With the NBA’s players and owners refusing to share each other’s toys, it’s time sports fans in this part of the world get acquainted with an alternative winter game. Yes, I speak of hockey, the fourth “major” team sport in North America. Whether or not you’ve been to a RiverKings game at the DeSoto Civic Center (or better, a Predators game in Nashville), it’s not too late to call yourself a hockey fan. Here are the 10 things you must know to leave the hardwood for a frozen pond.
• In historical terms, Wayne Gretzky is to the NHL what Wilt Chamberlain was to the NBA. And John Stockton. And Magic Johnson.
A hockey player gets credit for a point by scoring a goal or picking up an assist on a goal. The Great One retired after the 1998-99 season with more assists (1,963) than any other player’s total points (Mark Messier is second on the points chart with 1,887). Gretzky also scored 93 more goals than number-two on the goals chart (Gordie Howe had 801). His individual numbers are so staggering that it seems merely incidental that Gretzky won the Stanley Cup four times as an Edmonton Oiler. Bar none, Gretzky was the most dominant player in any team sport in North American history.
• The Stanley Cup is the greatest trophy in team sports.
Triple the size of the Lombardi Trophy. With the names of every member on a championship club. And you can drink out of it, for Pete’s sake. Think about it: the NHL playoffs are referred to by the trophy awarded after the last game. (Among my life goals is to touch the Stanley Cup someday. Just touch it.)
• The Original Six.
For 40 years (1927-67), the NHL was a winter-long battle royal between half a dozen franchises: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, and the New York Rangers. To the league’s credit, these teams are still grouped as one in the consciousness of serious fans, despite being scattered over six divisions in a 30-team league. Better yet, the Stanley Cup has been won by an Original Six club three of the last four years.
• OTL = one point
The NHL did away with ties after an entire season was lost to labor strife (2004-05). An attempt (some say misguided) to further engage a thinning fan base. If a game is tied at the end of regulation (three 20-minute periods), five minutes of overtime are played (with four skaters per team instead of five). If tied after overtime, the game is decided by a shootout (hockey’s equivalent to soccer’s penalty kicks). The winning team, as always, gets two points in the standings, while the loser still gets a single point. So the third number you see in a team’s record (say a club is 14-10-5) is its number of overtime losses. Which means, of course, that club actually has a losing record (14-15). Don’t ignore that third number in measuring your team’s progress.
• Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin
The NHL has only two certifiable superstars, the most dramatic difference between hockey’s premier league and the star-driven NBA. Unlike the NBA, the presence of a superstar doesn’t guarantee a championship. Over their six seasons in the league, Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins have one championship, and Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals haven’t even reached the Stanley Cup finals.
• Icing has nothing to do with birthday cake.
When a player clears the puck from the defensive side of the red line (at center ice), he’s guilty of icing. A face-off ensues in that player’s defensive zone. The next time you get infuriated by a basketball player not running back on defense, consider: There’s no such thing as cherry-picking in hockey.
• Canada’s Game
While only seven of the 30 NHL franchises play in Canadian cities, the sport remains a way of life north of the border (as opposed to merely a nice distraction in too many American NHL venues). If you’re able to catch a game via cable or satellite, pick one played in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, or even Winnipeg. The atmosphere will be that of an NBA playoff game ... in January. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens — this sport’s New York Yankees — won their 23rd in 1993.
• Hockey makes great movies.
Check out Paul Newman in Slap Shot (1977) or Kurt Russell in Miracle (2004). Better than any basketball movie you’ve ever seen. (Okay, Hoosiers was great.)
• Go to the rink.
With the size of its court and its players all but naked to the camera (no hats, no helmets), the NBA is made for television. Not so hockey. The puck is small, the ice surface is large, and the players are hard to distinguish if you don’t know their uniform numbers. But get to an arena. The flow of 10 skaters across a white sheet — chasing that tiny rubber disk — is hypnotic. And the sounds of hockey — puck to stick, stick to ice, player to boards — positively stir adrenaline.
• Hockey has what you like ... you just don’t know it.
Every NHL game has padded players drilling other padded players (like football). Every NHL game has deft passing between players in transition from defense to offense (like basketball). And every NHL game has athletes loaded with hand/eye coordination maneuvering a long stick toward a relatively tiny object (like baseball). Catch a game soon. The NBA is giving you plenty of time to learn to love it.