Hockey players generally report to their dressing rooms at least an hour before their scheduled warmup. Part of that time is spent listening to the coach's pep talk, but a lot of time is required just to put on all that protective equipment.
Players wear an assortment of protective pads on shoulders, arms and shins, plus cups, chest protectors and reinforced gloves. Even the pants contain built-in pads, and the skates fit over ankle and tendon guards.
The masked goaltender wears large leg pads and special gloves, one for catching the puck, first-baseman style, and the other specially reinforced to guard the stick hand.
A player's armor amounts to about 20 pounds for a forward, 25 pounds for a defenseman and 40 pounds for a goalie. Contrast this with pro football, where lineman's pads weigh only six pounds, those for backs 4 1/2 pounds and a quarterback has only two pounds of protection. A pro football helmet weighs three pounds, twice that of the lightweight Swedish-made hockey helmets that have become so popular.
Each player has specific duties and none is more obvious than the goalie. He is commissioned to keep the puck out of the net. Of course, a good deal of science is involved in that simple task and many persons consider a hockey goaltender to be the most unenvied performer in all of sports. When a puck is traveling in your direction at more than 100 miles per hour, one wonders whether a fat salary and head-to-toe protection is enough to compensate.
In watching the goalie, note how he maneuvers to force the shooter into a difficult angle, often coming far out of the net to minimize access to the opening behind him. On a breakway, see how the goalie comes out, then retreat while faking moves and attempting to make the shooter commit himself. The goalie tries to line his pads directly with the puck, then turn the pads on a slight angle to deflect shots to the side, away from rebound territory.
The defensemen try to break up opponents' plays at the blue line. They block shots and clear the puck and opposing forwards from in front of the goal. Offensively, the carry the puck up ice or pass to the forwards, then follow the play into the attacking zone. They try to position themselves near the boards along the blue line to keep the puck in offensive ice.
In watching a defenseman, note his ability to skate backward, and to turn quickly and change direction without losing his balance. Notice how a defenseman forces a puck carrier to the outside to create a more difficult angle for the shot. Observe the method of blocking a shot, dropping to the knees while keeping the stick to the side to prevent a deflection toward the net.
The center operates in the middle of the ice, usually leading his team's attack by carrying the puck. He exchanges passes with his wings and tries to keep the play in the attacking zone by harassing the opposition's puck carrier, a maneuver known as forechecking. When the opponent works the puck out of his end, the center tries to interrupt the play at it moves through the neutral zone into his defending zone. This is called backchecking.
The wings move up and down the sides of the rink with the flow of play. Offensively, they exchange passes with the center while positioning themselves for shots on goal. If one wing is fighting for the puck in a corner of the offensive zone, the other will station himself near the net in expectation of a pass.
Defensively, wings shadow their opposite numbers, trying to disrupt play as the puck moves back toward the defending zone. The key factor in a wing's performance is his ability to adjust his role when the puck changes possession.
In watching forwards, don't limit yourself to shots on goal. Note the way a forward carriers the puck up ice. When he is being checked, he dips his shoulder and tries to muscle his way around the defender, often holding the stick in one hand and pushing off with the other, straight-arm fashion.
On a shot, observe how a forward maintains his balance, firing with his weight on the proper foot. Watch how he tries to lift an opponent's stick to steal the puck or prevent a pass. Often, he will try to lift the goalie's stick, make any possible move to upset the goalie's timing.
It is difficult to draw one's attention from the puck carrier, but in a 40-game home schedule you can afford a missed goal or two, particularly with Telscreen as a backup. Watch the players move without the puck, blocking attackers without drawing interference calls, or feinting defenders to get good position. Particularly, watch the play in front of the net, as an attacker tries to position himself to screen the goalie or deflect the puck, and the defenseman attempts to move him away.
This season there is likely to be an increase in dipping, knuckleball-type shots. Some years ago, hockey players learned to curve their sticks blades, thereby producing the dip effect and forcing goalies to wear masks for survival. A rule was passed limiting stick curvature to one-half inch and unlimited challenges of sticks, with minor penalties for violations, virtually ended illegal curvatures.
A new rule this year provides a minor penalty to a challenging team when a stick proves to be illegal. That should end the time-consuming measurements, but it also figures to tempt players to violate the limit. Hockey players, coaches and general managers are always searching for that little edge over an opponent.
One means of obtaining an advantage, of course, is by luring an opponent into a penalty. At one time, a player prided himself on maintaining his equilibrium no matter the extent of an opponent's obstructive practices. Today, it is not unusual to see a player dive over an opponent's stick in an attempt to persuade the referee to whistle a violation.
The referee has probably the most difficult task in sports, a one-man police force in a jungle inhabited by 10 armed, high-speed combatants, some of whom are as adept at noting the referee's whereabouts and line of vision as they are at fouling an opponent.
Next: How not to play the game.