An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

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Hockey, an original Winter Games sport, has also traditionally been among its most popular. One reason: Unlike most other Winter Olympic sports, it’s played professionally around the world, making it easy to understand by even the most casual fan of the Winter Olympics.

Field of Play

Traditionally, Olympic hockey has been played on an ice rink that’s 4.1 meters (13.5 feet) wider than its modern counterpart in the National Hockey League and most other pro leagues. The larger, 61- by 30-meter (200- by 98.5-foot) rink created a faster and, many would argue, purer form of the game, which made Olympic competitions unique, even after the rules were changed to allow professional hockey players in 1988.

But Vancouver will introduce a twist: an Olympic tournament played on regulation NHL ice. This decision was born of practicality, not hockey philosophy nor, apparently, any attempt to gain a national advantage. The primary hockey facility for the Vancouver Games, Canada Hockey Place, is a preexisting (previously-named-GM Place) modern NHL arena. Retrofitting it to widen the ice by removing some rows of seats would have cost up to $10 million, and Games organizers appealed to the International Ice Hockey Federation, which makes such decisions, to allow NHL-sized ice for the 2010 Games. The group, quietly making a decision that likely won’t draw much public attention until the Games begin, concurred, breaking a long tradition.

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When hockey rounds begin in Vancouver, the sport thus will be that much closer to an NHL all-star tourney, with players shuffled up onto teams of their national origin. It’s a regrettable turn of events if you’re a fan of the more open Olympic hockey of yore. And it’s likely to prompt coaches and national governing bodies to take a second look at how they choose athletes for their teams.

Format, Rules, and Strategy

The Olympic tourney is a round-robin contest made up of twelve teams for men, eight teams for women. They’re split into two groups for an initial round-robin, with each team facing the others in its group once. The teams with the best records advance to a single-elimination “medal round,” with seeding determined by the round-robins.

Games consist of three 20-minute periods. In the medal rounds, in which one team must advance, ties are broken by a 5-minute sudden-death overtime period. In the gold medal game, the extra period is 20 minutes. If the overtime period produces no goal, it goes to a penalty-shot competition — a best-of-five matchup of individual skaters and the opposing team’s goalie. If that still produces no winner, another sudden-death round of shootouts is launched. The game is decided when one team’s shooter scores and the other team’s does not. For better or worse, this white-knuckle “shootout” has loomed large a couple of times already in Olympic competition.

In terms of rules, Olympic hockey is very much like the hockey you’re accustomed to watching. But if you watch hockey only every four years, a refresher course might be in order:

The ice is divided into three zones: each team’s defensive zone, or the area behind its blue line, and the neutral zone, or the space between the two blue lines.

Teams skate six to a side—a goalkeeper, two defensemen, and a front line consisting of a center and two wingers. The players often make shift changes in the neutral zone at mid-ice during play, which explains why you’ll see dozens of players on the ice at any one time—some coming onto the field of play, some exiting. In reality, hockey players usually play only in short bursts—ranging from about 45 seconds to 2 minutes—at a time, swapping off while the puck is at the other end of the ice.

Checking, or physically crunching an opposing player’s body with one’s own, is allowed in the men’s game. It’s not allowed in the women’s game. In general, Olympic hockey tends to be called more closely and thus is not as prone to violence and fights as professional NHL hockey, where a job description for linesmen is to “break up fights.”

Players pass the puck, made of hard rubber, to one another and score by getting the puck past the red line in the goal crease—not necessarily into the mesh net behind it. The puck must completely cross the line to count, meaning that space must exist between the puck and the back of the line. A goal judge flips on a red light behind the glass to the rear of the goal crease to indicate a goal. Players can, and often do, block shots with their bodies by falling onto the ice. Yes, it hurts. They also can knock a flying puck down to the ice with a gloved hand but can’t catch it or move it backward or forward that way.

Penalties, defined as either major or minor, are assessed for tripping, hooking, slashing, and so on, with a player sent to a penalty box to serve his or her time (usually 2 minutes, although sometimes up to 10). In such situations, one team can find itself shorthanded by one, two, or even more players, giving the other team a power play opportunity until the penalty time is served.

Team penalties don’t create penalty time but often result in a change of puck possession. Examples are icing, when a player on his own side of the center line fires the puck down the ice, across the other team’s goal line (the line that runs through the goal crease), and offside, when a player on the attacking team crosses the blue line into the other team’s zone before the puck does, or makes a two-line pass across any two of the three lines near center ice.

These infractions result in a play stoppage and a face-off, or puck drop by an official between two opposing players, who battle to control it. The idea is to stop play and disallow any advantage gained by illegal passing. Note that offsides can be waved off by an official if attacking players acknowledge the mistake and leave the other team’s zone, and that icing isn’t called when a defending team is shooting the puck down the ice in an attempt to “kill a penalty” by intentionally draining time off the clock until the penalized player is let out of the penalty box.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why teams develop defensive penalty-killing schemes and offensive power-play strategies, and why stats on both factors often prove key telling points to the outcome of any game.

Don’t feel bad if you lose track of the puck during a game, especially a televised one (note: high-definition helps immensely!). Hockey is the fastest team sport in the world. Players can skate up to 37 mph (60 kilometers per hour), and the puck can come off a stick on a slap shot at up to 120 mph (193 kilometers per hour).

And don’t be alarmed if one team winds up without a goalkeeper at game’s end. The trailing team often “pulls the goalie” and replaces him or her with another attacker to gain a one-player advantage at the end of a game.

Training and Equipment

Ice hockey combines speed, intense lower body strength, endurance, and lightning-quick reflexes. Most players spend more time on the ice, scrimmaging, than in weight rooms or other training facilities. Common aerobic training, using cycles and treadmills, and strength training also come into play. Equipment is rather bulky, befitting the high-contact sport it’s designed for. Players wear helmets with face masks, shoulder and elbow pads, knee/shin pads, padded gloves, and loose-fitting jerseys and knee-length pants. Skates are molded boots with a blade that’s upturned at the end to facilitate quick turns. Sticks, formerly carved from a single piece of wood, now are made of wood, composites such as Kevlar, aluminum, or some combination thereof. The blade of the stick, up to 14.5 inches (36.8 centimeters) long, can have an inward curve of up to a half inch (1.3 centimeters).

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