Ice Hockey for Beginners

I attended my first ice hockey match last night. And I’ll say right up front that I really enjoyed it. I’d been told that the puck moves too fast to follow, and that not much happens apart from fighting, but that wasn’t quite true. There was one fight, and two times where I lost track of the gameplay, but overall, it was a great experience.

The first reason for that is that it’s relatively simple. There’s the icing rule, the easiest offside rule I’ve ever come across, and a few vague guidelines on where to draw the line when beating up the other team. There are only six players on each side – one of which is the goalie – and another of which is often off the ice serving a penalty – and so the permutations for passing and moving into space become something you can easily work out in your head as the play goes on.

The main reason flows directly from that – the geometry of the play is just beautiful. Because the goalie is so padded up, it’s not easy to score a goal head on. What is required is to lure the goalie to one side of the goal, and then pass to a player somewhere else who can score, with the two players and the goal forming a triangle. This triangle moves and changes shape as the players swoop around the goal area. With three or four players up on attack, you can visualise the various triangles morphing, and try predict which one will be used by the team. Those who’ve been around a while will remember the Mystify screensaver that came out with Windows 95. (Have a look here if you’ve forgotten, or don’t know it.) That’s sort of the picture it gives me, if you add a fixed point and speed it up a lot.

As an aside, I found the skill level of some of these players amazing. Apart from the ability to skate (which I’ve never mastered, and which I blame on my size 14 feet not fitting into standard hire skates), they have the ability to propel the puck in almost any direction while they’re moving. In football, the passing triangle permutations are limited by the need to have a backswing on the leg – you’re very limited as to what you can do to the ball while running. Rugby is severely limited by the requirement to pass the ball backwards. Ice hockey has no such limitations – the puck can (and does) go anywhere, and when the walls are included, it’s even more so.

In the event, the Solihull Barons (the home side) thrashed the Hull Stingrays by 13-2, after going down 0-1 after 10 minutes. It took them 15 minutes to really warm up and score their first goal, after which it was all one-way. Great win for the home side, good atmosphere, enthusiastic crowd of around 450 people, and an entertaining night out. Not many better places I could think of to do some geometric visualisations for the fun of it.

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