It’s been called the fastest game in the world. It’s certainly one of the roughest. Players on ice skates collide at great speeds. Shots streak toward the goal at more than 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour)!
The game is ice hockey, a sport invented in Canada. Today, ice hockey is played in many other countries, including the United States. But it’s still especially popular in Canada, earning it the nickname “Canada’s game.” Ice hockey is a contact team sport played on ice, usually in a rink, in which two teams of skaters use their sticks to shoot a vulcanized rubber puck into their opponent’s net to score points.
WHAT IS ICE HOCKEY?
Ice hockey is played by two teams of six players. It can be played indoors or outdoors. Most games are played indoors on an ice hockey rink. Near each end of the rink, a goal with a meshed net is attached to the ice.
Players try to score by using long, curved sticks to hit a hard rubber disk, called a puck, into the other team’s goal. The team that scores the most goals wins.
HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED
A hockey game is divided into three periods. In college and professional games, each period is 20 minutes long, for a total playing time of one hour.
Each hockey team has three forwards, two defenders, and a goaltender, or goalie. Each player has a specific job to do. But all players may skate anywhere on the ice.
The forwards do most of the scoring. Together, they make up a group called a line. A line has a center, a left wing, and a right wing. The center usually passes the puck to a wing to start a scoring play. Forwards also play defense. They try to disrupt the other team’s line. They bump, or check, opposing players and try to steal the puck.
Defenders mostly try to stop the other team from scoring. They have to be skilled at skating backward so they can meet attacking opponents head on. They also check opposing players to stop them or steal the puck. If they get the puck, they usually pass it to a forward. But they sometimes score goals, too.
The goalie’s main job is to guard the goal. The goalie is the only player who can stop play by catching the puck or falling on it.
Officials on the ice enforce the rules and make sure that play is fair. They include one or two referees and two linesmen. Like the players, they wear ice skates.
To start a game, the referee drops the puck at the center of the ice between a player from each team. This is called a face-off. There are also face-offs after each goal and each time the referee stops play. In ice hockey, a team cannot call a time out to stop play. Player substitutions (rotating in new players) are made while the action is going on!
Play stops whenever a rule is broken. For fouls such as hitting an opponent with a hockey stick or fighting, the referee calls a penalty. The offending player must leave the ice for several minutes and spend time in the penalty box. No substitute player goes in. The team must play one player short until the penalty is over. This is called a power play.
Teams from about 30 countries around the world compete in the Olympic Winter Games and other international hockey tournaments. Men’s ice hockey has been a part of Olympic competition since 1920. Women’s ice hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998. Teams from Europe and Russia are among the best in the world, along with those from Canada and the United States.
One of the most dramatic upsets in the history of international hockey competition came in 1980. An inexperienced American team beat the heavily favored Soviet Union team in the Olympics. The American team went on to win its first gold medal in ice hockey. This is sometimes called “the miracle on ice.”
THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE
The highest level of ice hockey competition occurs in the National Hockey League (NHL). The 30 NHL teams represent cities in Canada and the United States. There are professional leagues in other countries, but the NHL is considered the world’s top professional league.
Teams in the NHL play an 82-game schedule. The NHL season usually lasts from October to April. The top teams then compete in playoffs for the Stanley Cup, the NHL championship trophy.
Wayne Gretzky, a forward for several NHL teams, began his career in 1979 when he was just 18 years old. Gretzky became the greatest scorer in NHL history, retiring in 1999 with 894 goals. He earned the nickname The Great One.
Bobby Orr is often considered the greatest defender in NHL history. He played from 1966 to 1979, mostly for the Boston Bruins. A top scorer as well as an outstanding defensive player, Orr proved that defenders could be an offensive weapon.
The greatest goalie ever in the NHL may have been Jacques Plante. He played in the NHL for 22 years beginning in 1953. Plante was the first professional goalie to wear a protective face mask during play. He won the award for the best NHL goalie seven times in his career.
More recent NHL stars have included forwards Jaromir Jagr and Brett Hull, defender Nicklas Lidstrom, and goalies Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek.