An Outsider’s Guide to the NHL

Of the four major professional sports in America, ice hockey is, by far, the least accessible.

Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of Outsider’s Guides, where Jeremy Rothschild analyzes how to become a fan of something he loves by taking certain steps in the world of technology. For the Outsider’s Guide to Broadway, click here.

Of the four major professional sports in America, ice hockey is, by far, the least accessible. It isn’t the National Hockey League’s (NHL) fault; it’s just in the nature of the sport. Soccer is the world’s most accessible sport because, above all else, players only need a ball (or something that resembles a ball; kids are creative), a few friends, and a way to designate a goal. No matter what region of the world you live in, hot or cold, wealthy or impoverished, you can play soccer as a kid with ease. For football and basketball, the same rules apply; all that’s needed is a football and some designated end zones or a basketball and a hoop. Everything else falls into place. Baseball is a bit more difficult, since it requires, gloves, bats, and quite a few friends, but it isn’t THAT hard to get a game together.

To play ice hockey, on the other hand, is a nightmare. For one, the game is on ice, meaning that in order to play, you need to skate. People that don’t live in a cold area with ice ponds (the majority of us) or near an ice rink (certainly some of us) are out of luck, just like that. Next, aspiring hockey players need to learn how to skate, and skate well. Ice skates aren’t cheap, and neither are ice skating lessons. After mastering ice skating, players need to buy sticks and quite a bit of equipment in order to play; once again, that’s not cheap. Only after doing all of that can people start to play ice hockey. I never learned how to ice skate, so, despite playing street hockey (games played on foot) for years, my NHL dreams were dashed before they even began.

Because of all of this, the NHL has a lot going against it when it comes to recruiting new fans. But the NHL has some of the most passionate fans in all of sports, because the games are terrific, the play is exciting, and the atmosphere of being at an NHL game is some of the best in all of sports. With this guide, you can take the steps to appreciating the most exciting sport out there.

Step 1: Finding the Joy in Playing the Game

Before you think that I’m going to start recommending places for ice skate rentals and send you out to Rockefeller Center to do a lap around the ice, there are ways to enjoy the game of hockey without having to buy a stick and a puck. There are quite a few fun gaming apps to get you in the hockey spirit. For one, FlipSide5’s free Touch Hockey app is an outstanding update of the classic air hockey games that people have played at arcade’s for years. Featuring single player, multiplayer on the same phone, and multiplayer by way of bluetooth or wifi gaming, it’s easy to get a game of air hockey going, and an upgrade with more options and no ads is only $1.99.

Another classic hockey game updated for the iPhone is the Stinger Table Hockey app ($1.99), which uses touch controls on the iPhone that are similar to the old game where hockey players would move in lines in certain directions, much like foosball. The game might be a bit frustrating to learn, but if you’ve ever played the table game, it’s a lot of fun. Finally, for a modern video game app, try out NHL 2K11 ($3.99) from 2K Sports. Unfortunately, 2K Sports didn’t come out with an NHL 2K12 for this season, but this game is excellent nonetheless. The game plays like a normal NHL game, with easy to learn controls and real players and teams. After playing a demo game in the free lite version, which only allowed for one period of play between only two teams, I grasped the controls quite easily. This game offers the complete NHL experience, with possibilities for roster moves, trades, and entire season play. But above all else, it’s a lot of fun. Which is the point of hockey.

Step 2: Watch Some Great YouTube Videos

More than any other sport, the NHL was made for YouTube. Some games can feel tedious and with little action, but NHL highlights can be breathtaking, and YouTube is a great place to capture that. Plus, unlike Major League Baseball’s indefensibly idiotic policy of taking down all baseball highlights from YouTube, the NHL has done a great job in allowing, providing, and promoting its content on the streaming video site. If you search around YouTube, there are many more amazing hockey clips than just these three. It’s a great way to kill an hour or two of your day. In the first clip, a 9 year old kid before a Boston Bruins game scored a truly astounding goal against another kid that looked like he just wanted to go home and have some lunch. But any professional goalie would have been blown away by such a move. Incredible. The second video is the ten best goalie saves of last season, featuring some jaw-dropping play from the net-minders of the NHL.

