rather than on it.
  • Throwing the Stick: A hockey stick flying about can cause severe damage to whoever is unlucky enough to be in its path, which is why players are penalized should they intentionally throw their sticks. Even if the stick of a player breaks during a game, they are meant to place it down on the ice and continue without it instead of throwing it away.
  • Roughing: Pushing and shoving are an accepted part of the game, but the moment this turns into punches, a roughing violation will be called.
  • Tripping: This offence can be carried out in various ways, but often with the same result – interfering with an opponent’s feet through contact of any kind that causes them to lose their balance.

Types of Penalties in Hockey

Minor Penalties

These are by far the most common penalties you will see awarded in a regular game. As per the NHL Rule book, the majority of possible offences listed will fall under this category. Should a player be found to have committed a minor infraction of the rules, they will be directed to spend 2 minutes off the ice and in the penalty box.

This will force their team to make do with only four players on the ice; a state referred to as being short-handed. This, of course, works to the opposing team’s advantage, especially since hockey is a sport with relatively few players to a side, meaning a missing player represents a significant disadvantage in manpower.

When a team has the advantage of one more man on the ice than the other, they are said to be in a power play. Should you score a goal during a power play, then the offending player on the opposing team will be automatically released from their penalty box hold, even if the two minutes are far from up.

In some instances, it can get worse. For example, a side might have more than one minor infraction assessed to them, involving two of their players. These two players will serve two minutes each in the penalty box, meaning that their team will have to play doubly short-handed, with only three players on the ice against five on the other team.

Double Minor Penalties

A double minor offence is deemed by the referee to be decidedly more serious than a minor infraction, even though it is bound to certain specific offences. These include high-sticking, head-butting, spearing, and head-butting, where this action causes the player on the receiving end to shed blood.

The penalty box time here is four minutes, and the opposing team will have to score two goals for the offending player to be released. Each goal erases a single penalty.

Bench Minor Penalties

These are penalties that may be assessed to coaches or players who are not currently in the game. Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Too Many Men are examples of penalties directed at people on the bench. Players will be required to serve two minutes in the penalty box just as they would have had they been on the ice.

Coincidental Penalties

These are illegal acts where both teams are penalized simultaneously as both offending players are placed in the penalty box at the same time. This means that no team goes short-handed for the duration of the penalty.

The most frequent occasion for coincidental penalties is the eruption of a scrum or when two opposing players engage in a play considered to be too rough.

Major Penalties

Major penalties are almost always issued as the result of fighting. Aside from the penalization cause, the main difference between major and minor penalties is the duration offending players are required to spend in the penalty box.

Here, they will have to spend five full minutes out of play. To make matters more severe, this type of penalty is not discontinued, no matter how many goals may be scored by the team that’s a man up.

Match Penalties

These are automatic ejections from the game, as players who are assessed this penalty will be sent back to the dressing rooms for the remainder of the game. The match records will be noted down as a ten-minute penalty, but the affected team will only have to play for five minutes short-handed before being allowed to bring in a replacement player.

This type of punishment is handed out in cases where a player is thought to have intentionally tried to injure a player on the opposing team – whether they were successful in this attempt or not.

Game Misconducts and Misconducts

Misconducts are somewhat less extreme versions of match penalties, in that players are sent to the penalty box for ten minutes, although their teams are allowed to field replacements so that they do not go short-handed for this duration. The only instances where this will not be permitted is if the offending player is assessed a minor, major, or a match penalty in addition to the misconduct penalization.

Game misconducts are automatic ejections (players sent to the locker rooms), although their teams are allowed to introduce replacement players without spending any short-handed time. Game misconducts will usually have ramifications beyond the game in question, such as fines, suspensions, or both.

Penalty Shots

When a player is considered to have a real scoring chance when an opposing player fouls them, a penalty shot scenario is awarded. This circumstance is identified in instances where the attacking player has clear possession of the puck, is in the attacking or neutral zone, is not obstructed by any defender between him and the opponent’s goal, and is challenged from the rear.

Here, they are awarded a one-on-one face-off with the opponent’s goalkeeper. Should he fail to score, there will be no power-play scenario (the opposing team will not lose a player to the penalty box), but if he does, play continues as usual with his team awarded the point.

What You Need to Play Hockey

Hockey is a game in which proper equipment will not only allow you to play at your best and enjoy yourself but keep you safe as well. Hockey is one of the fastest-paced sports globally, where everyone is moving at breakneck speed with knives strapped to their feet and in which the toughened rubber puck can travel at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. It is no place to be taking chances.

Here is what you will need to consider yourself suited-up for a decent game of hockey:

Hockey Stick

Many consider this to be the most essential bit of equipment in any player’s hockey arsenal, and they may well be right as no piece of equipment has a more significant impact on how player’s play than it. While the average hockey stick you will find at your local sporting goods store might be generic in many of its details, the sticks used by professionals are highly specific in their design details.

