Ice hockey is the official winter sport of Canada, and few Canadian youngsters reach age 5 without strapping on a pair of skates. Canada lives and breathes hockey, and no country produces more top-level players.
But ice hockey's popularity has spread beyond Canada. In the United States, hockey is still a bit of a niche sport, but there are many local hotbeds (particularly Minnesota), and even the sun belt has started to see professional teams moving in.
Hockey is also popular in parts of Europe (particularly the North and former socialist countries such as Slovakia or Russia), and even some tropical and subtropical countries have teams. But North America is where all the best players go to play. If you're visiting Canada or the United States, heading to the local rink to see a hockey game makes for an exciting diversion.
Ice hockey, usually just called "hockey" in North America, evolved from a number of different stick-and-ball games, most obviously field hockey. Modern hockey began in Montreal in the 1870s, where the use of a hard, disc-shaped puck, rather than a ball, became standard. The game's premier trophy, the Stanley Cup, was first awarded in 1893, so there's a lot of history involved. Unlike other trophies in major sports, the Stanley Cup predates the NHL and as recently as the 2004 lockout there was debate of whether the NHL should retain the right to award it to its champion by default.
The game is played on a rectangular ice surface with rounded corners; international-standard rinks are 200 feet (61 m) long and 100 feet (30.5 m) wide, while North American professional rinks are only 85 feet (26 m) wide. The surface is divided by lines painted underneath the ice: a red one at the center, two blue lines marking the defensive zones, and red goal lines near each end. On each goal line is a 6-foot-wide (1.8 m) netted goal.
Play consists of attempting to propel the puck, via stick, through the goalposts. Each team is allowed six players on the ice at any given time; these usually comprise three forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender. (The word "men" is always used in hockey, even if women are playing.) The goaltender has extra padding and different equipment to allow easier puck-stopping, but in exchange he or she is restricted in where and how he or she may play the puck. The goaltender may be pulled for an extra forward or defenseman, but at the risk of leaving the goal undefended.
Play begins with a faceoff, in which a referee drops the puck on the ice and one player from each team attempts to secure control of the puck. Play continues until a goal is scored, a period ends, or an infraction occurs. Minor infractions result in a faceoff at a disadvantageous position for the offending team. More serious infractions are called penalties, and result in the offending player being sent to the penalty box. His or her team is not allowed to replace him or her on the ice, and so the penalized team is said to be short-handed, while the team with the man-advantage is said to be on the power play. "Minor" penalties last for 2 minutes, or until the advantaged team scores a goal, whichever comes first; "major" penalties last for five minutes, no matter how many goals are scored. If a violation results in the loss of a clear scoring opportunity, the team that is fouled is awarded a penalty shot, in which a player is given a chance to score one-on-one against the goaltender. Unlike penalty shots in association football (soccer), handball, water polo or field hockey, where the shot is taken from a specific spot, in ice hockey, the player is allowed to skate with the puck before taking the penalty shot.
A 60-minute game is divided into three 20-minute periods. During the between-period intermissions, the ice is resurfaced, and the fans visit the concessions and the restrooms. A brief sudden-death overtime period may be played if the score is tied after three periods; some leagues then go to a shootout if the score is still tied, while others allow a tie to stand. In playoff hockey, which requires a winner to be declared, full 20-minute sudden-death overtime periods are played, with intermissions, until a goal is scored.
In hockey, players may be substituted at any time; due to the intensity of play, each shift usually only lasts between 45 and 90 seconds. Players, particularly at the most advanced levels, are encouraged to be very physical on the ice, using their bodies to block opponents' movements and shots. The act of restraining or disrupting the puck-carrier is known as a check; this usually refers to a body check, but can also include various types of stick checks. Body checking is a penalty in women's ice hockey and in youth hockey, but in adult men's hockey it's allowed and considered a key skill.
The intense physicality of hockey has resulted in a long tradition of fighting as part of the game. At the professional level, fighting is seen as integral to ensuring proper discipline and respect from one's opponents. Players who are perceived as engaging in "cheap shots" against opponents can expect to be challenged to a fight—often by the opposing team's enforcer, their most skilled fighter. Some players will also "drop the gloves" in order to energize their teammates, if they feel effort has been lacking. Although fighting is penalized, even in the professional leagues, its judicious and sparing use is widely encouraged. Many fans are disappointed if an entire game is played without at least one fight, and hockey broadcasters often call them like boxing matches. Fighting in college hockey is not as widely accepted and will be strongly penalized, but still gets fans excited.
