Welcome to Hockey: An Introduction to the NHL for Olympic Ice Fans

Ryan BouldingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Feb 23, 2014; Sochi, RUSSIA; Canada forward Jonathan Toews (16) celebrates a goal against Sweden in the men's ice hockey gold medal game during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Bolshoy Ice Dome. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

For those of you spilling over from the Olympics and into watching NHL hockey, welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.

You’ll notice that there are a few differences between the international game and the one popular in North America. Don’t let these changes scare you off, they’re for the best.

The first thing you might see upon an initial glance is the prevalence of goals being scored on a nightly basis. Sure, every now and then there is a tight game—sometimes even a goaltender duel—where nobody tallies until overtime or even the star-studded shootout, but more often than not, there are pucks put into the nets.

This is largely due to the fact that the rink is smaller than it is abroad—10 feet shorter in length and 13 feet shorter in width. With less room to move, there is also less room to hide. It’s a lot harder to bury the offense, meaning there are more chances to make a scoring play. This also translates into more excitement.

Don’t believe that the smaller ice surface is a factor? Ask Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith, who served as a third-string backup for Canada in Sochi.

"That rink felt a little small when I went out there for the first time," Smith said, per CBSSports, following practice after returning to Arizona. "I'm not going to lie to you, I felt like I was in a closet skating around with a bunch of guys in there with me.”

And in that closer proximity, players are allowed to fight in the NHL. Face washes, cheap shots and trash-talking all come with some added risk because fists can be used in lieu of further conversation. This allows the players to police the game themselves, in a sense.

If two players trade blows in the NHL, they go sit in the penalty box for five minutes before being released back into the wild. In the Olympics, they would be immediately ejected from the game.

Don’t think a fight between two fully grown gladiators is exciting? Witness, in person, the fervor of a crowd erupting in cheer as two opponents drop the gloves. There’s nothing like it.

Remember that unforgettable shootout between Team USA and the Russians? That was an example of how electrifying a close game can be. American hero T.J. Oshie carried his club on his shoulders, scoring on four of six attempts to bring the U.S. a win.

Oshie didn’t leave the game after the first three players shot, something allowed by the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rulebook. But repetitive shooters don’t fly in the NHL. Every player must have a chance before there can be a second try. This makes the skills competition a little bit more unpredictable.

All of the most talented guys get picked first. If they can’t crack a goalie, coaches are then forced to get creative, sending in a defenseman with clunkier hands or the enforcer on the team with the hope that someone gets lucky and sneaks one through.

It evens the playing field.

Feb 6, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene (9) screens ]Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason (35) during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Watching national super squads duke it out in Russia is one thing, but seeing those same guys work magic on their own teams is another thing altogether. Instead of cheering on the United States, Canada, or even Latvia, you can pick a team close to you or choose a player to follow.

A vested interest makes following the game more entertaining, just as with the Olympics. So find someone or some team to root for.

NHL rosters are constructed in a way that everyone has a specific role. Not everybody in the lineup is a top-minutes guy who puts away points on a nightly basis. Some are there to kill penalties, win faceoffs, make passes, etc. This gives you a handful of players on each and every team from which to choose a favorite.

This kind of construction also levels the playing field. Parity is such in the NHL that any given team can win on just about any night. Sure there are powerhouse clubs like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. But with 30 teams in all, you’ll find one or two that you really like.

As for the major rules, well they’re pretty much the same. There’s icing, offsides, the various penalties and infractions. You already have a head start on those from taking in the Games.

For you, the most important thing is to let your newfound love of the game of hockey continue to grow. Go to games, ask questions, meet fellow fans. The hockey community is robust, enthusiastic and always inviting. The 2014 Winter Olympics brought you here, won’t you stay awhile?