NHL Hockey: "Three" Reasons That Make the Sport Great

Mark BatorAnalyst IIMay 3, 2012

There's a "number" of reasons hockey is great.
There's a "number" of reasons hockey is great.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

As far as hockey fans are concerned, there's no better sport. However, whereas hockey is the national winter sport in Canada, in the United States the NHL finishes a distant fourth among sports leagues.

Is it cultural? No, it's simply numeric. Most people prefer the number two. Two is simple. it's either true-false or yes-no.

Right? Wrong.

It's too exclusionary. Two is either this way, or that way. The number three opens up new possibilities. There's this version, that version, and the truth.

Because of the common acceptance of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game as a mid-season marker for the former National Pastime, fans of that sport tend to view the season in "halves." Hockey minds, however, ascribe no such significance to a mere "exhibition game" played by the league's stars as the "midpoint" of the NHL season.

"I really feel the season breaks down in thirds," former player-turned-analyst Peter McNab once theorized during a New Jersey Devils television broadcast. McNab explained that in the first third of the season, players and teams established themselves in terms of "who's hot, who's not." The middle third (the "dog days," as McNab described them) included late December, January and February. Finally, there was the last third, which the television personality referred to as "the stretch run" before the playoffs.

Important numbers in hockey are multiples of three, or divisible by three, whereas in baseball, football and basketball, significant numbers are multiples of two. 

The All-Star game is baseball's "midpoint" of the season.
The All-Star game is baseball's "midpoint" of the season.Norm Hall/Getty Images

A hockey game is divided into three periods, totaling sixty minutes. It begins with twelve players on the ice, whereas football has twenty-two players on the field. Basketball has ten players on the court. Some may argue that a baseball team has nine players on the field, but remember, in order for the game to be played, it requires an opposing batter to get play started—thereby making it ten total players.

The players on each hockey team have one of three basic classifications. They are either forwards, defensemen or goaltenders. Again, three. Depending on the position one plays, there are even three different types of sticks for use during the game.

In football or basketball, one is either inbounds or out-of-bounds, and in baseball, one can either hit the ball fair or foul. Unlike baseball or football, hockey has three surfaces where the puck is considered to be "in play," namely: the ice, the boards and the glass. It is probably for this reason that any pucks striking the potential fourth surface—the safety netting that now surrounds every NHL rink—are considered "out of play."

One could even point out that the basic playing surface for hockey, ice, is one of the three natural states of water (solid, liquid or gas), but perhaps that's stretching the point too far.

Football, being the preeminent American sport that it is, divides its one hundred yard playing surface into two halves of the field, divided by the 50-yard-line. There is a home and visitor end zone, and even two goal posts. A hockey rink, by comparison, is divided into three zones, with nine faceoff dots.

Football and basketball divide their game time into two halves, not three periods like hockey. This is no doubt the main reason that the professional roller hockey league, Roller Hockey International, failed so miserably in the mid-1990s: games were divided into two halves consisting of four quarters, thus besmirching the purity of "three."

The best state of water is neither liquid nor gas.
The best state of water is neither liquid nor gas.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Before objections are raised pointing out that baseball games are nine innings long, it should be noted that they are further divided into half-innings, making it eighteen separate frames.

Hockey recognizes scoring with three basic statistics (goals, assists, points) and it's no coincidence that the difference between a major penalty and a minor penalty is three minutes. Hockey purists speak fondly of the days of the "Original Six" and find difficulty with the size of the league today. Of course, the most recent NHL expansion was necessary to bring the total number of teams up to thirty.

There are three ways to score in hockey, using either a slap shot, a wrist shot, or a backhand. In basketball, there are only two ways to score--either you by making a shot from the field during game play, or you make a free throw.

In football, there are only two ways to score a touchdown on offense—a team can either run the ball in, or throw for a touchdown. A touchdown is worth six points, and while it's true that the team can kick an extra point and make it seven, they can also go for the two-point conversion and score eight points, again making it divisible by two.

Sure, football teams can actually score points a third way—with a field goal—but remember, teams can also score on a safety, too, so there are really four ways to tally points.

At the end of regulation, hockey games had formerly had three possible outcomes (win, lose or tie). Today, of course, one part of hockey that many purist fans dislike is the regular-season overtime period.

After all, who wants to watch ten players skating for five minutes?

Decades of beautiful "three" symmetry with the W-L-T columns of the newspaper standings have now been ruined by the inclusion of the "OTL" line, and it's conceivable that the person at the NHL offices who thought up the fourth column was only using one-third of his brain that day.

The only question is: did he think twice about it?