National Hockey League
The National Hockey League is the world's top ice hockey league, both in player talent and in revenue. The best players from around the world aim to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup. There are 31 NHL teams in 30 cities (28 metropolitan areas) in the U.S. and Canada. Each team plays in its own arena, with capacities ranging from 15,000 to 21,000 fans.
Ticket prices vary widely. Since many teams sell out their arenas well in advance, you'll usually be going to the secondary market to buy tickets from season-ticket holders who can't attend a particular game (which is very common). That means there's no set minimum or maximum; you'll pay what the market for that team and that date will bear. In practice, you'll pay around $50 for a middling seat at a less popular arena, or several hundred dollars for a good seat in a popular arena. Or anything in between.
The NHL season runs from October into April, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs going through May and into June.
Many arenas have been built in lively neighborhoods with lots of bars and restaurants catering to fans, but other rinks sit isolated in a sea of parking lots. Many arenas, particularly the newer or the more famous ones, are open for tours on off-game days; see the individual city articles for further details.
The NHL is an old league, but its modern history begins in 1942, when the pressures of war reduced the membership to just six teams. The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs today are still referred to as the "Original Six", as they were the only teams in the NHL between 1942 and the 1967 expansion. Even today, the Original Six are legendary, and games between them are often considered instant classics. While the "national" in National Hockey League originally referred to the nation of Canada, Canadian teams have actually had a title drought for quite some time now and several struggle to even make the playoffs, to the never ending chagrin of hockey-mad Canada.
The NHL most recently realigned prior to the 2013–14 season; it is divided into two conferences, Western and Eastern, each with two mostly-geographic divisions. But for the traveler, those divisions won't mean much; it's more important to be able to find a game close to where you're traveling.
- Montreal Canadiens – Bell Centre — Montreal, Quebec (in Downtown Montreal). The "Habs", as they're fondly known, have won the Stanley Cup more times than any other team—and their fans never let you forget it.
- Ottawa Senators – Canadian Tire Centre — Ottawa, Ontario.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – Air Canada Centre (to be renamed Scotiabank Arena in July 2018) — Toronto, Ontario (in the Entertainment District). Despite recent struggles on the ice (their last Cup win was in 1967), to the point where the storied Leafs have become a punchline for other teams' fans, their tickets are still the most in-demand in the league... with prices to match. Toronto is the centre of the ice hockey universe, and if their team ever again hoists the Cup, the celebration would be among the greatest the world has ever seen.
Western and Central Canada
- Winnipeg Jets – Bell MTS Place — Winnipeg, Manitoba. 16 years after the original Jets left for Phoenix, Winnipeg once again has an NHL team.
- Calgary Flames – Scotiabank Saddledome — Calgary, Alberta.
- Edmonton Oilers – Rogers Place — Edmonton, Alberta (in Downtown Edmonton).
- Vancouver Canucks – Rogers Arena — Vancouver, British Columbia (in False Creek).
New England and Mid-Atlantic
- Boston Bruins – TD Garden — Boston, Massachusetts (in the North End).
- New York Islanders – Barclays Center — Brooklyn, New York (in Downtown Brooklyn). The Islanders moved from their former home in Nassau County after the 2014–15 season. (They're still technically on Long Island, so they're keeping their name.) The team is planning to return to Nassau County in 2020; they will soon break ground on a new arena next to the Belmont Park horse track in Elmont, just outside Queens.
- New York Rangers – Madison Square Garden — New York City, New York (in the Theater District). Madison Square Garden might be the most famous hockey arena in the world, and is certainly the oldest in the NHL... though the current MSG is actually the fourth to bear the name, and the second to have hosted the Rangers. Also, while MSG's outside structure may be the oldest in the NHL, the interior was so heavily renovated in the first part of the 2010s that it's actually one of the newer ones in the league.
- Buffalo Sabres – KeyBank Center — Buffalo, New York (in Downtown Buffalo).
- New Jersey Devils – Prudential Center — Newark, New Jersey.
- Philadelphia Flyers – Wells Fargo Center — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (in South Philly).
- Pittsburgh Penguins – PPG Paints Arena — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (in Downtown Pittsburgh).
- Washington Capitals – Capital One Arena — Washington, D.C. (in Penn Quarter).
- Carolina Hurricanes – PNC Arena — Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Nashville Predators – Bridgestone Arena — Nashville, Tennessee.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – Amalie Arena — Tampa, Florida.
- Florida Panthers – BB&T Center — Sunrise, Florida (a suburb of Fort Lauderdale).
