Beginner’s Guide To Ice Hockey Rules

There’s no way we can cover all the ice hockey rules in one page.

If you are serious about playing this game, you should definitely pick up a current rule book and get to know it very well. Keep it in your hockey bag too. You never know when you’ll have to prove to a friend that you are right about a rule!

But for now, we want to give you enough to get you started having some fun on the ice.

Playing Surface

Ice Hockey is played on a large sheet of, yep, you guessed it…ice.

Diagram of a regulation size ice hockey rink with dimensions and layout
So maybe this diagram of rink dimensions is pretty complex, but now you know ALL the dimensions!

The size of the rink can vary depending on where in the world you are and even from rink to rink locally. In North America, most rinks are pretty close to the National Hockey League regulation size of 200 feet x 85 feet. The “International” size rinks are wider at almost 100 feet. This usually leads to more offense because the players have more space to move around with the puck and create plays.

The most important markings on the ice are the red line, the blue lines, the goal line, and the face off dots. If you know what all these do, you’ll be well ahead of most beginners.

The red line is in the center of the ice and it divides the playing surface in half. The blue lines are each 25 feet from the center red line. The area in the middle between the blue lines (which is 50 feet wide) is called the neutral zone. Now all the way down by the goals at each end, 64 feet from the blue lines, are the goal lines. The area between the blue line and the end boards is the attacking zone for the team trying to score on that side of the ice and called the defensive zone for the team defending. The goal lines run the width of the ice and the part of the goal line that is between the crossbars of the net is what the puck has to cross to be considered a goal.

Face off

At the beginning of each period of play and after a goal the face-off will be at the center ice circle. The other face off circles are used at various times in the game for a number of different reasons.

There are 9 total face-off dots. There are 2 in each attacking zone, 2 in each side of the neutral zone, and one at center ice. As you can see above, only five of them have larger circles around them. The circles indicate where the other players can be positioned during the face off. They have to stay outside the circle until the puck is dropped. For the two dots that do not have circles around them, the officials ensure that the players are not getting too close before the puck is dropped.

When taking the face-off, the two players face each other and place their sticks on the ice. Typically, the player from the visiting team places his stick on the ground first, followed by the player from the home team. This is a slight advantage for the home team as it allows the home player to see where the other player is placing his stick. After both sticks are on the ice, the linesman drops the puck.

If either player lifts their stick off the ice before the puck is dropped, then the linesman will blow the whistle to stop play, typically warn the player that did so, and redo the face-off. If it happens again, the player may be kicked out of the face-off and another player from their team will have to take the face-off. This is not a penalty though, so the player remains on the ice.

Game Length

A typical ice hockey game lasts 60 minutes (unless there is overtime). The game is divided into three 20 minute segments called periods. At beginner and some recreational levels the game clock may be running the entire time but typically there are frequent stoppages in play. These can occur for a number of reasons, including the puck being shot out of the playing area, a penalty, a goal, an offsides, or an icing to name just a few. Some leagues and tournaments may modify these rules but this is how it works most of the time and what you will be used to if you watch NHL games.

If one team has more goals than the other at the end of the 60 minute “regulation time” then they win.

Overtime

If they are tied, then the game may go to overtime, depending on the league rules. It seems like just about every league at various levels from recreational leagues to the NHL have their own overtime rules. There has been a trend recently to make modifications to decrease the likelihood of a tie happening. In the NHL the overtime is played with only 3 skaters on the ice per team for 5 minutes. Playing 3-on-3 hockey like this greatly increases the chances that someone will score, which is what the league wants.

Shootout

Many leagues have implemented a shootout in the event that there is still a tie after the overtime period. The NHL has implemented a shootout at the end of the 60 minute regulation time and the 5 minute overtime. They use a three round overtime. Each team selects 3 players that will have a chance to skate from center ice and make a shot attempt on the goalie without any defenders. If both teams have scored the same amount of goals after three rounds, then they go one round at a time until one team has scored and the other hasn’t in a given round.

ice hockey player with puck skates towards the goalie during a shootout
A shootout can be a lot of fun to watch but very nerve racking to participate in.

Players

There are a maximum of 6 players allowed on the ice for a team at any one time. It could be less than that when there is a penalty, but we’ll get to that later. Those 6 players typically consist of 5 skaters and one goalie. Hockey is a fast paced game and the players are skating hard for most of their time on the ice. For this reason the players switch out frequently during a game. The time that a player is on the ice is typically referred to as a “shift.”

