One of the most popular sports in northern countries is the game of ice hockey. Each winter, this sport is played by hundreds of thousands of children and adults in North America and in Europe. Ice hockey is a fast and exciting game that can make winter much more enjoyable. The game of ice hockey is played on a flat surface of ice called a rink. The rink is about 60 metres long, and about 25 or 30 metres wide. At any time, each team has six players on the ice. On their feet the players wear skates, whose thin metal blades allow fast movement along the ice surface. Learning to skate requires time and practice, but many people can skate very quickly and smoothly. In many ways, ice hockey is similar to soccer. However, unlike soccer, there is no large ball used in hockey. Instead, the players use a hard, black, rubber disk, which is called a puck. The players skate around the ice, trying to get the puck. They do not use their hands or feet to control the puck. Instead, they carry long wooden sticks, which are shaped in such a way that it is easy to push the puck along the ice. The players can pass the puck to each other by sliding it across the ice. To score a goal, a hockey player must shoot the puck into the net of the opposing team, but this is a difficult task. The net is less than two metres wide, and it is protected by a player called the goaltender. However, some players can shoot the puck very suddenly and with great power. Sometimes, the sport of ice hockey can be quite rough. Players try to take the puck from their opponents by bumping into them at a high speed. This is called a body check. Players are not allowed to hit each other with their sticks. If a player does this, then that player may be given a penalty by the referee, who enforces the rules of the game. Naturally, the sport of ice hockey is most popular in countries that have cold winters. In addition, many people play hockey in the United States. In previous generations, ice hockey was considered a sport for men and boys only. However, in recent years, women and girls have been playing hockey much more frequently than in the past. Not only do many girls enjoy playing hockey for fun, but now women's hockey is officially a sport at the winter Olympics.