The New Hockey Fan's Guide to the NHL
If you have clicked on this article, you probably fit into one of the following categories:
1. You are an NBA fan who has had it up to here with your sport not solving the problems that are keeping them off the court.
2. You are an MLB fan who is bored in the offseason even with all the trade talk and rumors about where Albert Pujols is playing this week.
3. You are already a diehard NHL fan, but are trying to introduce one of your confused relatives or friends to the sport you have loved for practically your whole life.
4. Try as you might, you think the NFL is kind of lame (and honestly, I agree).
So, whatever type you are, welcome! I am happy to introduce you to the world of the NHL and what you should know as you grow your passion for hockey.
Now, don't worry. This is not going to be me reciting the NHL rule book with all the excitement of watching paint dry. No—this is going to be way more fun than that.
I'm going to show you what makes hockey so great, as well as teach you some basic hockey fan etiquette should you decide to go see hockey in person (and if you haven't, well, what are you waiting for?).
Once you start clicking, there's no ignoring the excitement, so if you're really ready to become a hockey fan, keep reading!
1. Hockey Is One of the Fastest Sports Around
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In hockey, there is no stopping every time your goaltender has to sneeze or games that drag on four hours (I mean, as much as I love my New York Yankees, those ESPN games with the Boston Red Sox that went until midnight were torture to sit through.).
In a typical NHL game, players take the ice in shifts of about 30 to 60 seconds, and the line combinations change frequently. If you blink at the wrong time, you won't be able to keep up with who's on the ice and who's not. It is hard to learn the names and uniform numbers of your favorite players when this happens, but you get to see everyone take the ice at least once as long as they are in the lineup.
Therefore, you get to know how each guy approaches the game and what his strengths and weaknesses are.
And on the ice, there is a lot to keep your eye on. If the players aren't speeding up ice with the puck, they're throwing crushing hits. The goaltender has just one second to react to a 90 mph shot coming at him. Faceoffs happen frequently, and it doesn't take long for the faceoff winner to get control of the puck and keep his team in the game.
If you don't mind watching grass grow as you check your watch waiting for the end of another baseball game, hockey probably isn't for you.
But if you want to actually watch a sport with a lot of action, this is your calling.
2. Don't Ever Turn Away from Playoff Overtime
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It's the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and your team is going to overtime of a crucial game in the series.
A. Keep the game on until the winning goal is scored, even if that doesn't happen until past your bedtime
B. Switch between home-shopping channels and the game
C. Keep the game on, but read a book while looking up
D. Go to bed
If you're really going to become a hockey fan, your answer should be A.
Playoff overtime is one of the greatest parts of the postseason. Unlike the regular season, there is no shootout to decide who goes on to the next round or ties the series. The teams play for as long as it takes until someone scores a goal.
Some games have gone as late as 2 a.m. ET, and diehard fans will be on the edge of their seats every minute. It's so great because neither team wants to give up. They have something on the line, and if it takes all night to fight for it, then so be it.
If you only watch one playoff game from April to June, don't walk away from one in overtime. You never know when you'll miss history being made.
3. The Stanley Cup Is the Best Trophy in Sports
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Sure, the Lombardi Trophy, the World Series trophy and the NBA Championship trophy are all the ultimate awards for those athletes who are lucky enough to hold it after a long, hard-fought season.
But those trophies don't bring the same glory as the Stanley Cup.
The Stanley Cup is a silver chalice engraved with the names of winners dating back several years. At the end of each postseason, an elaborate on-ice presentation takes place where two guardians of the Cup bring it to a table on the ice while wearing white gloves. The captain of the winning team is the first to receive the Cup, and he lifts it over his head before presenting it to the next player to hold, and so on.
During the summer, the Cup takes various journeys with the winners, from a celebration parade to swimming pools, trips to Europe and who knows what else? Players drink champagne and eat breakfast from it, and some will give it a bath before passing it on to the next person in the journey.
When the Cup makes a tour around various hockey cities, fans will wait in line for hours to pose next to it. It's every NHL fan's wish to touch the Cup, even if just for one second.
The Stanley Cup will always be associated with tradition and history, and it's the NHL's most cherished and sought-after piece of hardware.
4. You Can Fight in Hockey...and Get Away with It
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In other sports, fighting on the court or the field is pretty much a no-no.
And let's face it, when baseball players get physical, you can only help but laugh as they "fight" like that scene in Mean Girls when the burn book is discovered and the girls pull each other's hair and yell in the hallways.
But I digress.
Fighting is a big part of the hockey culture, and fans live for it. In fact, in the past, players used to agree to fight before the game and would often drop the gloves right off the faceoff.
You've probably seen it. Two players are waiting for the opening puck-drop, pretending to be focused on the action at hand, and then, boom. They've taken off their gloves and are throwing punches like their lives depend on it. Most NHL teams employ someone whose sole job is to fight and defend their teammates.
Even though the league has discouraged the staged fights and the all-out line brawls of years past, fans still love a good hockey fight, and the debate as to who won or who lost can really spark some good discussion.
