If you're new to the ice, here's a hockey lesson for you:
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SO, THE GUY WITH THE FANCY FREDDY KRUEGER MASK IS THE GOALIE . . .: That's right. And he can be as adept with his stick as Freddy is with his sharp objects. As for the other players: Each team can have six on the ice at a time, including the goalie. The others are three offensive players (a left wing, a right wing and a center, named for the general positions they are to have on the ice) and two defensemen (generally playing behind the offensive players). Any player can score.
FIGHT NIGHT: A valued but unofficial position is enforcer, also called goon. An enforcer is a player whose best (and sometimes only) skill is fighting, fighting being a key strategy in hockey, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. Enforcers look out for the welfare of their team's best offensive player, who isn't expected to fight, just score. Enforcers are also supposed to intimidate the other team's enforcer.
It's just a coincidence that the NHL once had a team named the Jets and still has one named the Sharks.
THE NIGHT'S SHIFTS: Hockey is the most physically demanding sport. (Try this: Put on skates and a couple of pounds of padding. Move continuously forward and backward while holding a 63-inch-long stick, trying to control a rock-hard piece of vulcanized rubber 1 inch thick and 3 inches wide, either getting slammed or slamming into other people and trying to set up scoring opportunities with passes or shots.) The offensive and defensive players are on the ice for about 45 seconds at a time in groups of five. Their time on the ice is called a shift. A team can dress up to 18 players for a game, not counting goalies, so it generally can have three to four groups rotating in and out.
In theory, and sometimes in practice, the team's best offensive and defensive players play together. But hockey is also the most strategically fluid sport. Not only can the defensive-offensive pairings be switched from shift to shift, the three-player offensive group, called a line, also can be changed, depending on what a coach thinks will work best against the opponent at any time.
LEARNING YOUR LINES: The red and blue lines on the ice aren't there for decoration. They're part of the rules, of which the National Hockey League has about 100, though by turns it can seem like there are no rules or 1,000.
The middle line is red. The lines to the right and left of it are blue. There are also red lines called goal lines at each end of the ice. There are three main rules violations involving the lines; they are the equivalent of getting a speeding ticket:
Icing: A player behind the red line in his end of the rink (1) shoots the puck past the opposite goal line (2) when both teams have five players on the ice (3) and a player from the other team besides the goalie touches it (4) when the Dow-Jones Industrial Average is above 8,000. (Just kidding about No. 4).
Offside: When a player skates into the opponent's end of the ice ahead of the puck.
Two-line pass: When a player passes to a teammate and the puck goes over a blue line and the red line.
The second and third violations are to prevent players from parking themselves at the red line to wait for a teammate to pass them the puck for a possible one-on-one scoring chance against the goalie. Otherwise, the NHL would be like a high-scoring pinball game, which some people think would not be a bad thing.
HIGH CRIMES: The bigger rules violations are called penalties, and there are three kinds: minor, major and misconduct.
Most penalties assessed are minors, which means a player goes into the penalty box -- misbehaving kids know it as the timeout area -- for two minutes. Minor penalties include high sticking (contact by a stick on an opponent above the shoulders), slashing (forcefully smacking an opponent with a stick) and roughing (fighting without throwing punches; think jostling for position in a Disney ticket line). Majors usually involve fights in which gloves are dropped, punches thrown, jerseys removed, blood drawn, teeth knocked out, etc. (again, think Disney). A player is ejected for five minutes. Misconducts fall into three categories: basic (a blatant, dangerous violation that gets a player in the box for 10 minutes); game (the officials think a player has done something that deserves an ejection); and gross (involves a game suspension, fine and possibly more fines and suspensions).
YOU GO TO THE BOX, YOU FEEL SHAME: A player called for a minor penalty is not replaced on the ice for the time he is in the penalty box. His team must play short-handed, while the other team has what is called a power play. If the team with the man advantage scores (called a power-play goal), hockey's version of the mercy rule kicks in: The penalty ends, and the other team returns to full strength. If the team of the penalized player scores (called a short-handed goal), the penalty continues; no rest for the wicked, as it were.
A player assessed a five-minute penalty also is not replaced, and his team plays short-handed for the entire time.
A player assessed a 10-minute misconduct sits in the box, but his team gets to play at full strength.
YOU SAY YOU'LL NEED SOME TIME TO GRASP ALL THIS: No problem. The playoffs run for about two months, from roughly the middle of April through the middle of June. A team must win 16 games over four rounds to win the Stanley Cup. Sixteen teams (out of 30) make the postseason, eight from each of two conferences, the Eastern and Western. Each group of eight plays among itself until one team is left; the conference survivors play for the cup.
PRONUNCIATION GUIDE: Hockey is North America's most international sport, so some of the players' names can be hard to pronounce. Here is a guide to key Lightning players. If you're into holding grudges over Iraq, know that the players with French-sounding names are Canadians.
Who is this Lord Stanley, anyway? And why is there such a fuss over his cup?
WHO IS STANLEY? DO I HAVE TO WATCH "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE" TO LEARN ABOUT HIS CUP? The Stanley Cup is named for Lord Stanley of Preston, the English governor general of Canada in 1892. Stanley loved hockey so much, he bought a silver bowl and asked that it be given each year to the best team in Canada. Awarding of the cup evolved from there. It is the oldest sports trophy in North America.
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