Ice hockey in North America
Hockey is the official winter sport of Canada, and few Canadian youngsters reach age 5 without strapping on a pair of skates. Canada lives and breathes hockey, and no country produces more top-level players.
Hockey, ice hockey and field hockey
In North America, "hockey" on its own always refers to the game played on ice. The term "ice hockey" is never used.
Elsewhere "hockey" means the game played on grass or artificial turf, which North Americans would call "field hockey". This is a common game for schoolgirls in the UK, and an important professional sport in India and Pakistan, and it also enjoys some popularity in most other parts of the former British Empire and in continental Europe.
But hockey's popularity has spread beyond Canada. In the United States, hockey is still a bit of a niche sport — less popular than baseball, basketball or football — but many US-based teams (see below for a list) have plenty of passionate supporters, and even the sun belt has professional teams. The Los Angeles Kings were the first team based in southern parts of the US to make it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993; they lost that time but since then they have won the cup twice and several other southern teams have won it as well.
Hockey is also popular in parts of Europe (particularly the North and former socialist countries such as Slovakia or Russia), and even some tropical and subtropical countries have teams. But North America is where all the best players go to play. If you're visiting Canada or the United States, heading to the local rink to see a hockey game makes for an exciting diversion.
Hockey evolved from a number of different stick-and-ball games, most obviously field hockey. Modern hockey began in Montreal in the 1870s, where the use of a hard, disc-shaped puck, rather than a ball, became standard. The game's premier trophy, the Stanley Cup, was first awarded in 1893, so there's a lot of history involved. Unlike other trophies in major sports, the Stanley Cup predates the National Hockey League (NHL), and during the 2004 lockout there was debate of whether the NHL should retain the right to award it to its champion by default.
The game is played on a rectangular ice surface with rounded corners. The surface is divided by lines painted underneath the ice: a red one at the center, two blue lines marking the defensive zones, and red goal lines near each end. On each goal line is a 6-foot-wide (1.8 m) netted goal. The main offside rule is that the puck must cross the defenders' blue line ahead of any attacking player; you cannot just have a man waiting by the goal for a pass. Another rule forbids "icing", firing the puck from behind the center line into the goal area. However, icing is not enforced against a team that is short-handed due to a penalty (except in youth hockey in the U.S.).
Play consists of attempting to propel the puck, via stick, into the net. Each team is allowed six players on the ice at any given time; these usually comprise three forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender. The forwards and defensemen are collectively called skaters. (The word "men" is always used in hockey, even if women are playing.) The goaltender has extra padding and different equipment to allow easier puck-stopping, but in exchange he or she is restricted in where and how he or she may play the puck. The goaltender may be pulled for an extra forward or defenseman, but at the risk of leaving the goal undefended.
Play begins with a faceoff, in which a referee drops the puck on the ice and one player from each team attempts to secure control of the puck. Play continues until a goal is scored, a period ends, or an infraction occurs. Minor infractions result in a faceoff at a disadvantageous position for the offending team. More serious infractions are called penalties, and result in the offending player being sent to the penalty box (unless the penalized player is the goaltender, in which case one of the skaters on the ice at that time is required to serve the penalty). The penalized player's team is not allowed to replace that player on the ice, and so the penalized team is said to be short-handed, while the team with the man-advantage is said to be on the power play. "Minor" penalties last for 2 minutes, or until the advantaged team scores a goal, whichever comes first; "major" penalties last for 5 minutes, no matter how many goals are scored. If a violation results in the loss of a clear scoring opportunity, the team that is fouled is awarded a penalty shot, in which a player is given a chance to score one-on-one against the goaltender. Unlike penalty shots in association football (soccer), handball, water polo or field hockey, where the shot is taken from a specific spot, in ice hockey, the player is allowed to skate with the puck before taking the penalty shot (in fact, once the puck has been touched, it must continue to be moved forward until the shot is taken).
