Newcomer’s guide to hockey

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There are actually many types of hockey: field or street hockey (where a ball is used instead of a puck), roller hockey (uses rollerblades), sled hockey (players sit on sleds), underwater hockey (played at the bottom of a swimming pool), and even online hockey. But when in Canada, when you say hockey, it means only one kind – ice hockey.

Ice hockey’s roots

For many years, Canada laid claim to being the birthplace of hockey. Its origin was traced back to 1875, when the first match was played in Montreal. Recently, however, hockey historians from Sweden and Canada have found evidence that hockey had British origins. According to them, the sport had been flourishing in many parts of Britain as early as the 1790s.

But it might as well have been invented here. Many Canucks live and breathe hockey. It seems that everything stops and nothing else matters when there’s a major game on. It’s not a surprise that the top hockey players in the world are Canadians. For many years, they made up the majority of players in the National Hockey League (NHL), the premier professional hockey league in the world.

In 1994, hockey was officially named as the country’s the national winter sport, with lacrosse as the national summer sport (The National Sports Act).

Why do Canadians love hockey so much?

Why not basketball? While hockey may have had British roots, it is 100% certain that basketball was invented in Canada (James Naismith from West Ontario in 1891). So why didn’t it become the national sport?

You can chalk this up to the climate. The country had long winters and not many heated gyms where people can play basketball. What is in abundance was ice. People played on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers while teams played inside unheated buildings. By the late 1800s, hockey’s popularity began to pick-up – every town began to form its own team. It became common for kids to start playing hockey as early as they could walk (or skate), which is around three or four years old.

Canadians soon began to dominate the sport in the global arena. Men’s and women’s teams found unparalleled success whether in the Olympics, World Cup of Hockey, the NHL and other leagues. Many Canadians started to bond over hockey games whether live or on TV. Families reserved the weekends and stayed up late together for Saturday Hockey Nights. The sport quickly became part of Canadian identity and began to symbolize Canadian resourcefulness, teamwork, skill and determination.

How it’s played

I have always imagined hockey as soccer on ice skates played with a much tinier ball (hockey/soccer fans, don’t hate me please). It is an extremely fast-paced game that requires quick skill, agility, and strength. It is so intense that a hockey game is divided into three 20-minute periods, with 10-minute breaks between each period.

Two teams each have six players, three for offense, and three for defense (one goaltender each). The object of the game is, of course, to shoot the puck (a small, black rubber disc) to score a goal. Players do this by using a hockey stick while negotiating the rink or “ice” (which is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide) on skates. Getting the puck to the goal is not that simple. Players must get it through opponents who guard the goal seemingly with their lives. Brawls, skirmishes, and fisticuffs are not uncommon. The sport’s roughness has made it a must for players to wear helmets and hard leather gloves, as well as heavy padding on elbows, shoulders and legs.

Ready to watch a game?

Hockey games are readily available on TV or online. You can even watch them at pubs and restaurants and still feel the excitement and esprit de corps that follows. If you want to see a live game, you can get tickets for major games online or at the Canada Life Centre (formerly MTS). You can also go to your nearest community centre and check if it has a hockey rink. You’ll be amazed at how skilled the neighborhood kids (and adults) are at this game.
Article updated October 13, 2021.
Sources: Do you think hockey was invented in Canada? Think again by Adam Proteau, The Hockey News; Hockey for Dummies Cheat Sheet; Sports: Hockey – Why Canadians love it, Canadian Immigrant Magazine; Different types of hockey, Bruce Hollingdrake, The Hockey Writers.

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Community Resources

Want to know more about hockey? Learn about hockey terms and lingo in this article.

Want to try playing hockey? You or your kids can. Most community centres have hockey rinks and offer sports camps. Check with your nearest community centre.

Hockey Manitoba is your gateway to all the news about amateur hockey and various hockey programs in the province.

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