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Smitty’s Scrum: Hockey 101

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With the first game of the season approaching, a refresher on how this sport works wouldn’t be amiss.

Image via Camryn Martz

Hockey is a weird, very stupid game where very little makes any damn sense. People move around on a slick surface with knives strapped to their feet, shooting a frozen rubber biscuit at a guy with boogie boards strapped to his arms and legs. Play stops for seemingly no reason, positions are hard to determine as a first time observer, and even as an experienced viewer you’ll find yourself slack-jawed witnessing the inexplicable nonsense that occurs on a game-to-game basis. The sport is inherently random thanks to its properties, which makes for a disorienting introduction for many folks looking to get into following the NHL or other levels of hockey. It’s a daunting task to learn how things work, particularly in the South where the process is so often unguided.

Today, we’re going to go over the basics of how hockey works. The plan here is to cover the essentials only, leaving room for a second, third, or even fourth article in the near future detailing the more refined rules of this decidedly unrefined sport. If you’re an Auburn fan in need of a crash course in becoming a vaguely informed fan of this game, you’re in the right place.

Scoring, Time, and Standings

Hockey is scored in goals, assists, and points. A goal and an assist are both worth one point apiece. Assists are credited to the last two players on the goal scorer’s team who touched the puck prior to the goal being potted.

Hockey games are divided into three 20-minute “periods,” with an intermission between the first and second, and second and third periods. If the game is tied after 60 minutes, the teams play an overtime period at 3-on-3 (three skaters per side and a goalie for each team) where the next side to score wins the game. Failure to score in overtime in the regular season leads to a shootout, where either team sends out shooters to score in one-on-ones with the opposing goalie. The first round of a shootout is a best of three; if the best of three fails to bring the game to a conclusion, shootouts become sudden death affairs where the first team to fail to match a goal from the other emerges the loser. In the postseason, teams play continual, 5-on-5 overtime periods (OT, 2OT, 3OT) until somebody wins.

Standings are also determined by “points,” although in this case they’re more specifically called standings points. A win gives a team two points, a loss in overtime or the shootout gives them one, and a loss provides zero. Division rankings are determined by standings point totals, rather than wins.

Positions and Lineups

Hockey is divided up into three basic designations: forwards, defenders, and goalies. You’ll often hear people refer to defenders and forwards collectively as “skaters,” which is apt considering that they do, in fact, skate around the ice. At once on the ice during “even strength” (the typical situation the game is played in), you’ll see three forwards, two defenders, and a goalie.

As you might have guessed, the goalie is the guy who stays by the net, mostly within the blue painted area in front of it called the “crease.” His job is to stop pucks and not allow goals, which is a pretty demented profession given that you’re getting what’s essentially a circular brick launched at you at 80+ MPH over 20 times in a game. He might also come out behind the net or slightly in front of it to catch the puck sometimes, but he’s not going to be skating all the way up the rink (another name for the icy surface hockey is played on) unless it’s to do some silly stuff like this, or this. You’re normally going to see two goalies in a nightly lineup, one being the backup and the other the starter. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Forwards are the fellas whose job it is to score goals, at least allegedly; they play closer to the opposing goalie in the offensive and defensive zones. There are 12 forwards in a starting lineup. The class of “forward” is really composed of three separate positions: right wing, center, and left wing. The only real difference here is that centers take face-offs (the hockey equivalent of tip-offs in basketball, but more on that later) and play a greater role defensively. Wingers play their side of the ice when defending (right or left, it’s in the name) while centers tend to rove a bit more and cover for defenders who want to play aggressively.

Lastly, we have defenders. These are the guys who tend to hang back closer to you team’s goalie at all times, because their task is to keep the other team from generating scoring chances and goals. When a team goes on offense, the defenders are almost always the folks who are as far away from the other team’s goalie as possible. A starting lineup has six defensemen who play a side of the ice (right or left).

Lineups in hockey are interesting due to the presence of “lines” (trios of forwards who play most of the game together as a unit) and “pairs” (the same concept as lines, but with two defensemen). For any given game, you’ll begin with four sets of lines (12 forwards split into trios) and three pairs that will usually remain the same. However, coaches can mix up players on lines and pairs if the team needs a spark, adding room for strategy. Lines and pairs will rotate off of the ice frequently in line changes, allowing players to rest between “shifts” (stints of play). The only member of a team who will ever play the entire game is the goalie; the rest will play varying amounts of time based upon their performance and the trust their coach has in them.

