In a recent ESPN interview, new Predator Matt Duchene said, “Anybody who does get into hockey ends up loving it, and most of the time it becomes their No. 1 sport. The biggest thing is how do we get everyone to that sport? It’s amazing how many Americans I meet who grew up with baseball, basketball, football as their main culture, and then they go to a hockey game, and they’re hooked.”
Matt Duchene was telling my story. I was raised around Sabres fans (God bless them…) and later lived among Penguins fans (God bless me…), but I never actually sat and watched a hockey game. Ever. I was a die hard any-other-sport-but-hockey fan. That all changed in the span of one evening when I attended my first NHL game at Bridgestone Arena.
While hockey is nuanced enough to enrapture seasoned hockey aficionados with player development, trades, statistics, and projections, part of its beauty is how straightforward the sport is for a beginner fan to enjoy. In many ways, hockey sells itself at first exposure. Those of us who already love the sport may just need to extend an invitation to our “pre-hockey” friends. If you know someone who needs a little nudge to embrace the joy of the season, feel free to share with them this Introduction to Hockey in Smashville.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
What to Know: The NHL is made up of 31 teams broken down into two conferences (the Eastern and the Western) and four divisions (the Atlantic and Metropolitan in the East, and the Central and Pacific in the West). At the start of the season, each team can have up to 23 players on the roster, with 20 dressing for each game.
What to look for in Smashville: The Predators are in the Western Conference and Central Division, thus teams we dislike include Minnesota Wild (our opening game opponent), the Colorado Avalanche, the more recently despised Dallas Stars, and don’t even get us started on the Chicago Blackhawks. Because of the NHL’s scheduling and playoff format, most teams’ closest rivals will be the teams in their division, who they play most often during the season and are most likely to meet in the postseason.
Our opening night roster has officially been set. The Preds still have some great options they can call up from their AHL affiliate team, the Milwaukee Admirals, if injury or need arises.
Who’s On First?
(Nobody; this is hockey.)
What to Know: The three main positions in hockey are goaltender, forward, and defender (in many places still called “defenseman”). In simplest terms, the goaltender protects his team’s net from opponent scoring, forwards play more offensively-minded and in general focus on scoring, and defenders play as an added layer of protection near and around their team’s goal. In reality, when three forwards and two defenders are on the ice together, they are all responsible for contributing to offense and defense.
What to Look for in Smashville: Pekka Rinne (#35) is our elder statesman starting goalie, but he will share starts again this year with the younger Finnish phenom, Juuse Saros (#74). Although their seven-inch height difference makes them easy to tell apart, they both stand strong in goal. You will probably see Pekka in goal 65-70% of the time, but when Juuse starts, be sure to holler “YOU SEE” during the first line of the Star-Spangled Banner. [Ed.: This is definitely a thing people do, but there’s some controversy about whether it’s a thing people should do; your mileage may vary.]
Keep your eye on Roman Josi (#59). He is a great example of a defender who generates offense while driving play. If you track Josi when he’s on the ice, you’ll see that he is everywhere all at once. Also enjoy watching our new-kid-on-the-block defender, Dante Fabbro (#57). Fabbro made a smooth adjustment to NHL play last season and was a bright spot in the still-painful first round playoff loss to the Dallas Stars.
Line Pairings, Offsides, and Zone Entries — Oh My!
What to Know: Each team has four lines of three forwards who generally play as a group, coming onto the ice and leaving the ice at roughly the same time. In a best-case scenario, line pairings stay mostly the same game to game, unless there is an injury or the coach believes moving players around may spark something positive on an otherwise struggling line.
An offside violation occurs when a player enters their offensive zone before the puck. Usually an offside is obvious, but many times it can be a matter of millimeters and end up having a measurable impact on a game. Goals scored when a team entered their zone offside are negated when challenged, so it is definitely a call to pay attention for.
There are other kinds of poor zone entry. Even if a play is onside, how that play develops coming into the offensive zone often affects how successful a possession might be. Keep an eye not only on the player bringing the puck into the zone, but how and where the other players enter the zone. Do they draw defenders away from the puck? Are they trailing the play and open for a quick shot down the middle? Good zone entry matters. Bad zone entry really matters.
What to Watch for in Smashville: We in Smashville have had a love affair with the JOFA line—Ryan Johansen (#92), Filip Forsberg (#9 ) and Viktor Arvidsson (#33)—who were three of our top four points scorers last season (Roman Josi, the defender, was third in points).
This season we added Matt Duchene (#95) to our team, and while it looks like we could be singing a JOFA break up song, especially with how well last night’s game went with Forsberg playing with Duchene instead of Johansen and Arvidsson, the prospects for line combinations are intriguing. I would specifically keep an eye on Ryan Johansen (#92) and his linemates. Johansen’s skill passing and shooting—when he decides to shoot—can captivate the most novice hockey viewer.
The “P” Words - Penalties and the Power Play
What to Know: Despite hockey’s rough and tumble reputation, there are a number of things you are not allowed to do during a game. When a team commits a penalty, the offending player heads to the penalty box and the opposing team gets to play up a man on a power play for a set amount of time. I could list all the infractions, but it wouldn’t come close to being as entertaining as Snoop Dog explaining penalties.
When a team is playing down a man because of a penalty, they are focused on preventing a goal and using up as much time keeping the puck out of the offensive zone as possible. This is called penalty killing.
What to Watch for in Smashville: Last season, the Predators were DEAD LAST in scoring on power plays. It felt like opposing players went to the penalty box to get an stress-free rest for a few minutes while the Preds did almost nothing. It was excruciating. With new assistant coach Dan Lambert’s fresh eyes on the Preds’ power play, keep yours out for quick shots off the face off, faster puck movement, and hopefully a better power-play scoring percentage.
Nashville ranked sixth last season in successful penalty kills. Keep your eye on Rinne (or Saros) in goal during penalty kills — they are both skilled at keeping the puck out of the net under duress. Also, yell “They still suck!” after Paul, the arena announcer, informs us that the opposing team is on a power play.
I’m Just a Little Stitious.
What to Know: Hockey is a notoriously superstitious sport. Many players have their own committed quirks before and during a game. Playoff beards are an example of a playoff superstition and, sadly, not a good look for everyone in the league.
What to Watch for in Smashville: As far as beards go, sit back and admire the ginger gloriousness of defenseman Ryan Ellis’ (#4) beard.
Look out for flying catfish. Come playoff time, it is tradition for a catfish to be tossed out on the ice. Sure, it’s gross, but also oddly motivating.
We also use the word “suck” a lot. After every opposing player’s name is announced during pre-game, yell “sucks!” and after their coach is announced yell, “He sucks too!”. Pay close attention to the opposing goalie’s name during pre-game. He will be personally blamed every time we score a goal against him. (“It’s all your fault!”)
Fully commit to the superstitious joy of the sport—find your lucky socks, don’t wash the jersey you wore during an overtime win, always eat the same breakfast on game days. Be willing to do whatever it takes.
If you haven’t yet given hockey in Smashville a chance, take Matt Duchene’s advice and give this team an evening. You don’t have to know everything about hockey to appreciate the sport, and you will be welcomed in Smashville with open arms. After all, can the city of the bachelorette-infested pedal taverns really squawk about bandwagons? I think not. Trust me—there’s a seat for you in Smashville.