- Dallas Stars – American Airlines Center — Dallas, Texas (in Downtown Dallas).
- St. Louis Blues – Scottrade Center — St. Louis, Missouri.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Nationwide Arena — Columbus, Ohio (in Downtown Columbus).
- Detroit Red Wings – Little Caesars Arena — Detroit, Michigan (in Midtown Detroit). The newest arena in the league, which opened for the 2017–18 season.
- Chicago Blackhawks – United Center — Chicago, Illinois (on the Near West Side).
- Minnesota Wild – Xcel Energy Center — Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Western United States
- Colorado Avalanche – Pepsi Center — Denver, Colorado.
- Arizona Coyotes – Gila River Arena — Glendale, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix).
- Anaheim Ducks – Honda Center — Anaheim, California (a suburb of Los Angeles).
- Los Angeles Kings – Staples Center — Los Angeles, California (in Downtown L.A.).
- San Jose Sharks – SAP Center at San Jose — San Jose, California.
- Vegas Golden Knights – T-Mobile Arena — Las Vegas, Nevada (on the Las Vegas Strip, south of the Las Vegas city limits). The league's newest team started play in the 2017–18 season. They have thus far proved the most successful expansion team of any sport on the field and draw reasonably well at the gate for a warm weather expansion team in a city that is often said to have other things than hockey on its mind
Minor professional leagues
Compared to baseball, hockey's minor league system is much less rigidly structured. Affiliations, particularly below the AHL level, are more volatile, and some minor league teams recruit and pay their own players to supplement the prospects and veterans supplied by their parent teams. NHL teams exert much less control over their affiliates than Major League Baseball teams do.
In addition, most NHLers start their professional careers at the AHL level, and the majority of the rest actually start out in the NHL. In baseball, nearly all players work their way up from the rookie leagues to single A, double A, and triple A before reaching the big leagues; in hockey, though, college hockey and junior hockey serve to develop players before they enter the pro ranks.
In addition to the leagues below, NHL teams also recruit from European leagues such as the Kontinental Hockey League (an international league with most teams playing in Russia and other former Soviet or Eastern bloc countries).
American Hockey League
The American Hockey League is the top-level minor league in North America, and the best way for players to showcase their talents to NHL scouts. Most AHL players are under contract to an NHL team and available to be called up to that team when a need arises. Although rosters are not directly controlled by parent teams, the AHL does limit the number of veterans allowed on a team, to make sure that the league retains its focus on developing future NHL players.
AHL cities comprise a broad swath of mid-size and larger cities in southern Canada, the northern U.S., the eastern seaboard, California, and even a few in the southern Plains. The Chicago Wolves, Manitoba Moose, San Jose Barracuda, and Toronto Marlies even share their cities with NHL teams; three of these teams (all but the Wolves) have the same ownership as their city's NHL team. AHL arenas vary widely in size, age, and quality. The Barracuda and Moose play in their parent clubs' arenas, with the Moose playing in the NHL's smallest arena. A couple of other AHL arenas are larger than the smallest NHL arenas, while still others house as few as 5,000 spectators. Most are in the 10 to 15,000 range. Ticket prices are significantly cheaper than NHL tickets, and much easier to get; few AHL teams sell out their venues except during special events. You can expect to pay at least $12 for the seats farthest from the ice, up to $50 (or more) for the best seats in the house, but both ends of the spectrum can vary widely depending on the venue.
The league underwent a major realignment for the 2015–16 season. Five teams moved to California to be closer to their parent clubs, and two Canadian teams moved. Most of the American cities with teams that moved now have ECHL teams to replace them. After the 2015–16 season, another team moved from Massachusetts to Arizona after being purchased by the Arizona Coyotes.
Teams and locations are current for the ongoing 2017–18 season.
- The South
- New England
- Inland West
Formerly the East Coast Hockey League, the ECHL is markedly less stable in membership than the AHL. It currently has 28 teams, but that number changes frequently, as multiple teams fold or join the league every year. For example, in 2014, the ECHL absorbed the Central Hockey League's seven teams, and when the AHL expanded into California in 2015, that state's three ECHL teams moved to cities that the AHL left behind. While each team in the ECHL maintains affiliation agreements with one or more NHL teams, meaning at least some of their players are under contract to an NHL organization, it's relatively rare for an ECHL player to make it to the NHL; legitimate prospects almost always start in the AHL. The ECHL is mostly used as a source of replacement players for the AHL to compensate for call-ups.