Players can switch out during stoppages in play or “on the fly” while the play is going on. You have to be careful when switching players on the fly as you can get caught giving the other team an advantage if the new players don’t get into the play quickly enough or you could be called for a penalty if you have more than 6 players on the ice at any given time. The officials usually allow a little leeway with this to give a player time to hop over the boards, but if the puck comes their way, they can’t play it if they are trying to get off the ice.

A team may elect to pull their goalie out and have another skater to try and push to score a goal. This has a low percentage chance of success and is typically only used at the end of the game when a team needs one or more goals to try and tie the game.

Scoring

Scoring in ice hockey is pretty simple at first. When the puck completely crosses the goal line, its a goal. No three point shots, no extra points to kick…just goals. Of course getting the puck across that line can be very difficult.

As for the size of the goal itself, the opening of the goal is 72 inches (180 cm) wide by 48 inches (120 cm) tall, base of the goal is 40 inches (110 cm) deep. This is according to NHL rules but it has become pretty standardized across all ice hockey rinks around the world.

Offsides

Offsides is simply when the player crosses the blue line into the offensive zone before the puck has entered the zone. When this happens the referee stops play and there is a face-off on the dot just outside of the offensive zone that the team with the puck was trying to enter. As a result of the offsides, the team that had the puck in their possession now may lose it in the face-off.

Icing

Icing is one of those rules that all hockey players and fans know but anyone who doesn’t know the game have no idea what it is.

An icing is when a player shoots the puck from their defensive side of the red line towards the other team’s goal and it goes across the goal line (and not into the goal) without anyone else from his team touching it before it crosses the goal line. Sometimes you will hear someone say they “iced” the puck. That usually means they got called for icing.

There is an exception though. When a team is shorthanded because of a penalty, they cannot be called for icing.

For our full explanation of the Icing Rules and the recent changes in the NHL . . . CLICK HERE

Penalties

If you are playing in any kind of organized league, it is extremely important to know all the penalties and what you can and cannot get away with. Playing hard and pushing the rules right to the limit can help win a game but a careless penalty can certainly lose a game.

There are a number of penalties for doing things that are unsafe for other players such as slashing, hooking, tripping, high sticking, spearing and fighting. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory. Sometimes they happen in the heat of a game or when someone is trying to lift up another players stick with their stick and miss (which is legal if all you do is lift the stick), but you should never intentionally commit any of these penalties. You could hurt someone and hockey is about playing hard, not hurting other players.

Other penalties such as holding, obstruction, or delay of game are intended to prevent things that slow down the game and make it less fun and exciting.

There are also more technical type penalties. Some of these include too many players on the ice and having non-regulation equipment. There are a lot of these type of rules and they tend to vary depending on the league. Make sure you know the rules in the league in which you are playing. Getting called for one of these avoidable penalties at the wrong time can really hurt your team.

Fighting

Many people that don’t really know the game think that fighting is a big part of ice hockey. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ice hockey is about skill, speed, strength, and strategy. There is a reason why there aren’t very many “fighters” in the NHL anymore and the most popular and well paid players are the ones with the attributes I just mentioned. In most leagues, you can be suspended or even kicked out of the league for fighting. Intentionally punching someone is also assault whether you are on or off the ice. So play hard, but play hockey. If you want to fight, put on some boxing gloves and learn that sport.

The Officials

The number of officials on the ice may vary depending on the level of hockey being played. At lower and recreational levels, there may only be one official on the ice to call all the penalties, offsides, icings, drop the puck for face-offs, and call goals. Their job is to be fair and call the game as they see it. It’s not always an easy job. Usually talking to the officials during the game to ask for clarifications and being generally polite to them works a lot more in your favor than yelling at them. That being said, if we told you that none of us here ever yelled at a ref, we’d be lying!

There are two main types of officials in an ice hockey game. At higher levels there may also be some off-ice officials, but for now let’s focus on the two main ones.

Referee

The referee (or “ref” for short) is generally in charge of officiating the game.

The NHL recently changed to using two referees in each game.

Linesman

The linesman’s responsibility is to call offsides, icings, and to drop the puck for faceoffs. They can also stop play when there is an injury or some other reason as to why it would be dangerous for play to continue. They cannot call penalties, however, they may consult with the referee after a play and the referee may call a penalty based on that information. This can happen, for example, when a linesman sees a player injured by a high stick and stops play. He can consult with the referee and the ref may call a penalty based on that high stick, even if the referee did not see it themselves.

Don’t Stop Learning The Rules of Ice Hockey

This is by no means all of the rules of ice hockey, but it should be enough to get you started. As you get better, knowing the rules becomes more and more important.

We suggest getting to know the rules that are specific to whatever league you are playing in or want to play in. If you are looking for a deep dive into NHL rules, you can read all of them in the NHL Rule Book.


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