A 60-minute game is divided into three 20-minute periods. During the between-period intermissions, the ice is resurfaced, and the fans visit the concessions and the restrooms. A brief sudden-death overtime period may be played if the score is tied after three periods; some leagues then go to a shootout if the score is still tied, while others allow a tie to stand. Many leagues that use overtime play that period with a reduced number of skaters. (In overtime periods with a reduced number of skaters, penalties are handled differently than in regulation—the offender still goes to the penalty box, but can be replaced on the ice, while the non-offending team gets an extra skater.) In playoff hockey, which requires a winner to be declared, full 20-minute sudden-death overtime periods are played, with intermissions and with teams at full strength (unless affected by penalties), until a goal is scored.
In hockey, players may be substituted at any time; due to the intensity of play, each shift usually only lasts between 45 and 90 seconds. Players, particularly at the most advanced levels, are encouraged to be very physical on the ice, using their bodies to block opponents' movements and shots. The act of restraining or disrupting the puck-carrier is known as a check; this usually refers to a body check, but can also include various types of stick checks. Body checking is a penalty in women's ice hockey and in youth hockey, but in adult men's hockey it's allowed and considered a key skill.
The intense physicality of hockey has resulted in a long tradition of fighting as part of the game. At the professional level, fighting is seen as integral to ensuring proper discipline and respect from one's opponents. Players who are perceived as engaging in "cheap shots" against opponents can expect to be challenged to a fight—often by the opposing team's enforcer, their most skilled fighter. Some players will also "drop the gloves" in order to energize their teammates, if they feel effort has been lacking. Although fighting is penalized, even in the professional leagues, its judicious and sparing use is widely encouraged. Many fans are disappointed if an entire game is played without at least one fight, and hockey broadcasters often call them like boxing matches. Fighting in college hockey is not as widely accepted and will be strongly penalized, but still gets fans excited. There are both fans and critics of the sport who see fighting critically and the sometimes gratuitous nature of fights is mocked with the quip "I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out".
NHL vs. international rules
There are differences between North American rules (the NHL and all the lesser leagues) and international rules (the Olympics and nearly all other international competition). International-standard rinks are 200 feet (61 m) long and 100 feet (30.5 m) wide, while North American professional rinks are only 85 feet (26 m) wide. Perhaps most important, NHL rules allow body checks anywhere while international rules prohibit them in the central area between the two blue lines. This tends to make international games somewhat faster and NHL games somewhat rougher, though either can still be quite fast and quite rough.
Fights can occur in any league, but are less strictly penalized in the NHL than elsewhere. Simply participating in a fight gets a player kicked out for the rest of the game in most leagues, but only draws a 5-minute major penalty in the NHL. However, the NHL does now have rule that the "third man" into a fight and the first player to leave the bench to join a fight are ejected for the rest of the game, plus a rule that fines the coach if players leave the bench to join a fight. In the mid-20th century fights happened rather often and brawls involving many players, or even entire teams, were moderately common, but have become much less frequent since the 1980s.
National Hockey League
The National Hockey League is the world's top ice hockey league, both in player talent and in revenue. The best players from around the world aim to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup. There are 32 NHL teams in 31 cities (29 metropolitan areas) in the U.S. and Canada. Each team plays in its own arena; apart from one arena in temporary use that seats barely over 5,000, capacities range from 15,000 to 21,000 fans.
Ticket prices vary widely. Since many teams sell out their arenas well in advance, you'll usually be going to the secondary market to buy tickets from season-ticket holders who can't attend a particular game (which is very common). That means there's no set minimum or maximum; you'll pay what the market for that team and that date will bear. In practice, you'll pay around $50 for a middling seat at a less popular arena, or several hundred dollars for a good seat in a popular arena. Or anything in between.
The NHL season runs from October into April, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs going through May and into June.
Many arenas have been built in lively neighborhoods with lots of bars and restaurants catering to fans, but other rinks sit isolated in a sea of parking lots. Many arenas, particularly the newer or the more famous ones, are open for tours on off-game days; see the individual city articles for further details.
Almost every rink has an organ, huge pipe organs in older ones and electronic organs in some newer ones. These play national anthems, team theme songs and sometimes other music. When the officials (a referee and two linesmen) skate onto the ice, the traditional organ tune is "Three Blind Mice".
