Below is an introduction article to give you a brief answer to: What is Ice Hockey? It covers a little bit of the history, how it is played, the rules, the equipment and how to get started.
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What is Ice hockey?
Ice hockey is a product of Canada, a fact which does not find favour with some critics. Though this extremely fast game was first played in Montreal in 1875, research reveals that a match was possibly played in Britain as early as 1790. Regardless of which country claims the right of fame to its inception, the fact is that the sport has steadily gained popularity in many countries around the world.
How is it played?
The game of ice hockey is played between two teams, each having six players, wearing ice skates and who compete in an ice rink. The object is to use the speed and agility to propel the puck into the opponent's goal and past the goalkeeper. The game is a popular Olympic sport and is embraced by over a million enthusiasts from all corners of the planet.
Brief history of Hockey
Ice hockey has been around for a long time, but the major sporting tournaments started somewhere in the mid 1880's. The word hockey has been linked to the French word, hoquet, meaning a shepherd's stick.
The first use of the puck was recorded in Ontario, Canada in the 1860's, while the first rules came to force in 1887 in the Montreal Gazette and eventually the Amateur Hockey Federation of Canada was formed in 1888. The Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston donated the first trophy in 1893 to the winning team of the Montreal Athletic Association, now popularly known as the Stanley Cup.
The National Hockey League (NHL), known as the most powerful league in the world was established in 1917 in North America with six teams. These were later expanded to 12 teams in 1967. In 1972 a new 12 team association known as World Hockey Association (WHA) was formed.
It started as a men sport.
You can learn more with my list of the best books about hockey.
Ice Hockey for Women
Women started playing hockey officially at the beginning of the 20th century. But its growth really started at the the end of the 20th century.
The National Women's Hockey League was formed in 2015 with 4 teams. Learn more.
The hockey skates & equipement
The skates to play hockey
The ice skates to play hockey are very different from the figure skates or the speed skates.
Hockey skates are built to turn, stop, and accelerate quickly.
- It has a rigid boot. It is typically made of a synthetic material such as plastic. It is designed to protect the feet from the hard puck, sticks, and from other players' skates.
- The blade attaches to the boot through a plastic holder
- The blades does not have toe picks. It is rounded at the front and in the rear.
Figure skating only requires skates. However, to play hockey you need other pieces of equipment. Almost all them, are the same, whether used by amateurs or professionals.
The rubber pucks
The goal is to push the puck inside the goal. The hockey rubber puck is one inch thick and three inches in diameter, it weighs between 5.5 and 6 ounces.
It is made of black vulcanized rubber. Learn more about the puck in this article.
The hockey sticks
You push the rubber with a stick. Hockey sticks are made from wood and graphite.
The dimensions vary from player to player depending on height. However, the goalie's stick has a wider blade to enable him to block the puck.
Hockey protection gear
Hockey is a contact sport with speed. The puck can reach a speed of 105mph.
Therefore, players have to protect themselves with:
- A helmet with an optional face cage made from strong padding (mandatory for all players) - see my tips and selection
- Mouthguard to avoid face injuries (mandatory for all players) - see my tips to help you choose the best mouthguard for you,
- Neck guard with nylon plates and inner padding,
- Shoulder and arm pads, key equipment to safeguard the body in case of collision,
- Elbow pads to guard the lower arms and elbow joints,
- Gloves with thick padding to protect fingers against impact - see my tips to help you choose the best gloves to play hockey
- Pants made of nylon to hold the inner hip and thighs,
- Shin pads made of strong plastic to protect against injuries,
Specific equipment for the goalkeepers
- Chest and arm protectors for goalkeepers
- Blocker to be worn on one hand to hold the stick to block any shot.
- Trapper is a glove put on to block any shots - see the best hockey goalie gloves
- Leg pads on top of shin pads for additional protection and blocking of shots.
Basic rules of the game
The exciting game of ice hockey is simple to understand once you gain knowledge of some of the basic rules. Some of the essential elements of the game are as follows.