The last video, the Marek Malik Miracle, is a bit more personal. From 2004 to the summer of 2005, the NHL suffered a crippling lockout that threatened to end the league as we knew it. Teams were going bankrupt, players were unwilling to lower their salary demands, and TV ratings were plummeting, putting the league in serious jeopardy. After settling their differences, the NHL came back for the 2005-2006 season with a goal of bringing back their fans that they’d lost in the past few years. One of the ways they did this was by introducing the shootout, which would be how games would be decided if they ended in a tie. Players would shoot try to score one-on-one against the other team’s goalie, and the team with the most goals after three rounds would win the game. After about a month back, my favorite team, the New York Rangers, was in the 15th round of a shootout against the Washington Capitals, in what is still the record for the longest shootout in history. In the 15th round, a little known defenseman named Marek Malik (above, right), who had scored only 26 goals in an unremarkable seven year career, tried to win the game for the Rangers. Instead of a traditional shootout move, this goofy, unknown defenseman put the puck between his legs and scored to win the game for the Rangers, stunning Washington’s goalie and sending Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers play, into bedlam.  The Rangers had won, and all was right with the world. The NHL was back, and it had its first major YouTube moment for people to watch again and again online, which they smartly embraced. And much of it was due to Marek Malik.

Step 3: Watch a Full Game in HD on NBC or Versus

Here’s two more plus points for hockey: HD technology and its announcers. Before HD, casual fans had a lot of trouble following the hockey puck during game play. (In fact, Fox, when they covered the NHL, tried to spruce up hockey games by adding a glowing puck and fighting robots to the broadcast. Hockey fans didn’t exactly take to this well.) But with HDTVs, and now 3D TVs, the ice is clear, and the puck is easy to follow. Along with the HD boost, the NHL employs Mike “Doc” Emrick (right), considered by many to be the best play-by-play announcer in all of sports, as its lead broadcaster. He has been the voice of the league for over a decade, and it’s tough not to get excited while watching a game that he’s broadcasting. He regularly calls games on both Versus and NBC, and will certainly be the voice of this next event.

Step 4: Watch The Winter Classic on NBC, and 24/7 on HBO

A new tradition started in the NHL in 2008, when on New Year’s Day two teams would play each other in the outdoors, either in a football or baseball stadium. The game has been a ratings success for NBC, which broadcasts it nationally, and this year’s incarnation will feature the aforementioned Rangers playing the Philadelphia Flyers in Citizen’s Bank Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team normally plays. To avoid a conflict with the NFL, this year’s game will be played on Monday, January 2nd. The Winter Classic is a great jumping-off point for any person to start watching hockey, since NBC can show camera angles from blimps above that could never be feasible during a regular game, showing the NHL at its finest. Last year, another tradition started when HBO aired an installment of its ‘24/7’ series, following the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals for a month as they prepared for this game in Pittsburgh. This profanity laced look behind the scenes of the NHL showcased the tremendous personalities on each team and the level of dedication it takes to be a professional hockey player. The show will return on December 15th, following both the Rangers and Flyers.

Step 5: Read an NHL Blog and Start Tracking Games

Puck Daddy, created by Greg Wyshynski and owned by Yahoo! sports, is easily the most entertaining blog there is about the NHL. Wyshynski and his team of writers update the blog a few times a day with some hard-hitting analysis, but lots of entertaining subjects about the lighter parts of the game that can appeal to any fan. Posts about the players’ girlfriends are regular, and Wayne Gretzky’s hot daughter is idolized. This is a great site for any fan to read that wants to learn about the game without being bored to death.

After picking a favorite team to root for, there are ways to follow the game on devices as well. NHL Gamecenter gives live updates to NHL games, with video highlights. For the more technically proficient among us that have an iPhone 4S, a Siri hack was created by Sam Lu that let people ask Siri for live scores of NHL games. If only Siri sounded like Doc Emrick, we’d really be onto something here.

Step 6: Go to a Live Game

You’ve now played some video games, watched YouTube highlights, watched a few games on TV, watched HBO 24/7, and read Puck Daddy. You’re ready for a game experience. If you live in New York, Madison Square Garden is a great place to go to a hockey game, with passionate Rangers fans strongly invested in their team. If tickets are out of your price range there, the Devils offer cheaper tickets in Newark, in a very nice, modern arena that’s easy to get to from Penn Station. I hate their team with a passion, but they offer a very nice fan experience. If you live in other areas of the country, the NHL is in most big cities, and tickets are usually less expensive once leaving the New York metropolitan area. Cheer on your team with passion, have a drink or two, and have a great time. You’ve earned it after taking these steps. Enjoy the experience.

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