Hey there, friend. Welcome to hockey! You may have wound up here by happy accident of happenstance (happenstaccident?). Perchance an acquaintance of yours has been rambling nonstop about how great hockey is, how it is the best sport in the world, and how There Is Nothing Like Playoff Hockey? (Those things aren't not true, but we'll get to them later.) Anyway, you're here, reading about the subject of hockey, and that's what's important. The playoffs have just begun, which means you literally could not have picked a better time to get interested.
Of course, it's possible that you're sick of hearing about how great hockey is by now. Much like deep-fried Oreos or Mumford and Sons, you get it. ("Yeah, okay, It's like regular Oreos/alt-rock with batter/banjos. Gotcha. Not complicated.") Well, here in Dallas, a goodly chunk of people have a particular view of hockey, which is that it is nice, niche, quaint, and altogether the littlest brother of the Big Four sports. The Mavs have been Mostly Interesting since Dirk arrived, the Rangers got us all invested just enough to tear our hearts out a couple times, and the latest Cowboys happenings will always be roughly more important than your wedding vows and last will and testament combined. The Stars, meanwhile, won a Stanley Cup once, and hey, that was neato! Anyway, how about the Cowboys' potential non-roster invitees to training camp? Could be some interesting candidates for the defensive line! (I was going to insert a reference to a laughably obscure football player here, but I'll leave that to the good folks in the comments. They'll do a better job than I anyway.)
So with that backdrop, you can trust that we've had ourselves plenty of opportunity for hockey proselytizing. We won't waste your time with "LIKE MY SPORT" entreaties, and we certainly don't need to explain the fundamental appeal of watching world-class athletes play indoor soccer on ice skates while hitting each other as hard as possible, shooting pucks at 100+ mph, and making wholesale substitutions while play is going on. You likely know these basics, so we won't be too condescending. Probably.
With that said, here are my arbitrarily chosen Best Reasons to Love Hockey.
Making Substitutions While Play Is Going On
Okay, I lied. We will go over one of the basics, because it is awesome. You know how in, like, almost every other sport, substitutions happen during a stoppage in play? And you know that feeling in baseball when play is actually stopped because of a substitution? Hockey wastes nobody's time with such nonsense. If you're ever fortunate enough to attend a game in person, you will be utterly mesmerized by the scene of teams making line changes at the same time. You'll be totally confused and fascinated by up to twenty players all frantically hopping on or off the ice while avoiding bumping into each other and trying not to come on too early (lest the team be penalized) or too late (lest the enemy take advantage of their vacated ice and create a scoring chance). It's like synchronized swimming and water polo had a baby, and that baby has a deadly, carbon fiber stick in its hands. When a coach wants new players on the ice, he screams at them, and they change places as soon as they can.
Some coaches have even gone so far as to do this with goalies, which is less a testament to how awesome hockey is and more a piece of evidence about how wonderfully rife with high- functioning lunatics it can be. (Imagine an entire hockey league coached by Mike Martz, and you have the 1980s NHL.)
This might sound dangerous, and it absolutely is. Bad changes result in goals. Players afraid to risk "changing" for a fresh body because of where the puck is (as more commonly happens with defensemen) get stuck on the ice for minutes at a time, which means they get exhausted and vulnerable to fresher players. Oh, that's another thing: because players are constantly changing, you don't have to endure the soccer drudgery where players are just walking around, waiting for something to happen while the ball is 80 yards away. Sure, play slows down at times, but there is always, always the risk of someone grabbing the puck and trying to dance a defender. (Aside: I have found such moments most likely to occur when I get up for like two seconds in order to retrieve a microwaved burrito, but your experience may vary.)
Oh, and the other little thing about this is that teams are also allowed to remove their goalie during play and replace him with a regular skater, which means their net is completely empty and unguarded. Many games end this way, and it is amazing. Think about it: hockey has a built-in means to go full-bore on offense when a team is trailing late in a game and has nothing to lose.
If you're wondering whether this is the most awesome thing you have ever seen, let me assure you that it definitely is. Trailing teams put their best six players out on the ice for the last minute (or perhaps more), and everyone in the building knows they are going to be doing everything imaginable to get the puck to the net while the defending team buckles down and tries desperately to find a way to get the puck out of their end and into the empty net if possible.*
Oh, and pulling your goalie also works like 5-10% of the time, which is perhaps the most insane thing of all.
*if you're the Dallas Stars, scoring into an empty net is more of an eventuality these days. They are really good, btw.
There Is Nothing Like a Goal
Home runs in baseball are fun. In fact, they are the best! Yes, your dad has told you how amazing a pitcher's duel can be, and so also shall hockey fans be obligated to preach the virtues of a 0-0 game late in the third period, but come on. (Oh yeah, in hockey, we only have three periods of 20 minutes, not four quarters or nine innings. This is presumably because Canada just loves to mess with us. I mean, have you seen their weird plastic money?) Anyway, home runs are the 60-yard touchdown pass or the buzzer-beating go-ahead three-pointer of baseball (that's the best I could come up with for basketball, sorry). Hooray for home runs!
Goals, though...goals are like home runs on acid performed at full volume on fifty-foot Dance Dance Revolution screens in space. When a team scores a goal--even the visiting team, mind you--a giant red light blinks right above the goalie's head to proclaim their failure to the 20,000 fans packed into the arena. If it's the home team, things get even more ridiculous: A foghorn goes off and a spotlight blares and/or strobes the beaten goalie while a team's trademark "goal song" pumps into the arena, slightly muffled by the throng of screaming fans who have all jumped to their feet.