The ice field on which the game is played is known as the 'rink'. It is divided into three colored zones. A red line divides the centre of the rink and two blue lines are drawn on either side of the neutral zone at 60'.
Standard size of a rink is 85' x 200'.
The teams and positions
Each team consists of one goalkeeper and five players. There are 3 main positions:
- The goalies protecting the goal. The player rarely leaves the net
- The forwards - a 3-person line responsible for most of the goals. They also play defense when the opposing team is attacking
- The defensemen - 2 players staying behind the forwards on either side to help defend the goal.
They initially stand in their allotted position like, defense or forward but then can move anywhere. However, the goalie can't cross the red line.
Unlimited substitutions are allowed anytime.
Learn more on my article explaining the 6 positions in Ice Hockey.
Whilst you can't touch the puck with your hands, you can move it around with the hockey stick or the feet.
Goals are scored by using the hockey stick to put the puck inside an opponent's net, even if it is deflected off the body of another player.
The game is played in three sessions of twenty minutes each.
The game begins with a faceoff when the referee puts the puck between two opposing forwards. After any stoppage time faceoff is adopted. There are nine spots from where the faceoff can take place.
When a player is in possession of the puck, he can be body checked by an opposing player, except on the head or when facing the boards. Setting up a scoring chance by body checking in the offensive zone is called 'forechecking'.
Minor penalty: two minutes off or till a goal is scored by the opposing team, with no substitution allowed.
Major penalty: off the field for five minutes or ejected from the game if seriously injuring an opponent.
How to start playing?
A majority of people consider ice hockey linked to ice skating. Learning to play hockey and to skate is a different proposition all together.
Ice hockey is a fast and tough sport. No matter which part of the world you are in there is a league which will fit your abilities - be it for beginners or pros alike. The game is a part of the heritage of Canada and nothing compares to the atmosphere of the NHL playoffs.
Learning to play hockey has a lot of benefits: physical, mental and social. Learn more on this article.
There are different parts of the games you have to learn:
Learn to skate
Purchase skates with a good fit. Have the blades sharpened and start gliding.
Join some coaching classes at the local rink that are geared towards ice hockey.
Learn to control the rubber with the stick
- Opt for a stick with a flat curve to start with as it allows you to use the side of your hand which you are most comfortable with.
- Cut the stick to suit your size by putting the shaft to your nose and cutting it from there.
- Tape a white tape on the blade and a black tape on the butt for better control during play.
- Start practicing with an old tennis ball. It is important to start getting used to the stick in your hands.
- And then practice on the ice
- And then, join a team!
Or you can also practice at home with a shooting pad and goal targets
The different levels in ice hockey in North America?
The strongest professional hockey system is based in North America. Here is a rundown of how these levels stack up:
- National Hockey League (NHL) - a total of 30 teams with the USA having 23 and Canada 7.
The headquarters which controls all the best teams is based in New York.
- American Hockey League (AHL) - Total 30 teams, 26 in the USA and 4 in Canada. This sole minor league in North America, has the maximum number of players contracted to the lucrative NHL.
The head office of the league is in Springfield, Massachussets and operates on a franchise system similar to the NHL. The level of talent is however comparable to Swiss NLA or Finland's SM league.
- ECHL - 20 teams all based in the US all made up of players from Canada and America.
Head office is in Princeton, NJ
- Central Hockey League (CHL) - Total of 15 US based teams located in Tempe, Arizona.
This league introduced hockey to Texas in the 1990's but has since extended to Indiana and South Dakota.
- United States Hockey League (USHL) - Prime league to feed the college circuit consisting of high-quality junior level players. Total teams 28.
- Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) - Has teams in every province except Newfoundland. Though not an affiliated body, it attracts players from round the world hoping to get access to the pro league.
- National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) - Scattered throughout America, this league is a talent hunter for competitive hockey players.
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