Hockey for the newcomer

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The National Hockey League has returned to play on Aug. 1, and as a citizen of the Pacific Northwest, it is officially time to get invested in the sport. The Seattle Kraken will be a team for the 2021-22 season, giving us the end of this season and the entirety of the 2020-21 season to learn the sport and find out where our allegiances lie.

In hockey, each team plays six people at a time, usually composed of three forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie. Rosters can have up to 23 players with a minimum of 20, two of those having to be goalies.

Hockey bears the closest resemblance to basketball of the other major sports, and not just because the puck is constantly in play until someone scores. Each game starts at center ice in their version of a “jump ball,” a face-off between two players to see who can get the puck to their team first. Various penalties can also end in similar face-off scenarios on either side of the rink.

Hockey is also generally more physical than most sports, and it’s common to see players shoving each other into the walls of the rink, usually called a check. That being said, there are a number of physical infractions in place to keep players as safe as possible in such an environment.

The specifics of the rules can get intricate, with a lot of them seemingly taking inspiration from soccer. These can lead to a stoppage of play, a face-off, or a power play. Power plays are one of the defining attributes of hockey. In short, they are when a player is temporarily suspended from the rink without being replaced, leading to a 6v5 situation. There are a number of strategies to capitalize on such a state, designed to overwhelm the outnumbered team. The difference between a good team and a lesser team is often who can take the best advantage of having more players on the ice, or who is the best at stemming the damage when they’re at a loss.

For people who are taking the new Kraken news and using it as motivation to get into hockey, the NHL is blessing fans with best-of-five qualifying rounds for the 2020 playoffs. Eight teams have byes and don’t have to qualify, while another 16 will face off to see who does. At the time of writing on Aug. 5, the Carolina Hurricanes are the first and only team to win their qualifying match, sweeping the New York Rangers 3-0.

Of course, it’s hard to get into a sport without a team to back, even if you plan on switching to Seattle when they enter the league. Some people have friends they can turn to who will encourage you to root for a team. An old camp counselor of mine gave me a Chicago Blackhawks hat as a kid so I’ve felt closer to them than any other NHL team to date. But for people with no ties to the sport, how do you decide on a team to root for?

If you’re going for the closest team, look no further than the Vancouver Canucks. They finished as the seventh seed in the West and are currently tied 1-1 in their series against the Minnesota Wild.

Maybe you’d like to back a player rather than their team. Far and away the most popular current players are Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The official NHL website however ranked both of them behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The NHL does a series annually to break down the top 50 players as well as top 20 for each position for people who want to take a more in-depth look.

If you prefer to back someone based on their performance, that works too. Maybe you’d prefer an underdog. The Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators finished as the final two in their respective conferences. However, if you’ve watched the Mariners for the last however long, nobody would blame you for wanting to watch a winning team. The Boston Bruins topped the Eastern Conference, while the reigning champion St. Louis Blues lead the West.

If nothing here speaks to you, just try casting your net into the world of hockey, see if a team feels right to watch. Similarly, maybe you dislike a specific team enough to find yourself a fan of their rival. There is no invalid reason to root for a given team, and it’s never been a better time for the Pacific Northwest to get into hockey. Go Kraken!