The NHL is an old league, but its modern history begins in 1942, when the pressures of war reduced the membership to just six teams. The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs are referred to as the "Original Six", as they were the only teams in the NHL between 1942 and the 1967 expansion. The league has expanded further several times since 1967 but even today, the Original Six are legendary, and games between them are often considered instant classics.
Canada has always been a major force in hockey; before the 1967 expansion only one player in the NHL was American and all the others were Canadian. Now there are many Americans and many Europeans in the league, but still lots of Canadian players. While the "national" in National Hockey League originally referred to the nation of Canada, Canadian teams have had a title drought since 1993, although Montreal did make it to the finals in 2021. Several teams struggle to even make the playoffs, to the never ending chagrin of hockey-mad Canada.
The NHL realigned prior to the 2013–14 season; it is divided into two conferences, Western and Eastern, each with two mostly-geographic divisions. For this page's purposes, teams are grouped by geographic region without regard for divisional alignments.
- Montreal Canadiens – Bell Centre — Montreal, Quebec (in Downtown Montreal). The "Habs", as they're fondly known, have won the Stanley Cup more times than any other team—and their fans never let you forget it.
- Ottawa Senators – Canadian Tire Centre — Ottawa, Ontario.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – Scotiabank Arena — Toronto, Ontario (in the Entertainment District). They have struggled on the ice since their last Cup win 1967 to the point where the storied Leafs have become a punchline for jokes by other teams' fans. Their tickets are still the most in-demand in the league... with prices to match. Toronto is the centre of the ice hockey universe, and if their team ever again hoists the Cup, the celebration would be among the greatest the world has ever seen.
- Winnipeg Jets – Canada Life Centre — Winnipeg, Manitoba. 16 years after the original Jets left for Phoenix, Winnipeg once again has an NHL team.
- Calgary Flames – Scotiabank Saddledome — Calgary, Alberta (in City Centre).
- Edmonton Oilers – Rogers Place — Edmonton, Alberta (in Downtown Edmonton).
- Vancouver Canucks – Rogers Arena — Vancouver, British Columbia (in False Creek).
New England and Mid-Atlantic
- Boston Bruins – TD Garden — Boston, Massachusetts (in the North End).
- New York Islanders – UBS Arena — Elmont, New York (in Nassau County on Long Island, just outside Queens). Playing in the newest permanent arena in the NHL (as opposed to the Arizona Coyotes' temporary home), located next door to the Belmont Park horse track.
- New York Rangers – Madison Square Garden — New York City, New York (in the Theater District). Madison Square Garden might be the most famous hockey arena in the world, and is certainly one of the oldest in the NHL... though the current MSG is actually the fourth to bear the name, and the second to have hosted the Rangers. Also, while MSG's outside structure is relatively old (the arena having opened in 1968), the interior was so heavily renovated in the first part of the 2010s that it's actually one of the newer ones in the league.
- Buffalo Sabres – KeyBank Center — Buffalo, New York (in Downtown Buffalo).
- New Jersey Devils – Prudential Center — Newark, New Jersey.
- Philadelphia Flyers – Wells Fargo Center — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (in South Philly).
- Pittsburgh Penguins – PPG Paints Arena — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (in Downtown Pittsburgh). One of the most successful franchises in the 2010s, the Penguins are home to Sidney Crosby, considered one of the two best hockey players of today.
- Washington Capitals – Capital One Arena — Washington, D.C. (in Penn Quarter). Alex Ovechkin, one of the best active players in hockey, plays here; the rivalry between Ovechkin and Crosby has become intense, with the Penguins and Capitals often meeting in important postseason matchups.
- Carolina Hurricanes – PNC Arena — Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Nashville Predators – Bridgestone Arena — Nashville, Tennessee. Hockey is not the first thing that usually comes to mind when discussing Nashville, but the Predators have amassed winning seasons and a rabid fanbase in a region not traditionally known for hockey prowess.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – Amalie Arena — Tampa, Florida. Back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 2020 and 2021, but missed out on a three-peat by losing the 2022 final to the Colorado Avalanche.