ECHL teams can be found across the country, thanks to mergers with older leagues. ECHL cities tend to be fairly small, though there are a couple of large cities (like Orlando and Cincinnati) with teams. Before the absorption of the CHL in 2014, only one ECHL team had ever been located in Canada; there is now one in Brampton, Ontario.
Other minor leagues
Other North American professional leagues are the Southern Professional Hockey League (Southeastern U.S.), Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (Quebec), and the Federal Hockey League (Northeastern U.S.). Teams in these leagues are independent and have no affiliation with the NHL; their players have virtually no chance of making it to a higher-level league, and they're basically just playing to have fun and earn a little bit of money.
The level of play in any of these leagues may not match up even to the college game, but they still attract their share of fans. LNAH in particular is well known for its fighting, so if that's an aspect of the game that appeals to you, it could be worth checking out a game.
On the women's side, the Canadian Women's Hockey League (four Canadian teams, one in Boston, and two in Shenzhen, China) and the National Women's Hockey League (four American teams) are the primary professional options for post-collegiate women. The CWHL has stayed afloat for several years only by virtue of not paying salaries to the players; the 2017–18 season is the first in which salaries are being paid. The NWHL just got started in 2015, and while they have paid salaries since they started play, it remains to be seen if the business model is sustainable. Still, the players in these two leagues are the best women's players in North America, including a large number of Olympians, so the level of play is world-class... even if the fan support and ticket prices don't reflect it.
Junior ice hockey
There is an extensive system of junior hockey, particularly in Canada, for players between ages 16 and 20. Players feed into the system from minor hockey (a.k.a. youth hockey) depending on skill level and development. Junior hockey teams are in leagues that cover wide geographic areas, and the teams recruit players from well beyond their own backyards; many players leave home before their secondary education is complete to play on a junior team.
The highest level of junior hockey is major junior, overseen by the Canadian Hockey League. (Most major junior teams are in Canada, but a few are based in the U.S.) Despite the youth of the players, these teams attract followings comparable to American college basketball teams. Attending a game live is usually entertaining -- the skill level is still fairly high, the tickets and concessions are much cheaper than an NHL game while the arenas are smaller so you can get much closer to the ice. About two-thirds of NHL players played major junior hockey.
Because the CHL offers its players stipends for living expenses, the NCAA (the American governing body for collegiate athletics) considers the CHL to be a professional league; any player who plays so much as an exhibition with CHL players forfeits his NCAA eligibility. As a result, many Americans (and Canadians wishing to play NCAA hockey) go to other junior leagues like the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) or the United States Hockey League (USHL). These leagues are considered "Junior A" instead of major junior; Junior B and Junior C leagues also exist, and they feed into lower levels of college hockey.
Intercollegiate athletics is another outlet for young hockey players to compete and get noticed by professional teams. There are several separate systems in North America, and each interacts slightly differently with the junior leagues and professional leagues.
NCAA Division I
In the U.S., the top level of intercollegiate competition is known as "Division I" and is operated by the NCAA. Most Division II teams also compete at the Division I level, as there is no Division II national championship. 60 colleges and universities field Division I or II men's teams, and 35 field Division I or II women's teams. Schools at this level are found almost exclusively in the Midwest and the Northeast. The "outliers", none of which has a women's team, are three schools on the Colorado Front Range, two in Alaska, and single schools in Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Some of the schools are big-name state schools with high-profile football programs and extensive networks of alumni boosters; others are Division II colleges that most Americans have never heard of; and a few are even Division III institutions fielding Division I hockey teams as their signature sport.
The NCAA considers major junior hockey players to be professionals, due to the stipends they receive. Since intercollegiate competition is for amateurs, players who've played major junior hockey cannot play college hockey in the U.S. Colleges thus draw from the lower-tier junior leagues like the BCHL and the USHL.
In men's hockey, the more prominent institutions tend to recruit younger players, with freshmen being around age 18 (as is normal for American college students); these players may otherwise have opted to play major juniors, but chose college hockey to make sure they have a good education to go along with their hockey skills... or just to get a different kind of exposure to pro recruits. These are the players most likely to be drafted into the NHL, and as a result often turn pro before graduation. The less prominent men's hockey teams draw from older players, with freshmen around age 20 or 21; they have less raw talent but more maturity than the younger recruits, which allows them to compete on the college level on a fairly even basis. These players are unlikely to draw as much attention from NHL teams, as they are past draft age, but those who show a lot of potential may sign as free agents, and many others go on to play professional hockey in the minor leagues or in Europe.