You will watch the game pensively, cheering big hits, great saves, fancy dekes (fake-outs while holding the puck to avoid a defender) and all sorts of other things; but nothing will intoxicate you like a beautiful goal. Once in a while, the puck will clang in off the post or crossbar, and there will be a microsecond of silent disbelief as that ringing noise reverberates throughout the arena, before the puck is seen inside the goal and the celebrations begin. That precious instant before the screaming and the goal horn, that time-between-times, carries so much wonder and impossible bliss within its essence, but all you need to know is this: it rocks.
Penalties = Power Plays
You probably know this one already, but when a player fouls another player, the referee will raise his arm. If the offending team has the puck, the whistle is blown, and their guilty player is sent to the penalty box to sit by himself for at least two minutes while his team has to play a man short. If you think about it, this is the exact way we would design hockey if we came up with it with all our friends during second grade recess: "Hey, you cheated, so you have to go in timeout over on the steps for two minutes. But as soon as two minutes are done, you have to sprint right back and start playing again." (I'm still waiting for the NHL to force penalized players to count 120 alligators instead of using a clock.)
Anyway, the penalized team is now playing "shorthanded" while the other team is On the Power Play. You might not think that 5-on-4 is a huge advantage, but given how surgically precise most teams are at even-strength, you can imagine how dangerous things can get when the other team can only cover four of their players. Power plays are generally terrifying for fans of the shorthanded team, as they watch their four player on the penalty kill do their best to collapse towards their own net, blocking shot lanes, and preventing the most dangerous passes through the middle of the time. But no matter what, shots will (usually) happen, goalies will be tested, and players will get nailed with pucks traveling triple digits. They will stand back up and continue playing even though their femur is clearly lying back there near the faceoff circle. Some will call it admirable, others will call it a sign of the NHL's ignorant fascination with disregard for the health of its players. You are asked only to cheer their bravery. (Yeah, you know that whole concussion flap in football? We've got that here, too.)
Oh, and you may have noticed something about the first paragraph in this section: if a player commits a penalty, the whistle is not immediately blown. Rather, much like a "free play" in football after a quarterback spots a flag against the defense, if the team with the puck is not the team who committed the penalty, they are free to keep playing until the "bad" team touches the puck. And since the now-defending team can't touch the puck without the whistle being blown, the now-offensive team will try to keep the puck long enough to, you guessed it, pull its goalie for an extra attacker. It is basically Bonus Power Play Time. Occasionally, the team will manage to score a goal during this time, which is known as a "delayed penalty." If not, they still have the entirety of the power play awaiting them once the other team finally manages to touch the puck and stop play.
(Oh, and if you're wondering whether a team could pass the puck into its own empty net, don't worry; that, uh, hardly ever happens.)
Overtime Is the Worst, and the Best
Playoff hockey is the best, but of course I'm going to say that. If we're being fair about the anticipation, the excitement, the nerves on Gameday!, then we know that these are all common to fans of playoff teams in any sport. Your players have spent months working hard to qualify for this Ultra Tournament, and now it's beginning. Even in basketball, where the home team wins 99.4% of all games, playoff drama is deliciously palpable.
What sets hockey apart though, is overtime. In the playoffs, if the third period ends in a tie, the teams just keep playing 20-minute, sudden-death overtime periods until someone wins. It's not uncommon to see double overtime every year, and you'll occasionally see a triple, quadruple or even five-overtime game. As you can imagine, this means the ice gets worse, play gets sloppier, and mistakes are costlier. And yet, because even the smallest error can mean the game-winning goal, everyone's focus is sharpened to a razor's edge. Goalies get so locked in that player avoid them like a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, and coaches will commonly bench their bottom players for fear of having them matched up against the other team's superstars. Anything can mean everything in overtime.
Even professional athletes can only take so much, of course. Lactic acid accumulates, lungs get weary, and the severe mental strain of maintaining laserlike focus for hours on end can turn players rabid. Teams will commonly have IVs in locker rooms between overtime periods, if that brings the point home at all. And remember, this is all happening at the end of a brutal 82-game season, during which most players have suffered a nagging injury or two at best.
You'll hate it, by the way. Every time the other team has the puck, you'll be hyper-sensitive to the possibility of their getting a shot away. When they do shoot, your body will tense up involuntarily, and your eyes will shoot to the back of your net, praying that you won't see anything. You'll find yourself getting lightheaded because it turns out there hasn't been a whistle for five minutes of play, and you maybe have forgotten to breathe for much of that time.
You'll hate it slightly less when your team scores. You'll scream in disbelief, and you'll feel the nervous energy just spilling out of your body in stupid laughter, high-fives, and irrepressible smiles. You will go back and re-watch that goal multiple times before you go to sleep that night. And that moment, whether it's in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs or the last game of the Stanley Cup Final, will cement your hockey fandom for years to come.
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There's so much more, of course. We haven't even talked about how players get matched up against each other, about icing and offsides, about how coaches are constantly trying to out-change and out-maneuver each other with how they structure their team's zone entries, or how Jaromir Jagr is a freak of nature 44-year-old hockey wizard who is still one of his team's best players. We haven't talked about goaltender superstitions, and I don't have nearly enough time to go into why the Dallas Stars are in the process of saving hockey from itself. But we'll have plenty of time for that later.
So, for now, if you have the slightest inkling to get more acquainted with this terrible and wonderful sport, then we wish you the warmest welcome to our little cloister. It is weird, but it is also unlike anything you've encountered before. Congratulations! Also, I'm sorry.