If you're interested in some good hockey fights, here are some of my favorites:
Philadelphia Flyers-Ottawa Senators line brawl from 2004 (probably my all-time classic, and I don't even like the Flyers).
Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes on Deryk Engelland of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010.
Goalie fight from a minor league hockey game. Goalie fights are a rare treat, but always fun to watch.
5. Hockey Is a Physical Game
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Even if you take out the fighting quotient, hockey is not a sport for those who are afraid of physical contact.
If you're not careful, you never know when you'll be pushed up against the boards or end up on your face on the ice. You may also take an 80 or 90 mph shot to the face, maybe losing a few teeth in the process.
In the NHL, the bruises and missing teeth are badges of honor. Players are proud of their physical battles, and fans often use toughness and endurance when evaluating how valuable a player is to his team.
But it's OK if you'd rather not see bodies banging all over the ice. There's always tennis.
6. Brendan Shanahan Does Not Take Any Prisoners
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After the 2010-11 season, Colin Campbell stepped down as the NHL's disciplinarian, and former player Brendan Shanahan took the job in addition to his title as the league's vice president of hockey and business development.
Even in the preseason, Shanahan showed that he was coming down harder on the NHL's offenders when they delivered illegal hits to the head and committed other questionable penalties. His lengthy punishments, such as the eight-game ban handed out to James Wisniewski of the Columbus Blue Jackets, set a statement right out of the gate.
When a ruling comes down, Shanahan or someone else from his office will make an educational video explaining the player's punishment and why that consequence was given out. Although the videos are about as badly produced as those contrived corporate training videos (they even have a Power Point-type presentation in the end), they are useful and help fans understand why a player is being benched for however many games he was given.
So if you see your favorite player deliver a boarding call that doesn't sit right with the NHL's newest principal, don't be surprised in a few days when he gets what has become known as the "Shanaban."
7. Gary Bettman Gets Booed Everywhere
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Whether for amusement or just because they're fed up with the way the NHL is being run, fans will no doubt boo Gary Bettman wherever he turns up around the league. This includes, but is not limited to, the Stanley Cup presentation.
For a variety of reasons, Bettman is never welcomed warmly by fans anywhere. If you look up "Gary Bettman booed" on YouTube, you will see for yourself how he has also been jeered at the NHL draft and other games.
In due time, you too will probably have a bone to pick with him and want to give him a jeer, even if it's only from your couch.
8. Don't Ignore the Minor Leagues
I'm biased here because I hold season tickets to a minor league hockey team, and without my hometown team, I would've never become a hockey fan.
However, it is kind of disappointing when people say something to me about how they don't care about minor league hockey, or ask why anyone should care if they don't live in a city with such a team. It's obvious to me they've never given it a chance, and they really should.
The American Hockey League (AHL) and the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) are the top feeders of talent to the NHL, and many NHL players, coaches and even officials got their start in these leagues. There is no conceivable way to list everyone who's spent time in the minor leagues and now enjoys an NHL career as a result, but if you're ever curious, there are ways to research such things.
Anyway, the minors bring a lot of exciting hockey. You're watching the stars of tomorrow develop their skills, and they play with determination and hard work with hopes of receiving the phone call that they're joining an NHL team, even if it's just to fill in for an injured player. There is often more physical play as well.
As added bonuses, the tickets are more affordable, the arenas are smaller and more intimate and there is less of the corporate atmosphere some NHL arenas bring. Since the fanbases are smaller, you really get to make friends and know the regulars at the games, and you feel like you're part of a family.
If you've turned up your nose at minor league hockey in the past or feel like you don't understand it, I recommend at least one lower-level game. If you don't have the AHL or ECHL near where you live, there are countless other minor leagues worth checking out.
9. Get to an NHL Game in Person
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While there's nothing wrong with just sitting at home watching a hockey game, there's nothing like attending a game in person.
When you're sitting in an arena, the experience of seeing everything that makes hockey exciting in person is a great feeling. You can hear the sounds of the puck being passed up ice without a play-by-play announcer in the background, see and hear a player being slammed into the glass and get on your feet and scream when the goal horn sounds.
There's also a sense of unity, as the majority of people around you will be in the team's colors, just like you are. It's cool to wear a jersey at your house while eating a bowl of popcorn, but it's better to be surrounded by 15,000 people who are all cheering for the same team. You can talk to someone sitting near you about the game action, ask questions if you're trying to get up to speed and high-five a random stranger when something good happens for your team.
Going to games in person is also the fastest way to get hooked. In my early hockey-watching days, I would watch the Flyers at my dad's house, but it wasn't until I went to a game in person that I really became a fan.
10. The Dos and Don'ts of Attending a Hockey Game
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Of course, like any public situation, there are some rules to follow when attending a game. Here are some of the basics.
Talk to People Around You
Some of the most interesting people attend sporting events, and hockey is no exception. Don't be a hermit. Even if you don't meet your new best friend, people are generally friendly when it comes to talking about something you already have in common: a love of hockey.
