Anyone on my Facebook or wechat feed knows that I am a long time ice hockey fan. I grew up in Montreal and have been a Montreal Canadiens (Habs) fan all my life. I live near San Jose and also cheer for the San Jose Sharks as my local team. I have quite a few acquaintances that are not Canadian or from areas where hockey is popular and I thought that I would write this blog entry to talk about why I love hockey and play-off hockey in particular.
Like many professional sports, the hockey season is divided into a preseason, regular season and playoffs format. The intensity and quality of play varies. The preseason games are the most random. The players are coming off a several month layoff and the team management tries out new, younger players. Other than the players trying out, there is no real incentive to play extremely hard and win. For a true fan of the team and the game, getting to see the prospects play and the chance to evaluate them is fun. For someone newer to the game I have a hard time recommending that you pay any attention to the preseason games at all.
The regular season is long – 82 games. The entire purpose of the regular season is to narrow down the 30 teams to 16 for the playoffs. These games actually count for something. Any individual game may not make as much a difference, but the points scored by the players do count for their statistics and the hunt for playoffs spots makes some games at the end of the season even more intense. Teams play the teams in their own division more often than teams in the other divisions. The additional games help build intensity and rivalries as hockey is a physical game that allows for one player to body check (hit) other players.
Regular season games are much more entertaining than preseason games because they do matter. You can see emotions from prior seasons carried over and new emotions grow from the current games. For the teams that are further away, you at least get to see them for a game and may only see them again playing against your team in the Stanley Cup finals. For someone like me that has moved across the continent, the Habs only play the Sharks twice a year so if I want to see them close to my current home I can only see them once. So even if that game is not particularly important to either team, it is important to me and I try and attend the game if possible.
If you are new to hockey and want to see a game live, in the arena, regular season games are much less expensive to get tickets for and you can often find tickets available or find tickets via a brokerage service like Stubhub.com or Ticketmaster’s resale service. The selection of available seats is better and you will have a better chance to pick where you sit. My general recommendation is to sit around the blue line where the team you will be cheering will be attacking twice. You want to sit further away from the ice rather than closer. The closer you sit to the ice, the harder it is to follow the game if you are not used to it. The seats also go down in price the further you are from the ice. You probably do not want to sit as high up as you can as the players will seem a lot smaller, but seats in the top section near the bottom (closer to the ice) of that section can be quite good. The other advantage to sitting further away is that it is easier to see play in all corners. If you sit close to the ice you’ll have difficulty in seeing into every corner.
Most regular season games are played hard by each team and you’ll see the regular players, the “top talent” in the games because they do count. If you watch the game live, you’ll also get to see what the fans are like, how loud they are, what players get cheered for more and how they feel about the team them are playing against. In my case, the Habs are a very popular team that has been around since the National Hockey League started, so no matter where I am when I go see them play, there will be other fans like me wearing their jersey and cheering them on. I really like the fans in the “Shark Tank”. They are excellent hockey fans and are good proof that even a team in California can attract a local and knowledgeable fan base.
Once the regular season is over and the playoffs begin, the intensity rises to an even higher level. Everything is reset. Other than home ice advantage, the regular season results no longer matter. Each series is best of seven (need to win 4 games and the series ends once 4 games are won by one team). The regular season overtime rules are no longer used. In the regular season, overtime is a maximum of 5 minutes and 3 on 3 hockey with a shoot-out afterwards if a goal is not scored. In playoff hockey, the overtime is 20 minutes, 5 on 5 hockey, and the game continues with as many overtime periods as needed until a goal is scored. In hockey, a “golden goal” rule is used and the team that scores the first goal in overtime wins the game.
With the best of seven format, your team is playing the other team over and over and the first few sets of matches are with teams you have already played a lot during the season. With a higher emotional level, and the higher intensity of play, each team will hit the other more and harder. That means players will remember from game to game who hit them and if a hit was questionable or illegal under the rules, it will reflect in an emotional response. There are plenty of cases where the lowest ranked team (ranked 8 as the 16 are divided in half by league) have beaten the top rated team in the playoffs. There are also plenty of cases where a team that is behind 0-3 in a series has come back and won 4-3. A game 7 is usually the most intense as the whole series rests on one game.
One tradition for hockey players is to stop shaving during the playoffs. So as a team goes deeper and deeper into the playoffs, beards get longer. Hockey is very physical and players often get hit in the face. The deeper the team goes into the playoffs, the more damage you can see on the faces of your team’s players. Hockey players are always tough and play injured, but the playoffs bring this out even more. I have seen countless cases where a player is cut on their face and needs multiple stiches to close the cut but they do not miss a shift.
Another great tradition in hockey is at the conclusion of the series, as intense and as nasty as the games might have been, the players all line-up and shake each other’s hands. The losers congratulate the winners and wish them luck the next round. They do not forget and some of the emotion will carry over to the next season, but they are sportsmen and end the series with a handshake.
I am a hockey fan and I think it is a fun sport to watch, but even if you are not as interested, playoffs hockey is special. If you have never seen a playoff game before, try and watch a game on TV and see if you like it. You might even find yourself writing your team’s name as a status update when they win like I do.