- Florida Panthers – FLA Live Arena — Sunrise, Florida (a suburb of Fort Lauderdale).
- Dallas Stars – American Airlines Center — Dallas, Texas (in Downtown Dallas).
- St. Louis Blues – Enterprise Center — St. Louis, Missouri. Won their first title in 2019.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Nationwide Arena — Columbus, Ohio (in Downtown Columbus).
- Detroit Red Wings – Little Caesars Arena — Detroit, Michigan (in Midtown Detroit).
- Chicago Blackhawks – United Center — Chicago, Illinois (on the Near West Side).
- Minnesota Wild – Xcel Energy Center — Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Western United States
- Colorado Avalanche – Ball Arena — Denver, Colorado. Reigning Stanley Cup champions.
- Arizona Coyotes – Mullett Arena — Tempe, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix). After 19 seasons in another Phoenix suburb, Glendale, the team moved to Tempe after the 2021–22 season. It planned to open a new arena in that city, but city voters overwhelmingly turned down the team's proposal for a publicly funded arena, leaving the team's future in Arizona in serious doubt. For now, the Coyotes are playing in an arena on the Arizona State University campus that was built mainly for ASU's men's hockey team. It's the smallest arena to be used in the modern NHL by a very wide margin, holding barely over 5,000.
- Anaheim Ducks – Honda Center — Anaheim, California (a suburb of Los Angeles).
- Los Angeles Kings – Crypto.com Arena — Los Angeles, California (in Downtown L.A.). The Kings had frequent appearances in the playoffs in the 2010s.
- San Jose Sharks – SAP Center at San Jose — San Jose, California.
- Seattle Kraken – Climate Pledge Arena — Seattle, Washington (in Seattle Center, just to the northwest of downtown). The NHL's newest team, which started play in the 2021-22 NHL season. Their home arena, originally built for the 1962 World's Fair, retains its original exterior (which is historically listed), but its interior was gutted and completely rebuilt for the Kraken.
- Vegas Golden Knights – T-Mobile Arena — Las Vegas, Nevada (on the Las Vegas Strip, south of the Las Vegas city limits). The Cinderella story to end all Cinderella stories, the Knights made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in their debut season (2017-18), and made the playoffs in each of the next three seasons.
Minor professional leagues
Compared to baseball, hockey's minor league system is much less rigidly structured. Affiliations, particularly below the AHL level, are more volatile, and some minor league teams recruit and pay their own players to supplement the prospects and veterans supplied by their parent teams. NHL teams exert much less control over their affiliates than Major League Baseball teams do.
In addition, most NHLers start their professional careers at the AHL level, and the majority of the rest actually start out in the NHL. In baseball, nearly all players work their way up from the rookie leagues to single A, double A, and triple A before reaching the big leagues; in hockey, though, college hockey and junior hockey serve to develop players before they enter the pro ranks.
In addition to the leagues below, NHL teams also recruit from European leagues such as the Kontinental Hockey League (an international league with most teams playing in Russia and other former Soviet or Eastern bloc countries).
American Hockey League
The American Hockey League is the top-level minor league in North America, and the best way for players to showcase their talents to NHL scouts. Most AHL players are under contract to an NHL team and available to be called up to that team when a need arises. Although rosters are not directly controlled by parent teams, the AHL does limit the number of veterans allowed on a team, to make sure that the league retains its focus on developing future NHL players.
AHL cities comprise a broad swath of mid-size and larger cities in southern Canada, the northern U.S., the eastern seaboard, California, and even a few in the southern Plains. The Chicago Wolves, Manitoba Moose, San Jose Barracuda, and Toronto Marlies even share their cities with NHL teams; three of these teams (all but the Wolves) have the same ownership as their city's NHL team. AHL arenas vary widely in size, age, and quality. The Barracuda and Moose play in their parent clubs' arenas, with the Moose playing in the NHL's smallest permanent arena. A couple of other AHL arenas are larger than the smallest NHL arenas, while still others house as few as 5,000 spectators. Most are in the 10 to 15,000 range. Ticket prices are significantly cheaper than NHL tickets, and much easier to get; few AHL teams sell out their venues except during special events. You can expect to pay at least $12 for the seats farthest from the ice, up to $50 (or more) for the best seats in the house, but both ends of the spectrum can vary widely depending on the venue.
