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Cold Shoulder

The passion level amongst die-hard fans of hockey is strong, especially in Tulsa. But why isn’t it as popular in other American markets?

Article
Richard Linihan
Photos
Courtesy
Posted
December 1, 2016

Sometime around 1875, up in Montreal, a few gentlemen got together and tried to adapt a game from England played with sticks and balls. They added a rubberized puck, put the players in skates and for good measure, changed the playing surface to ice. Now, over 140 years later, the Tulsa Oilers are playing that game — hockey — in front of an average of about 6,000 people.

Many Oilers fans will tell you that they love their sport in a way few people love anything.

And with the Oilers starting the 2016-17
season winning nine of their first 11 games, the excitement has turned into an uproar. At least on a local level.

While hockey is considered one of the four major sports in North America, the game struggles to gain the same amount of popularity as football, baseball and basketball outside of Canada. And with more and more youngsters taking up soccer, it’s conceivable that it will ultimately surpass hockey as well.

The NHL has been trying to expand its popularity and has seen some gains, but the game continues to struggle in many of its markets for a variety of reasons — from cost (all that gear isn’t cheap) and skill level to lockouts and weather. Face it; it’s a whole lot easier to grab a basketball and head to the park with friends for a game than trying to find a rink.

And with fewer learning the sport as children, understanding the game can be another barrier to enjoying the spectacle to the fullest.

But John Peterson, the director of broadcasting and media relations for the Oilers, says hockey can be extremely fun for the first-timer or
 the uninitiated.

While hockey may struggle in many markets, the Oilers have always had a strong core fan base.

“All you have to do is want to be entertained,” he says. “Spectators don’t have to know all the rules of the game to enjoy the overall experience of the event, the presentation, the fast-paced, hard- hitting action and the bonding time with family and friends.”

Part of the Oiler’s strategy to build upon the fourth- largest attendance from last year in the mid-level ECHL — which is currently comprised of 27 teams — is to familiarize the fans with the players.

“The players stay and chat with fans who stay after the games,” Peterson says. “And we have meet-and-greets with the fans on some days that aren’t game days. When you get to know the players personally, the game becomes more personal to you, whether you know the rules or not.”

And while hockey may struggle in many markets, the Oilers have always had a strong core fan base. It doesn’t hurt that Tulsa made the playoffs in nine of the first 13 seasons it played in the Central Hockey League with a couple of championships.

“It is a pretty amazing thing that Tulsa has built here,” says Peterson. “Winning does help and that’s where coach Jason Christie comes in. He has been a winner at every level he has coached. He got the Oilers within one point of making the playoffs last year. You can count on one hand how many times he has not taken his team to the playoffs in 20-plus years. The fans like that.”

Now get the puck out of here and have a ball at the next Oilers game.

HOCKEY HELP

Hockey can be confusing to the first-time observer. Understanding the rules will help you identify what's going on in the game and give you a greater appreciation of the sport.

  • The objective of hockey is to score more goals than the other team in a 60-minute time frame. This time is split into three periods of 20 minutes each. There is a break between periods (intermissions), during which the game stops. The teams switch ends before starting again. 

  • During normal play, teams have six players on the ice. There are typically three forwards (primary scorers), two defensemen (tasked with stopping the other team from scoring) and a goalie. 

  • When a player is ready to come off the ice, the game doesn't stop. They can enter the bench area and are replaced by another player. 

  • Time spent on the ice is called a shift. 

  • Typically, the three forward skaters stick together and are called a line. A line change is when players leave the ice and are replaced by new skaters coming on, starting a new shift. 

  • The glass and walls around the ice are called “the boards.” 

  • There are five major lines painted horizontally across the ice including the centerline that divides the surface in half, blue lines and goal lines. 

  • The area between the two blue lines is the neutral zone. The area inside a team’s blue line (closest to its net) is the defensive zone. The area inside the other team's blue line is the attacking or offensive zone. Each line also affects stoppages of play. 

  • When a player receives a penalty, they must sit in the penalty box. This results in a way of punishing a team called a power play. During a power play, the offending team will be short-handed for a distinct amount of time (refer to penalties). If the team on the power plays gets a goal, the power play is over. 

  • Offsides is a rule put in place to prevent a team from waiting near the other team's net for easier goals. When headed into the attacking zone — going past the other team's blue line toward their net — the puck or player with the puck has to go first. If the puck enters the offensive zone after a player is already there, the game is stopped. It is legal for the player controlling the puck to shoot or carry the puck past the blue line before any of his teammates enter. When an offsides occurs, play is stopped and a faceoff occurs in one of the circles in the neutral zone. No penalty occurs. 
  • ‍If a player shoots the puck from behind the centerline all the way down the ice behind the other team's goal line (not in the net though), this is called icing and play is stopped. A faceoff is taken in a circle close to the offending team's net as punishment and play resumes without a penalty.