An Englishman's Guide To Ice Hockey
Maybe you met her while shopping in Camden Market. Your heart was stirred by her doleful Alanis Morissette eyes and sweet, nasally Canadian accent. Fast-forward a couple of years and you’re sharing a flat, a dog and – God help you – spending Christmas at her parents’ house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
It is here that you experience your first Canadian Saturday night. While the prairie snowpocalypse rages outside, you sit by a crackling fire eating Nanaimo bars and sipping Bloody Caesars (tomato juice + clam broth + vodka = delicious). Soon, the whole family congregates around the tube to watch the nation’s longest-running TV show: Hockey Night in Canada.
Feeling overwhelmed? Relax and allow me to provide this brief guide to watching ice hockey in the Great White North.
First, while you’re on North American soil, lose the “ice” in ice hockey. With apologies to the other hockeys (field, tonsil, etc), the qualifier is only necessary if you’re attending an all-girls’ private school in Connecticut.
As the teams line up for the opening face-off, take note of the positions. Each team will feature three forwards, two defencemen and a goaltender. Unlike keepers in football who have an unsettling “I sure hope I guess right this time” look in their eye, most hockey goalies have the insane confidence of a young Mr Mel Gibson. They are the most articulate players but prone to quirks, such as talking to their goalposts or having a picture of Mr Mike Tyson painted onto their mask.
Here’s what you need to know: a regular season NHL hockey game is 60 minutes long, divided into three 20-minute periods. Goals are scored by shooting or deflecting the puck into the opposing team’s net with one’s stick. If the home team scores, The Fratellis, Blur, or the worst Eurodance track you have ever heard, will be played at a deafening volume. If the score is tied, a five-minute sudden death overtime period is played, and if that solves nothing, the game is decided by a shootout. Like football, successful teams control the play as much as possible through astute passing and sound positional play. Unlike football, injured players do not writhe on the ice as if they’re auditioning for panto.
Once the puck is dropped you may have trouble following it. Be patient, as after a while, your eye will automatically train itself to anticipate its movement. Each game has a naturally established rhythm. Unfortunately the game’s tempo is interrupted often by scrums and TV commercial time-outs. Post-whistle scrums, while often mistaken for fights by novice viewers, are more like angry group cuddles in which players wrestle and homoerotically tug at each other’s jerseys.
Throughout the game, penalties for infractions such as tripping, roughing and high-sticking are called. The culprits are escorted into the penalty box for what we in parenting call a “time-out”. This provides the opposing team with a power play. The penalised team plays with a man short while the other team plays keep-away with the puck until they’re in an ideal position to shoot it.
Eventually an actual fight will break out. Many will argue that hockey fights are an integral part of the game. Despite the health risks, suggesting to a Canadian hockey fight enthusiast that their beloved sideshow should be forbidden is like telling an American gun lover he shouldn’t take his AK-47 to Chipotle. Best to let it go.
After 20 minutes, the horn will blow to signify the end of the first of three periods. If you were hoping that an ageing ex-hockey coach in a clown suit would come on TV and yell at you for 10 minutes, you’re in luck. "Coach’s Corner", the long-running Hockey Night in Canada segment, stars ex-coach Mr Don Cherry. He can best be described as a recently Tasered Lord Alan Sugar dressed in a Sir Elton John award show outfit. Two important Mr Cherry facts:
**1. **He concluded his address at crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration with “And you can put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks”.
**2. **In 2004 he came in seventh in CBC’s Greatest Canadian poll, two slots ahead of Mr Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
By now, you may be wondering which NHL team to support. Take your pick, but under no circumstances should you select the league’s most (financially) successful team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and here’s why: at the beginning of each period at a Leaf home game you will find rows of empty seats near ice level. Instead of watching the game in their $270 pews, these Leaf “fans” can be found eating shrimps and drinking champagne in private VIP areas, only to lollygag back to their seats halfway into the period. The Toronto Maple Leafs answer the question, “What if Louis the 14th ran a hockey team?” They’re like Real Madrid but without all the trophies.
Boots vs blades
Whoever you support in the English Premier League, there’s a roughly equivalent hockey team
Why? Because they’re the most recognisable team/ brand in hockey. And they have recently dug themselves out of the kind of slump Man Utd are currently enduring. Have won more championships than any other franchise. Their fans can be unbearable to be around.
Because they’re bank-rolled by a billionaire (Mr Philip Anschutz) and are reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Could someone tell that to the fair-weather fans enjoying corporate hospitality? One for the glory hunters. Becks, Posh and Ms Katy Perry included.
Because with Messrs Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski on the team, they play a skilful game which is easy on the eye. They are well run – but not as successful as they should be. Mascot once required dramatic rescue after failed pre-game stunt.
Because they’re a rebuilding club that once dominated the league with mullet-haired superstars. Now with a progressive coach and a young and very quick team full of home-grown talent – but they still have a long way to go.
Because since their 1970s heyday they’ve been a tough team who play an uncompromising style; more physical than skilful. Last season’s leaders in visits to the sin bin (penalty box). The team captain was arrested this summer for grabbing a police officer’s buttocks.
Because they’re the people’s team: a good, salt-of-the-earth franchise – well run, well supported and consistently punching above their weight. While Everton, nicknamed The Toffees, traditionally throw, er, toffees to the crowd at each home match, Red Wings fans throw octopi onto the ice (the eight legs represent the number of wins it took Detroit to win the Stanley Cup in 1952). It’s good luck apparently.
Because they’re the league’s whipping boys and one of the lesser-supported teams. Fans throw toy rats onto the ice after infrequent Panther home victories. While demotion to a lower league is not possible, the NHL should consider the possibility.
Illustrations by Mr Antony Hare