The league underwent a major realignment for the 2015–16 season. Five teams moved to California to be closer to their parent clubs, and two Canadian teams moved. Most of the American cities with teams that moved now have ECHL teams to replace them. After the 2015–16 season, another team moved from Massachusetts to Arizona after being purchased by the Arizona Coyotes. Another recent significant change to the league was the elevation of the Colorado Eagles from the ECHL to the AHL for the 2018–19 season. The AHL expanded to 32 teams in 2022–23; the Seattle Kraken (which started play in 2021) placed its top affiliate in the Palm Springs, California area.
Teams and locations are current for the ongoing 2022–23 season.
- Abbotsford Canucks, Belleville Senators, Laval Rocket (near Montreal), Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg), Toronto Marlies
- The South
- Charlotte Checkers, Texas Stars (Cedar Park)
- Chicago Wolves (Rosemont), Cleveland Monsters, Grand Rapids Griffins, Iowa Wild (Des Moines), Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford IceHogs
- New England
- Bridgeport Islanders, Hartford Wolf Pack, Providence Bruins, Springfield Thunderbirds
- Bakersfield Condors, Coachella Valley Firebirds (Palm Desert), Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Stockton Heat
- Inland West
- Colorado Eagles (Loveland), Henderson Silver Knights (also plays some games in west Las Vegas), Tucson Roadrunners
Formerly the East Coast Hockey League, the ECHL is markedly less stable in membership than the AHL. It has 27 teams, but that number changes frequently, as multiple teams fold or join the league every year. For example, in 2014, the ECHL absorbed the Central Hockey League's seven teams, and when the AHL expanded into California in 2015, that state's three ECHL teams moved to cities that the AHL left behind. While each team in the ECHL maintains affiliation agreements with one or more NHL teams, meaning at least some of their players are under contract to an NHL organization, it's relatively rare for an ECHL player to make it to the NHL; legitimate prospects almost always start in the AHL. The ECHL is mostly used as a source of replacement players for the AHL to compensate for call-ups.
ECHL teams can be found across the country, thanks to mergers with older leagues. ECHL cities tend to be fairly small, though there are a couple of large cities (like Orlando and Cincinnati) with teams. Before the absorption of the CHL in 2014, only one ECHL team had ever been located in Canada; there are now teams in Brampton, Ontario, and St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Other minor leagues
Other North American professional leagues are the Southern Professional Hockey League (Southeastern U.S.), Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (Quebec), and the Federal Hockey League (Northeastern U.S.). Teams in these leagues are independent and have no affiliation with the NHL; their players have virtually no chance of making it to a higher-level league, and they're basically just playing to have fun and earn a little bit of money.
The level of play in any of these leagues may not match up even to the college game, but they still attract their share of fans. LNAH in particular is well known for its fighting, so if that's an aspect of the game that appeals to you, it could be worth checking out a game.
On the women's side, the only current professional league is the Premier Hockey Federation, which started play in the 2015–16 season as the National Women's Hockey League and adopted its current name in 2021. The current 2022–23 season features seven teams, with five in the U.S. and two in Canada. Through the 2018–19 season, there was a second top-tier women's league in the form of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which operated mainly in Canada but also had teams in the U.S. and China. However, the CWHL folded immediately after the 2018–19 season. The NWHL announced that it would add teams in Montreal and Toronto for its 2019–20 season, and also announced a sponsorship deal with the NHL, but the expansion plan fell through; a Toronto team was eventually added in 2020–21, with the Montreal team following in 2022–23. The PHF has paid players from its start, but has never been in a financial position to pay full-time salaries, meaning that essentially all players have to work outside jobs to support themselves. However, PHF players include most of the best women's players in North America, including a large number of Olympians, so the level of play is world-class... even if the fan support and ticket prices don't reflect it.