The Rink

Image via Pixy, Vector Cliparts

Hockey’s rules are largely driven by the structure of the playing surface itself, which is split up into three zones: offensive, neutral, and defensive. The offensive zone is the zone where your opponent’s goalie is, defined as the space from the blue line furthest from your goaltender until the glass behind the enemy netminder. The defensive zone is from the blue line closest to your goalie until the glass behind him. The neutral zone encompasses everything between the blue lines, as shown above.

The red dots along the ice are meant for face-offs. When play is stopped for any reason (a penalty, injury, puck out of play, etc), a face-off must take place before play resumes. Face-off dots serve as locators for where referees will drop the puck between two centers, who will then jostle for possession. If play is stopped at the right side of the net, the ensuing face-off will take place in the dot closest to that location. This is largely applicable to all face-offs, with some exceptions (one being that when a goal is scored, the following face-off takes place at center ice, similar to the first face-off of the game). The other notable ones will be explained in the sections below, so no worries there.

Offside

Looking at the diagram above, you’ll notice that zones are defined by the blue lines. Offside calls are stoppages in play that occur when a player crosses into the offensive zone before the puck does; this prevents a skater from simply waiting at the other end of the ice for a pass, as the play would be blown dead the moment the puck crossed the far blue line. The stoppage of play is followed by a neutral zone face-off just outside of the blue line the puck crossed before being blown dead. The rule here on its face seems a bit complex, but after watching for a while it’s easy to grasp.

Icing

Every hockey neophyte’s least favorite rule is icing, another regulation that causes play to be blown dead. The idea of icing is simple: if you, as a skater, want to move the puck into the offensive zone without maintaining possession (IE lobbing it into the wall, an act called “dumping”), said action cannot occur if the puck has not crossed the red line in the middle of the rink. If the puck hasn’t crossed the central red line and reaches a point below the red line that runs behind the opposing goalie, the play will be called an icing and result in a face-off in the team that iced the puck’s defensive zone.

A wrinkle here as compared to other stoppages in play is that when the puck is iced, coaches are not allowed to swap out their players via a line change. There are two common exceptions to this rule, the first being that if the puck is shot on goal from beyond the red line, it does not count as icing and play will continue. The second is that if a player from a team that iced the puck reaches the puck before an opposing player does, the play will not be blown dead.

Referees will almost always blow the play dead if it looks like the team that iced the puck has no shot at pulling this off.

Icing serves to prevent teams from going up 1-0 in games and then promptly refusing to play hockey the way it was intended. A game without punishment for icing would be low scoring and boring, so the rule is actually quite helpful.

Penalties

To keep this brief, penalties in hockey are almost always either minor (lasting two minutes) or major (last five minutes). When a team takes a penalty, the team that suffered the infraction is rewarded with a man advantage. This takes the game from 5-on-5 (five skaters versus five skaters, the typical state of affairs) to 5-on-4. The team with an extra man is on a “power play,” while the team down a man is on the “penalty kill.” Power plays/penalty kills last the duration of the assessed infraction (two or five minutes), with one key exception: if a team is granted a power play on a minor penalty and scores, the power play ends. Major penalty power plays do not end until the time of the penalty expires, so a team could theoretically score 12 power play goals in those five minutes.

Or, y’know, four. Four is good.

Of course, such a penalty system would be completely unfair to the defenders unless one of the rules was adjusted. Thus, the PK (penalty kill) unit is allowed to dump the puck the full length of the ice without getting called for icing for the duration of any penalty, regardless of major or minor status. This allows them to effectively waste time off of the opposing PP (power play) and get line changes during the penalty killing period.

Finally, it’s worth noting that teams can take additional penalty(s) and put themselves down a maximum of two men; penalties beyond this simply extend power play time and leave your bench shortened, exhausting the players remaining even further. The same power play and penalty killing rules apply to these 5-on-3 situations as well, including independent clocks running down the time for both infractions (penalties expire one before another in most cases). Penalties can also even out, allowing for 4-on-4 or even 3-on-3 play in regulation if things get messy enough.

This concludes today’s lesson on the essentials of hockey. I hope y’all will stay tuned for more primers as we approach Auburn’s first game of the year. In the meantime, go watch some highlights with your newfound knowledge and appreciate how much smarter you are now. Congrats, Mr. or Mrs. Hockey Savant. Leave any questions you need answered below, and I’ll do my best to respond.