The pros consider such factors as shaft flexibility, blade curvature, blade face type (closed or open), blade angle, and the type of toe it comes with. The differences between one hockey stick and another might not make much difference to a beginner’s game. Still, as one grows in experience and skill, the choice of hockey stick will become increasingly important.

Since choosing the right hockey stick is such an essential aspect of the game, we’ve written an article discussing eleven things to consider when choosing a hockey stick. Please take a read!

Other Gear

  • Helmet: You have the choice of various shapes and sizes when it comes to helmets, which are made from resilient, high-quality plastics. They are padded internally with foam for cushioning and comfort and are mandatory for any hockey player.
  • Mouthguard: These are designed to protect the player’s teeth and jaw from any trauma that they may experience in the course of play. They are not mandated in all leagues but make for a prudent addition to any hockey get up.
  • Shoulder Pads: These are designed to protect more than your shoulders, despite their name. They extend downwards to give protection to your chest region. This equipment piece goes the most towards making hockey the physically intensive sport it is by allowing body checks to be executed safely.
  • Elbow Pads: These also perform beyond the scope of their name. Elbow pads go beyond the elbows to cover up whatever part of your arm is exposed while you are in full gear. If you observe players engaged in fistfights, you might notice the padding that runs down their arms – this is the elongated elbow pads they wear.
  • Gloves: Hockey gloves come in various materials, from premium leather to simple foam, but they will all offer protection to your hands and wrists. The thumb areas are usually reinforced to increase their stability and rigidity. Simultaneously, the finger undersides and the palms are made covered with leather or similar material to enhance your grip and allow you to handle your stick better.
  • Hockey Pants: These can be described as padded shorts and are designed to offer padding and protection to the thighs, hips, and tailbone areas of a player’s body.
  • Jock Strap: Also known as an athletic cup, this gear is made from high-density plastic and served the function of protecting the groin area.
  • Shin Guards: These extend from the knee to a player’s upper foot, protecting these injury-prone regions from injury. However, the plastic material they are made of is concentrated towards the pads’ front, leaving the calve regions to be served by hockey socks alone.
  • Skates: The skates used in hockey differ quite significantly from figure skates. These leather boots that have the blade attached to their bottom can be specially fitted to each player’s feet by heating them and moulding them to the contours of the player’s feet. Hockey skates do not have toe picks and come with rounded rather than sharp heels, and regions of these boots are heavily reinforced.

Fighting in Hockey

Fighting is a long-held tradition in the sport as played in North America. However, fans and critics of the practice differ significantly. Although most amateur leagues do not allow for fighting in the course of a game, many people are scared off from trying their hand at this brutal activity by the negative connotations they have in connection with fighting in general.

It makes sense to try and look a bit into how fighting works in hockey. Most people are surprised to find out that fighting in hockey is a very measured, controlled outcome that serves legitimate purposes. This is also discussed in more detail in our article looking into if hockey players fight for fun.

It is very different from ice hockey violence, which is an entirely different and highly uncommon occurrence. Hockey violence refers to the very rare, uncontrolled, and ultimately destructive breakdown of all rules and norms pertaining to ice hockey as it has been played over the years. Violent brawls might happen when a particularly egregious foul is committed on a player or when such infractions occur too often in a game. They are notable for their rarity.

Fights usually involve players known as enforcers – players with the specific roles of intimidating or fighting other players – against other enforcers or opposing players. However, there is nothing barring non-enforcers from occasionally fighting between themselves.

The reason why hockey fights are so far removed from violent episodes is the sets of unspoken rules that the players, coaches, match officials, and even the media tend to refer to as “the code”. Fights can be spontaneous, after an instance of rough play, for example, but they will often be deliberate and intentional.

The reasons why an enforcer or player might decide to start a fight are numerous. They might want to boost their team’s and their fan’s morale by winning a fight – although there’s always the danger they might lose against an opponent in efforts to discourage rough play against themselves or their teammates.

These organized bouts are known as ‘fisticuffs’ in hockey. They can be considered to be a significant part of the professional game’s appeal to spectators, which is why critics of the practice have not been successful in having it taken out of the North American professional game.

The NHL and minor professional leagues across the nation are perhaps the only leagues worldwide where fighting does not cause automatic ejection. However, a variety of penalties are handed out.

Whatever your feelings or concerns about fighting in hockey, it should not colour your opinion or influence your decision to have a loved one try hockey out or for you to pick the game yourself. Aside from the professionals who earn their living through the game, most players will never have to throw down their gloves as part of a hockey game.

Final Thoughts

There are very few reasons why you should not make hockey a part of your life or that of a loved one. It offers an incredible, high-intensity workout, promotes excellent social skills and teamwork, teaches quick analytical thinking, and builds exceptional body awareness and coordination. If you have access to a hockey rink nearby, you will do well to visit someday. You will not regret it.