We’re going to a Predators ice hockey game down at Bridgestone Arena, and I find myself in the awkward position of not really understanding the game. I mean, I do get that the point of the game is to score more goals than the opposing team. But the last time I attended a game, I felt that I would have had more fun if I’d actually understood what was going on, instead of focusing my attention on the Kiss Cam.
Back in the day, when the only ice skating in Nashville was at the Municipal Auditorium, the Dixie Flyers did their best to represent our town in the semi-professional Eastern Hockey League. Though we were an ice skating family, neither I, nor anyone I knew, ever attended a Dixie Flyers hockey game.
Fast forward to 1998, when the Nashville Predators debuted as a bona fide NHL franchise. I read somewhere that Delbert McClintock played “Hockey Tonk” at that first game. Although the early years of the expansion team were marked by low game attendance and unimpressive win statistics, the Predators have improved dramatically, and fan attendance is generally good, even on weeknights.
The Predators’ mascot, Gnash, is a saber-toothed tiger – selected because the remains of one of these ice-aged predators were discovered by a downtown Nashville construction crew in the early 1970s….and then, as the legend goes, when construction began for what is now Bridgestone Arena in 1994, a baby saber toothed tiger was found intact, encased in a block of ice that had been left undisturbed for millions of years. The ice block was placed on the arena floor to thaw, and when folks came back to check on the baby saber-tooth, it had disappeared – only to reappear when it heard the roar of its pack, the Predators’ fans. (Part of that story is probably not true.)
Okay, so let’s cover the basics of the game. A hockey game is comprised of three 20-minute periods of playing time, with an intermission of about 15 minutes between each period. During play, the most recognizable and stable position on the ice is the goalie, whose job it is to keep the puck out of his goal area. Counting the goalie, there are usually six players per team on the ice, each with a zone assignment. It can be difficult to keep up with which players are playing “defense” and which are playing “offense,” but if you watch closely, you’ll see that substitutions frequently occur as the puck changes possession from one team to another (giving you a clue as to which players are better at offense or defense).
If an player on offense gets “offsides” by arriving in the goal area of the opposing team before the puck arrives, or if a player commits “icing” by sending the puck past both the red center line and the opposing team’s goal line (but not into the goal), this can result in a “face off” which is kind of like a jump ball in basketball – one player from each team stands in a circle, the referee drops the puck between them, and they each try to send that puck to one of their players standing outside the circle.
If a player gets too rough, or uses his hockey stick the wrong way, he will get sent to the penalty box for either two or five minutes (depending on how serious the penalty was). That will leave his team with just five players on the ice, which is known as a Power Play for the other team. When a team is short-handed due to a penalized player, they are also not allowed to make substitutions despite fending off intense offense – as a result, the players may be tired by the end of the Power Play, and this is often when goals occur. (Teams that are short-handed can commit “icing” without consequence, however.)
If, at the end of the third period, the score is tied, an overtime period of five minutes will be played. If no goals are scored during the overtime period, the teams will alternate turns at a “shootout.”
I’ve left a lot of details and nuances out of the above, but I hope this will help the average Nashvillian grasp what’s happening on the ice, so as better to appreciate this fast and athletic game. We’re at the beginning of hockey season, and the Predators have already established a winning record. So come on down to Smashville (aka Bridgestone Arena) and roar for the Preds!