Junior ice hockey
There is an extensive system of junior hockey, particularly in Canada, for players between ages 16 and 20. Players feed into the system from minor hockey (a.k.a. youth hockey) depending on skill level and development. Junior hockey teams are in leagues that cover wide geographic areas, and the teams recruit players from well beyond their own backyards; many players leave home before their secondary education is complete to play on a junior team.
The highest level of junior hockey is major junior, overseen by the Canadian Hockey League. (Most major junior teams are in Canada, but a few are based in the U.S.) Despite the youth of the players, these teams attract followings comparable to American college basketball teams. Attending a game live is usually entertaining -- the skill level is still fairly high, the tickets and concessions are much cheaper than an NHL game while the arenas are smaller so you can get much closer to the ice. About two-thirds of NHL players played major junior hockey.
Because the CHL offers its players stipends for living expenses, the NCAA (the American governing body for collegiate athletics) considers the CHL to be a professional league; any player who plays so much as an exhibition with CHL players forfeits his NCAA eligibility. As a result, many Americans (and Canadians wishing to play NCAA hockey) go to other junior leagues like the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) or the United States Hockey League (USHL). These leagues are considered "Junior A" instead of major junior; Junior B and Junior C leagues also exist, and they feed into lower levels of college hockey.
A popular annual event is the World U20 Championship, also known as World Juniors Championships, showcasing the world's top under-20 talent. They are held near the end of December and finishes in early January.
Intercollegiate athletics is another outlet for young hockey players to compete and get noticed by professional teams. There are several separate systems in North America, and each interacts slightly differently with the junior leagues and professional leagues.
NCAA Division I
In the U.S., the top level of intercollegiate competition is known as "Division I" and is operated by the NCAA. Most Division II teams also compete at the Division I level, as there is no Division II national championship. In the 2022–23 season, 61 colleges and universities field teams at the Division I level, and 42 field women's teams at what the NCAA calls the "National Collegiate" level (de facto equivalent to Division I). Schools at this level are found almost exclusively in the Midwest and the Northeast. The "outliers", none of which has a women's team, are three schools on the Colorado Front Range, two schools in Alaska, and one in Arizona. Some of the schools are big-name state schools with high-profile football programs and extensive networks of alumni boosters; others are Division II colleges that most Americans have never heard of; and a few are even Division III institutions fielding Division I hockey teams as their signature sport.
The most recent entries to D-I hockey began (or resumed) play at that level in 2022–23:
- Alaska–Anchorage, which had dropped men's hockey due to COVID-19 impacts, resumed play.
- Lindenwood, located in the St. Louis exurb of St. Charles, Missouri, upgraded one of its two club-level men's teams to D-I status, coinciding with the move of its entire athletic program from D-II to D-I. (Its women's team already played at the National Collegiate level.)
- Stonehill, located in the Boston exurb of Easton, Massachusetts, which had previously played men's hockey under D-II rules, upgraded its team to D-I while moving its entire athletic program to D-I. At the same time, it added a National Collegiate women's team.
Three other schools are adding D-I men's or National Collegiate women's teams in 2023:
- Assumption, a D-II school in Worcester, Massachusetts, will add a National Collegiate women's team.
- Augustana, a D-II school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (not to be confused with the D-III school of that name in Illinois), will add a D-I men's team.
- Robert Morris, a Pittsburgh-area D-I school that dropped men's and women's hockey due to COVID-19 impacts, will reinstate both teams.
The NCAA considers major junior hockey players to be professionals, due to the stipends they receive. Since intercollegiate competition is for amateurs, players who've played major junior hockey cannot play college hockey in the U.S. Colleges thus draw from the lower-tier junior leagues like the BCHL and the USHL.
