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Ben Fields: Game on at last

Jan. 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Like each and every other person living in the Tri-State, I'm glad the NHL lockout is over.

Oh, I'm the only one? Fair enough.

I've been a hockey fan for slightly more than half of my life.

The NHL fits nicely in that slot where the NBA is dragging on, and I'm not quite into baseball yet.

At least, the Stanley Cup playoffs do.

Yes, the hockey season is supposed to start in November, but with four work stoppages in the past 20 years (including one season wiped entirely from the board), the NHL has kind of created a culture where people are only interested in the playoffs.

This year, though, the lockout was kind of a bummer.

For one, my favorite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were scheduled to play in the annual Winter Classic. That's the one game a year that is played outdoors, and usually generates interest beyond the diehard hockey fans.

The other reason is that the NHL team only a two-hour drive from here, the Columbus Blue Jackets, were scheduled to host the all-star game, and hockey fans in this region rarely get the chance to see the best of the best in one place.

Well, what is done is done. I'm just glad that hockey will be played in 2013, and hopeful that anyone other than the New York Rangers or the Detroit Red Wings will hoist the Cup at the end of the playoffs.

Like every other sport, hockey has a culture all its own, and, if you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the slightly less beautiful game, here's a refresher on some of the sport's oddities as a new season gets underway.

1. Fighting. Outside of boxing or mixed martial arts, hockey is the only sport where fighting is legal. Sort of. It's a penalty, but you don't get fined or suspended for doing it. Speaking for myself, I've never really gone for the fighting. I'm more interested in the skill guys, but it is as ingrained in hockey as beaning the guy who beaned your guy in baseball.

There is a strange etiquette to fighting in hockey. The two opponents drop their gloves and toss off their helmets, countering all logic, and begin to whale on each other with wild hay-makers while trying to pull the other guy's sweater (jersey) over his head. One thing you do not want to do in hockey is go after someone with your stick. It might seem like a good idea, but players have actually been criminally charged with assault when taking a shot at someone's head with their lumber. Summation: Fighting in hockey is a paradox. Do not try to understand it.

2. Enforcers. This has a bit to do with No. 1. Every hockey team has what it calls a "checking line" which is a nice way of saying "a gaggle of guys who are dirty players out to hurt you." Each franchise usually has at least one "enforcer," a guy who was told probably in his pre-teens that he couldn't skate or score, so he should focus on dirty checks, watching out for his team's skill players, and trying to bait other players into fighting or committing a penalty. Seriously, if one of these guys scores a goal, it is a miracle, or, more likely, a freak accident. Like fighting, enforcers or "goons" as they are sometimes called, seem to be a necessary evil.

3. Playoffs. The playoffs are nothing like the regular season. When the NHL went through its lockout that scrapped the 2004-05 season, the league emerged the next year with tighter rules on obstructing offensive players, as well as some other adjustments, hoping to open up the scoring (the thought being that hockey, like soccer, is not appealing to a wider market because there aren't enough goals). So, during the season, you'll see the odd 7-2, or 5-0 result. But in the playoffs, the rulebook goes out the window and the referees put some wing sauce on their whistles before swallowing them.

Playoff hockey is a two-month grind where defenders trap, hit and haul offensive players to the ground to prevent shots on goal, and the refs will let it go because they don't want to influence the outcome of the game, which of course, they are doing already by not officiating the match. To win in the playoffs, a team has to be equal parts skill and roughness, because that's what it takes to survive.

Conversely, on offense, during the regular season you will see teams set up beautiful plays and pass up shots to connect with their teammates to create the perfect goal.

In the playoffs, they're doing what you figured they would do all the time, shooting anytime they are open from wherever they are on the ice.

That puck is tiny, and it takes all kinds of crazy deflections and bounces when it's fired on net through a screen of five players at about 100 mph. In the playoffs, sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.

4. The cage. The ultimate X factor in the playoffs is the goalie. The guy could have been garbage all year, but if he gets on a streak, it gets into the other team's head and he becomes an impregnable wall between the pipes.

By the same token, a goalie who was rock solid all year can come completely unglued when the pressure is on (reference Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins in last year's post season).

It is totally unpredictable, but whoever comes up with the Cup is usually riding a hot goal-tender.

5. The basics. Just one more thing, in case it comes up, because it did with me.

I was watching the finals a few years back and my since-departed grandmother was watching with me. In the third period -- oh, remember, they are "periods," because there are three of them. A "quarter" denotes one-fourth, and if you make the mistake of asking a hockey fan how many "quarters" there are in a game, it is embarrassing.

Anyway, after about 60 minutes of hockey was up, my grandmother looked at me and asked "Are they on ice?"

Yes, grandma, yes they are. Probably the most important thing to note. Hockey is played on ice.

Game on.

Ben Fields is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at 304-526-2759 or befields@herald-dispatch.com.



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