THANKS TO THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE'S successful efforts to bring expansion teams to states like Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas, ice hockey has been liberated from its historically regional appeal and is reaching critical mass, with Sun Belt citizens discovering what northerners and Canadians have always known: Hockey combines the athleticism and camaraderie of your favorite team sport with the pure thrill of skiing or surfing. Hockey's two-for-one rush has helped it become one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. The National Sporting Goods Association counted 2.4 million players in 2004, up 25 percent from the previous year. And it's not just regional boundaries being broken: More than 300,000 female players contributed to the growth. The buzz has created new opportunities for experienced stickmen and novices alike, and now you can catch the wave too, whether that means playing pond hockey in New York's Central Park or taking beginner classes at the San Diego Ice Arena.
Hockey blends strength and endurance, explosive speed, agility, grace, and, in no small measure, high-octane adrenaline. "Hockey players are doing everything that other athletes do and more, but we're doing it on ice," says Mike Bracko, the director of Calgary's Institute for Hockey Research, a faculty member with the American College of Sports Medicine, and, at 48, a thrice-weekly player in an amateur adult league. "We've got to be able to avoid body contact like basketball and football players, and we've got to be able to handle this puck with our stickswhile we're moving on eight-inch steel blades. Hockey uses every single muscle in the body, without exception."
In particular, your calf muscles get a workout as you glide, stride, and balance on those knife-edge skates, while your quads and glutes are called on to generate skating power. Your upper body and core muscles are crucial to passing, shooting, and fending off opponents. Though the sport is strenuous, skating is easy on the joints, so it's not uncommon to see players logging serious ice time into their sixties and seventies. (Hockey legend Gordie Howe played his last professional game at 51.) And since everything happens in a speeding blur, your hand-eye coordination improves. All of which translates into better performance in other pursuits, from mountain biking to snowboarding.
As cardiovascular exercise, hockey is a great interval workout: Sprint, recover, sprint. "You're on the ice from 45 to 90 seconds, working your butt off, and then you come off for a rest," says Bracko, who estimates that the average 195-pound hockey player burns about 1,050 calories in a 90-minute game. At that rate you could down three bottles of Molson Golden postgame and you'd still be losing weight.
And don't let terrifying memories of the movie Slap Shot give you the wrong idea: Nearly every amateur league prohibits body checking. As for skating, you don't even need prior experience. Greg Walentas, a 38-year-old from Keystone, Colorado, picked up a stick for the first time when he was 30 and says he progressed rapidly through the ranks. "In two years I went from not being able to do a hockey stop to playing on a men's A team against former college players," he says.
Need further convincing that hockey is worth a spin? On the pages ahead, we've gathered everything you need to get started, from finding a team to essential gear and training tips to skating alfresco at one of our favorite frozen ponds.