BEDFORD, N.Y. — John Davidson pops a tape of a hockey game - the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Philadelphia Flyers - into the VCR at his suburban home. As the frenetic action begins, Mr. Davidson explains what's going on.
I couldn't have a better guide. Davidson, who started skating at age 4 in Calgary, Alberta, spent 10 years in the National Hockey League as a goalie, mostly for the New York Rangers. He is the color analyst for the MSG Network, which broadcasts the Rangers games. He will be providing the game analysis for CBS during the coming Winter Olympics. And he is the author of "Hockey for Dummies" (International Data Group), due in bookstores in October.
In recent years, the NHL has tried to educate the press and the public about how the game is played. It's necessary because hockey is now one of the fastest-growing sports. Over the last three years, the number of children and women playing hockey is up 200 percent.
Davidson admits that hockey presents a challenge for the uninitiated. The action is fast and appears to be chaotic. Unlike football, it hardly stops. Unlike baseball, the players are hard to identify. But Davidson assures me there is a method to watching it.
The first key is to watch the flow of the action. Davidson compares the players to schools of fish. They go where the puck is going - back and forth. At first it appears that there is no particular reason for all this activity. On the VCR, the Penguins seem to be colliding with the Flyers without any rationale.
But Davidson says viewers can quickly make judgments about the two teams. Some teams, for example, are very aggressive. They try to put the other team under pressure in their own zone. This is called "fore checking." The idea is to get the other team to make a mistake. The Penguins and the Flyers use this system.
Other teams are more conservative. They back up to the center of the skating surface - called neutral ice - and wait for the opposition. Davidson compares it to a spider's web. Few teams get past the web so the defense usually gets the puck back. This is called a trapping defense and is employed by teams such as the New Jersey Devils or Detroit Red Wings, last year's champions.
The action really begins to heat up when one of the teams is called for a penalty such as slashing (using the hockey stick like a club) or elbowing (using the elbow to another player's head). One of the teams then goes on a "power play," since it has an extra man advantage.
During a power play, watch who becomes the quarterback - the person who will transport the puck into the other team's zone. Most teams have a talented skater who can get the puck over.
Once the puck is in the other team's zone, the team on the power play tries to outnumber the opposition. It will always have two men working against one. At the same time, Davidson says, it will try to work one of its better players to the front of the net.
The defense against the power play is usually a box - that is, the four players are lined up in an imaginary box shape close to the net. This prevents any close-range shots. The individual elements of the box, however, may shoot out to put more pressure on the other team. "It's kind of like the arms of an octopus," says Davidson.
Davidson advises viewers to ignore the action at some point and focus on the star players. On the VCR, we watch the Flyers' star Eric Lindros.
"How fast is he? How long does it take him to get to full speed from a stop?" At the same time, he says, watch to see what the other team is doing to try to stop this player. "Do they try to knock him off his feet? Grab his stick? Push him from behind?" Pittsburgh is trying all of these methods on Lindros.
During the Olympics, Davidson says it will be possible to listen to the goalies. He says they act like traffic cops, yelling and screaming at their defensemen. The goalie's biggest fear is that he will be screened so he can't see the puck. So he is always trying to get a clear view.
Since players can only go at full speed for about 45 seconds, they change often. But Davidson says it's worthwhile to view these shift changes in terms of strategy. Teams are always looking for mismatches, pitting their stars against lesser players.
"There are a lot of things going on behind the play," says Davidson, removing the videotape. "It's not just chaos out there."