Hockey-Watching for Newbies

This is a post for folks who are new to ice hockey, and trying to figure out how to watch it. Whether you’re a parent or grandparent watching your precious kiddo play a sport you don’t know, or a fan picking up a new pro sport to watch, this is for you.

This is not a post aimed (pun intended) at teaching you offside and icing rules. My goal (pun intended) is not to teach you all the rules and intricacies of the game, but to answer the basic question: is my team doing well? When you don’t know the game and aren’t a great skater, it all seems fast-moving, and players seem more skilled than you can imagine yourself being. Everyone is great – right? Not realistically. Even when you don’t know the rules well and everything moves faster than you can watch, you can start building a sense for how the game is going beyond just the score.

One of the best ways to get yourself started with hockey, is to build your understanding of the zones. Hockey is a game of 3 zones. The first time you see a rink, you see lines and dots and circles everywhere.

It’s a trap! You’re going to start trying to figure out all these dots and circles and things. When you’re new to hockey, forget all of that. Focus on just two lines.

All you should care about at first are the two blue lines that split up the 3 zones. All the rest of the lines are specifically added to distract you from what’s important… OK, maybe not, but they sure do that. The three zones are:

  • The offensive zone: the area containing the goal your team is trying to score on.
  • The defensive zone: the opposite area, containing the goal your team is trying to defend.
  • The neutral zone: the boring part in the middle.

People will try to teach you about offside rules and how the puck has to go in first, and mumble something about how it takes time to get used to. I think it’s easier to understand if you learn to think in zones. You cannot go into the offensive zone unless the puck is already in there. Importantly, that means if the puck leaves your offensive zone, everyone has to leave and come back in. When you’re building your offense, your first objective is to get the puck into the zone, and next you’re trying to keep it there. Likewise, when you’re on defense, one of your main objectives is to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Because if you do that, it destroys the other team’s ability to score until they all leave the zone! The players on the ice are constantly paying attention to the two blue lines – more than any other marks on the ice. They’re thinking: Get the puck in! Get the puck out! Keep it in! Keep it out!

OK, I did teach about offside rules after all, but I believe that thinking in zones should come first, and then offside rules are a lot clearer. Once you get used to watching the zones, then you can start watching the red line in the middle of the ice, and icing calls. It’s OK if icing and offside calls are a mystery at first. Watch the zones.

So back to the question: how do you know if your team is doing well? The first indicator is what percent of time your team is in their offensive zone vs. their defensive zone. The longer they’re able to hold the puck in their offensive zone, the more chance they have to score, and the harder it is for the other team to score. That’s a simple one to watch without knowing about rules or strategy or skills!

Another indicator is shots on goal. There’s an interesting constant in hockey: whether your players are beginners or pros, a well-balanced game involves about 10 shots per period per team. For the 3 periods that’s 30 shots total for each side; 30 shots each goalie has to try to stop. If a team gets a lot more than 10 shots on goal in a period, their offense is over-powering the other team’s defense. If a team gets a lot fewer than 10 shots in a period, their offense is weak and/or the other team’s defense is strong. If both teams get a lot of shots on goal, you’re probably watching 8-year-olds or younger (they have almost no goaltending/defense but a strong mind for offense). If both teams get only a few, you’re probably watching very early beginners older than 8 (it’s a bit easier to figure out how to stop a puck than to shoot it).

Home team had 27 shots vs 10; no wonder they had 4 goals to 1.

Of course you’ll be watching the score: the ultimate indicator of who’s winning. But shots tell you things like who has a strong offense (more than 10 shots per period), who has a weak offense (less than 10 shots per period). They tell you whether there’s an imbalance in goaltending: similar shots between the two teams, but one team has a lot more goals than the other; or similar scores but one team has a lot more shots than the other. They tell you, even when the score is currently 0-0, who is more likely to come out on top.

In the scoreboard above, goaltending was even (shots were proportional to the score). One team had a fairly normal amount of offense, but the other struggled to mount an offense against the opposing defense.

A final detail to start paying attention to as a newbie hockey-watcher is the danger zone: the area near the goal.

This isn’t a precise location, so don’t get hung up about lines. But the aim of a good offense is to get into the danger zone and shoot, while the aim of a good defense is to keep the puck out of the danger zone. The more offensive players move into and through the danger zone, the harder it is to defend against them. The better job defenders do of keeping the puck and players out of the danger zone, the harder it is for the other team to score. If they let a player sit in there too long, they’re not doing their job. So, before you learn how to watch for good moves and team play, start by watching whether players are moving through the danger zones (or not). Newbie offense players tend to stand still outside of there. Newbie defense players tend to let the opposing team hang out inside there. And newbie teams tend to turn into a giant bunch inside there instead of spreading out.

Hope that helps you start watching hockey. Have fun!

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