Women's hockey players tend to be recruited the same as they are for most other sports, right out of high school or prep school. With no opportunity to play junior hockey, almost all of the best North American women end up playing in NCAA Division I, and the Canadian and American national teams are drawn almost entirely from the ranks of collegians and former collegians. Post-college opportunities are extremely limited; only the best players will have a chance to sign with one of the very few professional women's teams in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, and only a handful of players have ever made it onto a men's minor league roster.
NCAA Division II
The NCAA doesn't operate hockey at this level. Men's teams may play up into Division I leagues (or down into Division III leagues), while on the women's side D-I and D-II teams are considered to be at the same level and compete for the same championship. The distinction between the two genders is largely irrelevant in practice.
One Division II league does operate a conference men's ice hockey championship for its member schools who play, but it's not sanctioned or recognized by the NCAA.
NCAA Division III
Division III hockey is limited to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, but each of those regions (except Pennsylvania) has a strong network of schools with intense rivalries among them. The level of play may be a step below Division I, and few of these players will ever play professionally, but a Division III hockey game can still be an exciting and intense match.
The NJCAA operates ice hockey for junior and community colleges in the United States.
There is a surprisingly advanced network of "club hockey" (that is, non-varsity hockey) in the U.S. Even schools that have varsity hockey teams may have club teams that are nearly as well respected and followed. Some club teams draw thousands of fans to each game, despite limited support from their institutions. The network of club hockey teams extends into nearly every state, even non-traditional regions like California and the South. It's also unusually popular in Pennsylvania, which has only five men's varsity teams but dozens of club teams. Every so often, a club team will move to the varsity level; the most recent teams to make such a move were the Arizona State men and Merrimack women, both of which moved to NCAA Division I starting with the 2015–16 season.
U Sports hockey
U Sports (which was most recently known as CIS) operates ice hockey competition at the university level in Canada for both men and women, just as its American counterpart does. (As an aside: Unlike the U.S., Canada draws a sharp distinction between "university" and "college", with bachelor's and postgraduate degrees being offered exclusively by universities.) But due to the influence and popularity of major junior hockey in Canada, and the well established programs in the United States, competition is generally at a lower level than American collegiate ice hockey. The best teams can sometimes be competitive with the lowest tier of NCAA Division I teams, but in general the level of play is on par with Division III. U Sports is attractive to former major junior players who don't make it to the professional leagues, as they are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, and the CHL offers scholarships to U Sports schools to its players.
The Winter Olympics are the premier international tournament in ice hockey, with many classic matches produced over the years. Perhaps the most famous was the victory the United States scored against the Soviet Union in the 1980 semifinals, dubbed the "Miracle on Ice", in which the highly feted Soviet team of full-time state-sponsored "amateurs" was upset by the U.S. team consisting entirely of college players, hence losing out on a chance for the gold medal, which the U.S. team won with another upset over Finland in the finals. With the ban on professional players since lifted, top NHL players have competed for their countries at the Olympics since 1998, resulting in classic matches such as the final between the U.S. and Canada in the 2010 edition. However, the NHL has announced that it will not allow its players to participate in the Olympics starting from the 2018 games, as club owners generally object to such participation, due to the fear of injuries and perceived lack of financial benefits for the clubs.
Canada is currently the dominant team in international men's ice hockey, with a total of 9 gold medals to its name in the men's tournament at the Olympics, though the Soviet Union went through a period of dominance from the end of World War II to its breakup, mostly because of the aforementioned amateur loophole.
Women's ice hockey was only added to the Olympic program in 1998. The USA won the gold medal in the first Olympic tournament; Canada won the next four (2002–2014), and the USA won the most recent edition in 2018. At the World Championships (held annually except in Winter Olympic years), the USA has recently dominated, winning the last four titles and seven of the last eight. Only once in either the Olympics or World Championship (specifically the 2006 Olympics) has the final not been a Canada–USA matchup.
Museums and other attractions
The singular hockey mecca, the place every true fan should visit someday, is the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHoF) in Toronto's Financial District. It is home to the original and replica Stanley Cups, and serves as a shrine to the sport's greatest players.
The United States Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minnesota (north of Duluth), is less well known, as it focuses only on American hockey. American hockey fans might also enjoy visiting Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, which is where the Brooks-coached U.S. national team defeated the USSR and then won the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics. This was an astonishing feat insofar as back then the NHL players were not allowed to play for the U.S. and the Soviets had their best "state amateurs" on the ice, who played at the highest domestic level (comparable or even superior in talent to the U.S.).