If you don’t know much about the NHL (the National Hockey League), we’ll forgive you. It’s a cold weather sport (even though there are teams in the South), they’ve got seven teams in Canada (the most of any professional sports league), and well, the rules might be a mystery to you (what the heck is icing?). So we’ve put together a quick beginner’s guide to the NHL, the rules of hockey, and a few reasons you should attend an NHL game in person. Because they’re actually really fun!
A Quick Guide to the NHL
Across the USA and Canada, there are 31 NHL teams that are divided into two conferences, the Eastern and Western. The Eastern conference is broken down into the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, while the Western is broken down into the Central and Pacific.
The NHL regular season starts in October and runs through April, and they play 82 games (so you can get tickets now!). We won’t get in too deep here, but after the regular season, 16 teams make the playoffs (eight from each conference). They enter a bracket-based tournament with wildcards. The winner of the playoffs, and a seven-game series between the final two teams, leaves with the NHL’s grand prize, the Stanley Cup.
About The Game of Hockey…
An NHL game is divided into three 20-minute periods. Unlike NFL or NBA, however, there is very little stoppage, whistle-blowing, or flag-throwing to slow down the game. The clock only stops if there’s a penalty, the puck leaves the playing area, or the goalie stops the puck. If the game is tied after 60 minutes, the teams will go into a five-minute overtime period. Only three skaters and one goalkeeper from each team play during overtime. If the score is still tied after that, they’ll have a five-on-five shootout. If it’s still deadlocked, then they’ll go into a (nail-biting) sudden death shootout.
As for the players, during regular play, there are six on the ice per team. There’s the goalie, the three forwards, and the two defensemen. If a player is forced to sit out due to a penalty (they throw him in the penalty box), that’s called a “power play” for the other team who now has the advantage of being up by one man on the ice and in a better position to score.
Any weird rules you should know about? Yes. Hockey has “offsides” just like in soccer. Well, kinda. There are two blue lines on the hockey rink that divide it into thirds: the offensive or attacking zone, the neutral zone, and the defending zone, depending on which team you’re looking at, of course. A player can’t cross the blue line into the attacking zone before the puck or it is considered offsides. Then, the ref will blow the whistle and the puck will start from a neutral zone face-off.
There’s also “icing” which is a bit more complicated. Icing happens when a player passes the puck all the way from behind the center red line, down the rink, and past the opposing team’s goal line without another player touching it. That results in a whistle from the ref and a face-off back in the offending team’s zone.
Why You Should Attend an NHL Game In Person
While it’s tough to see that little puck on the TV screen, going to a live NHL game at an arena filled with superfans is a surprisingly great experience. (I say “surprisingly” because these games are a good time even if you’re not into hockey.) The atmosphere is loud, fun, and exciting. Really, you can’t not cheer. You won’t be able to help yourself.
Hockey is also incredibly fast-paced. That puck is traveling over 100 mph in some cases and there’s very little downtime since they’re not always stopping for flags, fouls, or rule infractions. You’ll rarely find yourself bored, which is more than you can say for NFL or MLB games that can sometimes drag on and on. Things move quickly and teams can score in the blink of an eye. Whether you’re a fan or barely knowledgeable about the sport at all, hockey will get you out of your seat. Watching the players skate, pass, and shoot is a marvel in itself. Seriously, how well can you ice skate and multitask?
NHL arenas are usually super nice too. Though they might double as homes for other sports, they’ll have a great selection of concessions, including more elevated food options… and beer, of course. You can get there early to watch warmups, grab food, and check out the players. Some teams even have a serious tailgating fan base, whether it’s at a local watering hole or out in the parking lot. (Hey, these NHL cities up north can get super cold.)
Another great thing about the NHL: You don’t have to wait for the weekend to go to a game. Everybody’s busy these days and weekends get booked up fast. But you can attend an NHL game literally any day of the week.
They go into overtime… a lot. So you get more fun for free! Or well, for the price of your original ticket. And the intensity and excitement of overtime is edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Especially those sudden death shootouts…