Ice hockey is a sport that has a passionate following throughout many countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Played on an ice surface, with six skaters side by side and physical contact permitted, the primary object of ice hockey is to direct a flat disk, known as the puck, into the opposing team's goal, using a bladed stick.
The origins of the game are not entirely clear; as with many sports that are now well established through both rules and conventions, ice hockey is derived from a number of sporting influences. It is clear that first in the Netherlands and later in England, the old game of field hockey may have been played in some adapted fashion on ice in the 1700s. The town of Windsor, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has long proclaimed itself as the birthplace of hockey; the Windsor claim is founded on a reference in a book written by noted Canadian author Thomas Haliburton (1796–1865), who made reference to seeing the game played by young men on the pond near Windsor as early as 1800. The Windsor version of hockey history links the evolution of hockey to the old sport of hurley, a field game played with a curved stick and a ball that today remains popular in Ireland.
Other ice hockey histories focus on the first organized game, one played between students from McGill University in Montreal in 1875. Although played with nine men per side, as opposed to the modern six-player rule, the McGill contest bore a reasonable similarity to the modern game. McGill has a strong connection to two other important sport developments; it claims to being the birthplace of modern American football, through the game its rugby team played against Harvard in 1874, and that the 1891 inventor of basketball, James Naismith, was a McGill graduate.
The first organized hockey league was formed in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1885. With Canada's generally long and severe winters, natural ice was readily at hand in most parts of the country, and ice hockey quickly became established as the preeminent athletic activity in Canada. In 1892, the then-Governor General of Canada donated a challenge cup to symbolize hockey supremacy in Canada; this cup later became the famous Stanley Cup.
The world's first professional hockey league was formed in the iron-mining district of the Michigan Upper Peninsula in 1904. A series of leagues followed, with professional hockey being stabilized in 1917 by the formation of the National Hockey League (NHL), with teams in eastern Canada and the northeastern and north central parts of the United States. The Stanley Cup became the championship trophy of the NHL. The NHL remains the most successful and the most competitive of the professional ice hockey leagues in the world; similar leagues in Sweden, Finland, Russia, and other northern European countries have also thrived.
Canada introduced ice hockey to England and parts of northern Europe in the late 1800s. The rising popularity of European ice hockey was the impetus to the creation of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in Paris in 1908. It is an irony of the history of ice hockey that Canada was not a charter member of the IIHF. There would prove to be significant friction between Canada and its NHL-focused game and the powers of international hockey for many years, a situation not unlike the tensions that persisted between American basketball and the international organization, FIBA. Ice hockey has been a fixture of the Winter Olympics since their inception in 1924; the use of the distinguishing modifier "ice" with hockey, curious to North American ears, results from the popularity of the earlier established field hockey in all other parts of the world.
The rules of ice hockey are essentially consistent between the North American/NHL-oriented version, and those promoted by the IIHF, which is also played at the Olympics. With the rise of the status of European players in the modern NHL, coupled with the influence of NHL players on the style of play at both the Olympics and the annual world championships, the game has become a much more homogenized product. Ice hockey is played on a surface (rink) that is 200 ft long by 85 ft wide (60 m by 25 m) in the NHL; the IIHF surface is wider, with dimensions of 200 ft by 100 ft (60 m by 30 m). The size of the respective ice surfaces generated differing styles of play as the game evolved. NHL hockey, on the smaller surface, lent itself to a more physical style of play, while the international game promoted strategies that emphasized skating and passing. The ice surface is encircled by a barrier known as the boards, topped with a plexiglass barrier, totaling approximately 8 ft (2.5 m) in height.
The puck is a disk of vulcanized rubber; the net at which the puck is directed is 4 ft high and 6 ft wide (1.2 m and 1.8 m), with a crease marked in front of it for the protection of the goaltender (goalie). The goaltender wears specialized leg pads, heavily padded pants, a chest protector, and specially constructed skates to assist in keeping the puck out of the net. The goaltender also wears a trapping glove on the catching hand, and a large rectangular blocking glove on the hand with which he or she holds the special goal stick. As hockey pucks at an elite level of play routinely are shot at the net at speeds in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h), goaltending is a dangerous position.
The other ice hockey players wear skates, protective shin guards, heavily padded pants, a combined shoulder pad and abdominal girdle that functions as an upper body armor, as well as heavily padded gloves and a helmet. In all forms of amateur hockey in North America, as well as all European hockey, the use of a face visor is mandatory. Notwithstanding the extensive protective equipment, the physical nature and the speed of ice hockey creates many opportunities for injury.
The five players stationed on the ice in front of the goaltender are typically three forwards and two defensemen. The forwards primary function is to create offensive chances in the other team's zone; the defensemen are responsible for preventing scoring opportunities from being completed by their opponents. All hockey players must have reasonable skating skills, both in terms of their ability to move quickly on the ice, as well as being agile. Body checking is the term used to describe the technique of stopping an opponent with one's body; if the opponent has possession of the puck, the rules permit that player to be knocked down.
There are rules with respect to the movement of the puck on the ice. Like soccer, ice hockey has an offside rule that is very important to the tactics employed to advance the puck toward the opposing goal. Further, if a player from his/her own side of center ice shoots the puck down the ice and across the opposing teams goal line without it being touched by an opponent, the play is called an "icing" and the puck will be returned to the end from which the puck was shot, and the result it a face-off in a designated space near the goal.
Ice hockey uses two types of officials to supervise its games. The referees are the ultimate authority on the ice. It is their responsibility to call the various infractions that might occur, known as penalties, to determine whether a goal has been legally scored. The subordinate officials are linesmen, that are responsible for determining offside calls, icing, and similar other technical matters.
Penalties are assessed in the course of play; they are one of three types: technical infractions, such as too many players on the ice or the use of illegal equipment; minor penalties, such interference with another player as they attempt to move to a particular place on the ice, holding another player, hooking an opponent with one's stick, or slashing with the stick; or major penalties, such as fighting, spearing with the stick, or deliberate attempts to injure an opponent.
One significant rule difference between international hockey and the NHL variety is the treatment of fighting between players. In the international game, fighting leads to a game misconduct, an automatic expulsion for the remainder of the contest. The same rule is in place in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sanctioned games. In the NHL, fighting attracts a five-minute penalty for the combatants. It is for this reason that there has existed in the NHL for many generations a subset of player known popularly as the team "enforcer," or less kindly as the "goon," a player whose responsibility is to protect other members of the team from any physical liberties that may be taken by an opponent.
Canada, with justification, long perceived itself as the preeminent ice hockey nation in the world. Much as the United States sent its best college players to successfully claim Olympic championships prior to 1972, Canadian hockey was represented on the international stage by various national senior level champions, whose skill level did not approach that of the stars of the NHL. Two events altered the Canadian world view. The first was the rise of the former Soviet Union as a true ice hockey power in the 1950s and 1960s; the amateur teams previously sent by Canada to win world or Olympic championships were now no match for the Soviets and their innovative approaches to the game. The 1972 Summit Series, the first-ever set of contests between the best Soviet players and the NHL-based Canadian players, narrowly won by Canada in a dramatic eight games, proved the power of Soviet hockey.
The second development was the arrival of European and American trained players to the NHL, a trickle that began in earnest with defenseman Borje Salming of Sweden in 1973. The NHL became a truly international collection of players; by 2005, over 40% of its membership was born outside of Canada.
While Canada remains the most successful of the ice hockey nations, Russia, the United States, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia all are capable of assembling very strong teams composed of players who compete for teams in the NHL.