Wear Something Related to Your Team
Whether you choose a jersey, a name-and-number T-shirt or a hooded sweatshirt, hockey games are about showing your team pride. Be proud of your loyalties; don't hide them.
Try Not To Be Late
While things happen and we find ourselves stuck in traffic or run into a problem at home just as we're supposed to be leaving, try to make it to the arena as close to the start of a game as possible. Hockey is so fast-paced that you can miss a goal even in the first minute.
Get Up in the Middle of Play
Hockey arenas don't allow spectators to get up during play because it blocks the view of other fans and puts people in danger of being hit by a puck if they're not protected by safety netting. If you do try this, expect to be yelled at mercilessly until you decide you'd better sit back down.
Act Like You Know Everything When You Don't
As a new fan, it's OK to ask questions about the rules of the game or if want to know more about the star players. But there's nothing worse than when someone thinks they know everything and they don't.
Disrespect the Home Fans if You're Cheering for the Road Team
When you are a visitor to another team's arena and are cheering for the opponent, your best bet is to be respectful and not cause a lot of trouble. Watch your topics of conversation and don't try to start fights, verbal or physical, with the home fans.
11. Mark Your Calendars for the Trade Deadline and Free Agency
The trade deadline and the start of NHL free agency on July 1 are always blocked off on the diehard hockey fan's calendar.
Each day brings all-day coverage from the NHL Network in the United States and TSN in Canada. Moves are reported almost as soon as they break, and coverage and analysis is broken down right on air. In most cases, the player involved in a move is on the phone within minutes, especially in a blockbuster deal.
Of course, the days leading up to the trade are exciting, too. You never know when a huge move is going to happen, such as last year's mega-deal between the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues.
There are also many rumor sites, but choose carefully, as some of them are no more than people making up rumors just to start conversation. (I beg you: Don't follow Eklund. Just don't.)
While each season brings about at least one big name in trade and free-agency rumors, don't overlook the less significant moves. You never know which player could end up being a total surprise and break out on his new team.
12. It's OK To Skip the NHL All-Star Game
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The NHL All-Star Game can have its exciting moments. Players love to goof off in the skills competition, and the fantasy draft that was introduced last year was a great way to mix up the stale Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format.
However, if you don't watch it or don't feel like it excites you, that's totally OK.
The game generally feels like a lacrosse game, as there is tons of scoring and pretty much no defense. There is also no hitting, as players don't want to get hurt in a meaningless event.
Also, the fan balloting is more a subject of controversy than fans actually getting pumped to see their favorite players get a shot at the game. When the ballots come out, fans love to complain about who was left off and why they shouldn't have been, or even who is on it.
Trust me. When Sidney Crosby appeared on this year's ballot despite not having played since January, things got ugly on the Internet message boards.
In 2009, Detroit Red Wings superstars Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk were suspended for not taking part in the festivities. The decision sparked outrage around the league, leading fans to further ridicule the event.
Honestly, the All-Star Game can seem more like an excuse to take care of things you've neglected to do during the first half of the NHL season.
13. Stand by Your Favorite Team and Players
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It's no secret that when some fans announce their favorite team or player, they stand a chance at being mocked or laughed at by fans who think their team and favorite player is superior.
"You're only a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins because they drafted Sidney Crosby."
"Aren't you one of three Florida Panthers fans?"
"How could you like Roberto Luongo? He chokes every year!"
If you have latched onto a team and decided you will root them on through thick and thin, don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Why should it matter if your team is in a non-traditional market, or if your favorite player isn't raking in the hardware and getting his name in lights seven days a week?
Be proud of who you are rooting for and show you are passionate. Don't give in and switch teams just because you get picked on for it. There's nothing wrong with standing out from the pack, and who knows? You may end up meeting someone who admires your dedication through all the challenging times.
14. Getting Educated
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When you're a new fan, there can be a lot to learn about hockey, from the ins and outs of the action to the history of your favorite team and the careers of your favorite players.
Luckily, there are several resources available for you to outsmart even the most hardcore and veteran fans.
The NHL's official site and your team's website are always good places to start. You can look up information on any player or team, including stats and team histories. Some sites even have Hockey 101 sections to explain the rules to new fans, while some teams have been known to show informational videos to fans after a call to explain what led to the referee calling what he did.
There are also several print books about the league as a whole and different teams. If you're curious about the life of a hockey legend or want all of your hockey information in one place, check out your local bookstore or Amazon.com.
15. Enjoy the Ride
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Hockey is a long season. Teams play 82 games, and 16 teams go to the playoffs to play as many as 28 additional games in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.
The fun continues in the summer, as teams flock to the NHL draft to find their future superstars and free agents try to find the best place to continue their hockey careers.
There is always something going on, and that's what makes this sport so great.
Hopefully, after reading this, you've decided to give hockey a chance. There's still time to strap in and prepare for a roller-coaster season, so have fun, and don't be surprised if you come out totally hooked.