In men's hockey, the more prominent institutions tend to recruit younger players, with freshmen being around age 18 (as is normal for American college students); these players may otherwise have opted to play major juniors, but chose college hockey to make sure they have a good education to go along with their hockey skills... or just to get a different kind of exposure to pro recruits. These are the players most likely to be drafted into the NHL, and as a result often turn pro before graduation. The less prominent men's hockey teams draw from older players, with freshmen around age 20 or 21; they have less raw talent but more maturity than the younger recruits, which allows them to compete on the college level on a fairly even basis. These players are unlikely to draw as much attention from NHL teams, as they are past draft age, but those who show a lot of potential may sign as free agents, and many others go on to play professional hockey in the minor leagues or in Europe.
Women's hockey players tend to be recruited the same as they are for most other sports, right out of high school or prep school. With no opportunity to play junior hockey, almost all of the best North American women end up playing in NCAA Division I, and the Canadian and American national teams are drawn almost entirely from the ranks of collegians and former collegians. Post-college opportunities are extremely limited; only the best players will have a chance to sign with one of the very few professional women's teams in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, and only a handful of players have ever made it onto a men's minor league roster.
NCAA Division II
The NCAA doesn't operate hockey at this level. Men's teams may play up into Division I leagues (they're no longer allowed to play down into Division III leagues), while on the women's side D-I and D-II teams are considered to be at the same level and compete for the same championship. The distinction between the two genders is largely irrelevant in practice.
One Division II league does operate a conference men's ice hockey championship for its member schools who play, but it's not sanctioned or recognized by the NCAA.
NCAA Division III
Division III hockey is limited to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, but each of those regions (except Pennsylvania) has a strong network of schools with intense rivalries among them. The level of play may be a step below Division I, and few of these players will ever play professionally, but a Division III hockey game can still be an exciting and intense match.
The NJCAA operates ice hockey for junior and community colleges in the United States.
There is a surprisingly advanced network of "club hockey" (that is, non-varsity hockey) in the U.S. Even schools that have varsity hockey teams may have club teams that are nearly as well respected and followed. Some club teams draw thousands of fans to each game, despite limited support from their institutions. The network of club hockey teams extends into nearly every state, even non-traditional regions like California and the South. It's also unusually popular in Pennsylvania, which has only five men's varsity teams but dozens of club teams. Every so often, a club team will move to the varsity level; the most recent team to make such a move is the Lindenwood men, representing a school in the St. Louis area that moved from D-II to D-I in 2022. It upgraded one of its two men's club teams to varsity status when it made its D-I move.
U Sports hockey
U Sports (which used to be known as CIS) operates ice hockey competition at the university level in Canada for both men and women, just as its American counterpart does. (As an aside: Unlike the U.S., Canada draws a sharp distinction between "university" and "college", with bachelor's and postgraduate degrees being offered exclusively by universities.) But due to the influence and popularity of major junior hockey in Canada, and the well established programs in the United States, competition is generally at a lower level than American collegiate ice hockey. The best teams can sometimes be competitive with the lowest tier of NCAA Division I teams, but in general the level of play is on par with Division III. U Sports is attractive to former major junior players who don't make it to the professional leagues, as they are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, and the CHL offers scholarships to U Sports schools to its players.
The Winter Olympics is the premier international tournament in ice hockey, with many classic matches produced over the years. Perhaps the most famous was the victory the United States scored against the Soviet Union in the 1980 semifinals, dubbed the "Miracle on Ice", in which the highly feted Soviet team of full-time state-sponsored "amateurs" was upset by the U.S. team consisting entirely of college players, hence losing out on a chance for the gold medal, which the U.S. team won with another upset over Finland in the finals. With the ban on professional players since lifted, top NHL players competed for their countries at the Olympics from 1998-2014, resulting in classic matches such as the final between the U.S. and Canada in the 2010 edition. After sitting out of the 2018 games due to a dispute with the international governing body, the NHL had announced that its players would return to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026, but COVID-19 led to the NHL pulling out of the 2022 Games.
Canada has been the dominant team in international men's ice hockey, with a total of 9 gold medals to its name in the men's tournament at the Olympics, though the Soviet Union went through a period of dominance from the end of World War II to its breakup, mostly because of the aforementioned amateur loophole.
