Ice hockey: facing off for international supremacy

Alexander Bushroe
Although the sport is more popular in countries with colder climates than others, it captures the attention of audiences around the world with its fast-paced, hard-hitting action.
Alexander Bushroe

Of all the sports on display at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games this year, ice hockey is very likely the most international. Of course, the sport is more popular in countries with colder climates than others, but it captures the attention of audiences around the world with its fast-paced, hard-hitting action.

In the iciest of countries, like Canada, Russia, the Scandinavian nations, children grow up near icy ponds and lakes, learning to skate with great skill from a very young age. As they become more comfortable with the techniques and tactics involved with sliding across the ice, they inevitably seek more in terms of entertainment.

Just as much as ball-based sports evolve on unfrozen surfaces over the years, ice-borne youth seek to expand upon the entertainment that skating provides. Many of them fall in love with the sport of ice hockey.

In this game, players skate across the ice fighting for possession of the puck, a block of rubber flat on two sides that skids across the playing surface. On ice, things move more quickly than on grass, so the skills involved are more related to precision and nuance. Slight alterations in the angle of a skate or a ski can affect the outcome of a race to the finish line or to a loose puck on a fast break.

The sport transcends borders. Obviously, it originated in countries in which frozen surfaces are naturally available. In those places it's a part of the natural progression and development of young athletes as well as a tradition dating back centuries for young people to quench their thirst for exercise, entertainment and competitiveness.

Ice hockey: facing off for international supremacy

Players from China (white) and Germany fight for the puck during men's ice hockey group match in Beijing 2022 on February 12. China lost 2:3.

In hockey, five players on each side compete for possession of the puck in an attempt to place it past the opponent's goaltender and into the net. The action is often frantic; a back-and-forth battle to coordinate attack and defense in order to come out on top. The rules aren't overly complicated, but using one's stick in a violent manner, using the stick to restrict the movement of an opposing player, and, of course, fighting, are prohibited.

The sport does, however, carry a reputation as one in which fighting is acceptable or "legal." The truth is that fighting, in hockey, is explicitly illegal, but, as opposed to most other sports, the penalty is not a multiple-match ban, but just a five-minute stint in the penalty box for each offender, after which they are eligible to return to the ice and continue playing.

It's quite a far cry from football, where an accidental cleat to the toe often sends a player rolling across the pitch like a tumbleweed, mouth agape in faux astonishment and gesticulating toward the referee as though the offending opponent had just slapped their sister.

In hockey, players sometimes come to blows to settle scores. And once said score is settled, the matter is generally finished. The ethos of revenge in hockey differs from that in most other sporting events.

In this year's Olympic Games, the international ice hockey tournament is full of intrigue. Unfortunately, the US-and-Canada-based NHL, or National Hockey League, has declined to allow its contracted players to participate in the Beijing 2022 due to internal and international COVID-19 concerns.

Because this league is home to many of the greatest and most talented players in the world, from those two countries and otherwise, this news has left me quite disappointed. However, younger stars from the countries in question and from other leagues in different nations around the world have accepted the invitation to participate in the Games, so the Beijing 2022 ice hockey championship is surely not short on international talent.

Here's looking forward to the action, and may the goals be plenty!

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