Ice hockey is played on a rectangular rink with curved corners whose length may vary from 184 to 200 ft (56-61 m), its width from 85 to 98 ft (26-30 m). Six players—a goalie, a center, two defensemen, and two forwards—all of whom are on ice skates, make up a team. The rink is surrounded on all sides by walls 31/2 to 4 ft (1.06-1.22 m) high. The goal mouths are 4 ft (1.22 m) high and 6 ft (1.83 m) wide and are set 10 ft (3.05 m) out from each end of the rink, which is divided by colored lines in the ice into three zones (attacking, neutral, and defending) that are each 60 ft (18.29 m) long. A puck, once made of rubber but now of composite material, 1 in. (2.54 cm) thick and 3 in. (7.62 cm) in diameter, and frozen to reduce resiliency, is the object used in play. The weight, size, and shape of the sticks used to hit the puck are standardized. After a face-off (the dropping of the puck between two opposing players by an official), the team in possession of the puck seeks to maneuver it past the other team and into its net. Each goal counts one point. The game is divided into three 20-min periods; overtime periods in case of ties are used in certain professional games. In this fast and body-bruising sport, players use heavy protective equipment, and there is unlimited substitution. A player detected by the referee in roughing, tripping, high-sticking, or other violations must spend two minutes (a minor penalty) or more (major penalties) off the ice in the penalty box, and his team must continue play shorthanded. Linesmen, goal judges, a timekeeper, and a scorer also officiate.
The modern game originated in Canada in the 1800s, and the first modern indoor hockey game was played in Montreal in 1875. By the 1890s it had become extremely popular and had spread to the United States. Since 1917 the National Hockey League (NHL), with teams in both countries, has been the primary professional association. The rival World Hockey Association (WHA), launched in 1972, ceased operation in 1979; several of its 12 teams gained entry to the NHL. The NHL's current 30 teams play in two conferences, the Eastern and Western, each with three divisions. Though most NHL players have always been Canadian, an increasing number of players from the United States and Europe have appeared since the 1980s. Teams vie for the Stanley Cup—originally donated to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (1893) by Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley—the NHL's championship trophy and the symbol of world professional supremacy. In recent years the NHL has been marked by contentious labor relations, leading to a strike in 1992 and lockouts in 1994-95 and 2004-5, the last so prolonged as to cancel the season.
The NHL long regarded itself as the world's elite, but the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet Union in international amateur play in the 1960s led to a dramatic 1972 summit series between Team Canada (Canadian NHL players) and the Soviet national team. With their reputation on the line, the NHL stars narrowly won the series 4-3-1. Two years later the Soviets crushed a WHA All-Star team. In 1976-91 six of the world's major hockey powers competed in the periodic Canada Cup, a tournament the NHL and its player association organized. The Canadians won four times (1976, 1984, 1987, 1991) and the Soviets once (1981). The first World Cup, an eight-team expansion introduced in 1996, was won by the United States. The International Ice Hockey Federation (founded 1908) is the governing body for Olympic competition (begun in 1920) and world tournaments held annually since 1930 (but no longer contested in Olympic years). From the early 1960s through 1990 the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia dominated both. Although Canada has an elaborate system of amateur hockey leagues, the country has not excelled in international amateur hockey since the early 1950s, mainly because the best Canadian players quickly turn professional. The distinction between amateur and professional, however, is disappearing. In 1998 professionals played in the Olympics for the first time, as did women. Hockey at U.S. colleges has also been gaining in popularity; the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, held since 1948, are now widely followed.
See Stan and Shirley Fischler, Everybody's Hockey Book (1983).