Women's ice hockey was only added to the Olympic program in 1998. The USA won the gold medal in the first Olympic tournament; Canada won the next four (2002–2014), the USA won in 2018, and Canada won the most recent edition in 2022. The World Championships are held annually, with multiple levels of championships. The top-level championship has been an annual event since 1997, but from that time through 2021, it was not held in Winter Olympic years, and the scheduled 2020 edition was a COVID-19 casualty. The reigning champion is Canada. The only times that the final in either the Olympics or World Championship was not a Canada–USA matchup were the 2006 Olympics (Canada–Sweden) and 2019 Worlds (USA–Finland).
Museums and other attractions
- The singular hockey mecca, the place every true fan should visit someday, is the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHoF) in Toronto's Financial District. It is home to the original and replica Stanley Cups, and serves as a shrine to the sport's greatest players.
- The United States Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minnesota (in the Iron Range, north of Duluth), is less well known, as it focuses only on American hockey. American hockey fans might also enjoy visiting Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, which is where the Brooks-coached U.S. national team defeated the USSR and then won the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics. This was an astonishing feat insofar as back then the NHL players were not allowed to play for the U.S. and the Soviets had their best "state amateurs" on the ice, who played at the highest domestic level (comparable or even superior in talent to the U.S.)
- 1 Original Hockey Hall of Fame, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, ☏ +1 613 507-1943, [email protected]. Founded in 1943, the oldest sports hall of fame in Canada. The NHL withdrew support in 1958 in favour of a Toronto hockey museum. The collection of hockey memorabilia goes back to a square puck used in the first organized game in Kingston in 1886.
- Birthplace NHA/NHL Museum, Renfrew, Ontario, Canada (near Ottawa), ☏ +1 343-361-0202, [email protected]. The Birthplace NHA/NHL Museum showcases hockey history from Renfrew County, including the fact that M.J. O’Brien and his son Ambrose started the National Hockey Association (NHA) from Renfrew in 1909. The NHA was renamed the National Hockey League in 1917. The museum features pictures and artifacts showcasing the early days of hockey in the NHA and NHL especially as it was represented in Renfrew County.
The Stanley Cup playoffs and final take place each year in a variety of cities at different times. There is no pre-scheduled capstone event like the Super Bowl or the UEFA Champions League Final. The Cup may be awarded on any given night in June in any one of 30 cities, which makes it hard to plan for. However, there are other ways to do hockey travel.
The NHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition is scheduled for a different city each year in January or February. The next edition will be on February 3, 2024 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
The NHL hosts a number of outdoor games in larger stadiums as special events. The dates for these are announced in the summer, several months before they happen.
The Men's World Championships are held in Europe, typically, not North America, but feature top talent from the NHL. This is a chance to combine elite hockey with a European style of travel. With the 2023 edition in Tampere, Finland and Riga, Latvia ending shortly, the next edition will be from 10–26 May 2024 in the Czech Republic, with Prague and Ostrava as host cities. In actuality, the whole tournament is broken into tiers, and only the top 16 nations attend the championship tournament, with lower-ranked nations playing in other locations across the world.
The Men's Junior (U-21) World Championships have become a major tournament as well, rotating between Europe and North America and always held during the Christmas holidays. The next edition in 2024 will be held from 26 December 2023–5 January 2024 at two arenas in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The Women's World Championships are most often held in North America, with scheduling following a three-year cycle of two championships in North America and one in Europe. The next edition will be held from 4–14 April 2024 in Utica, New York.
The Olympic Games also feature ice hockey; after a dispute between the NHL and the international governing body led the NHL to ban its players from the 2018 Games, the league has since announced it would release its players for the 2022 and 2026 Games. Whether the NHL allows its players time off from their clubs to play is an open question, generally depends on the terms of the collective bargaining agreement signed between the club owners and the players, with nearly all club owners objecting to their participation, but most players wanting to participate. The men's and women's tournaments went on in Beijing, but the NHL ended up pulling out of the Olympics due to COVID-19 issues.