6 ways hockey rules and play have changed over the years

Hockey has changed a lot over the years. If you were to go back in time to the start of the NHL in 1917 it would almost be unrecognizable. There are a few things that are similar, but many, many differences.

How have the hockey rules changed over the years? From the beginning of the NHL in 1917 until now the rules have changed substantially. Areas that have changed include numbers of players on the ice, forward passing, the lines on the ice, overtime, and the rules for goalies .

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Let’s look at each of these areas and see how the rules and the game has changed since it started over a hundred years ago.

1) Number of players on the ice and style of play

Quick, how many players are on the ice for a team during regulation play? 6, which includes 5 players and a goalie, right? Well, it is now, but it has not always been this way.

When hockey started to come into its own in the early 1900s players played with 7 players aside – 6 players and a goalie. 

The way hockey was played was quite different then what you would recognize today. Players would play most of the game – usually over 50 minutes a game. And the game was much more about stickhandling, as only backpasses were allowed (we will get into this in a second). 

Passing was considered lazy and players were praised who could stickhandle through the whole team. 

The positional play was also quite different as the players would start in groups and wouldn’t shift off in forward lines and defensive pairings. Much of early hockey also had a rover still position when they played 6-on-6.

As hockey evolved over the early 1900s many forward looking people would try to make tweaks to the game, for the most part, to increase scoring in the game.

One of the most notable ways that scoring was increased was through forward passing.

2) Forward passing

When the NHL first started (and beforehand) hockey did not allow forward passing. I know that is weird to read and imagine a game of hockey with no forward passing.  Only passing backwards towards your own goal was allowed.

The game was all about stickhandling and the best players were the ones who were speedsters who could deke through the opposition and score singlehandedly. Passing was considered lazy by observers who pushed for the skilled deking in the game. 

Forward passing would eventually get into the NHL, which it brought in slowly, but the NHL rival PCHA would introduce forward passing into their hockey league. The PCHA would often play the NHL for the right to be Stanley Cup champion.

The PCHA was much more willing to experiment with rule changes and added forward passing in long before the NHL. Although, the NHA/NHL would have to play by with these rules in some of the games in the Stanley Cup finals. 

In 1918 the NHL would put in the blue lines, which created the three zones that you see today – defensive, neutral and offensive. The NHL allowed passing in the neutral zone. 

The NHL would make another change in forward passing in 1928-29 when it allowed forward passing in the defensive zone and into the attacking zone. 

The next season passing would be permitted inside all three zones, giving the feel to the game we have today.

What did forward passing do for the game of hockey? It more than doubled the number of goals in the NHL during the first year instituted. 

3) Goalie cannot go down on the ice; and other fun goalie rules

Another rule that is hard to imagine is that in the inaugural NHL year goalies could not fall to the ice to make a save. What? That’s right they had to stay on their feet the whole time and would be penalized if the referee thought they were falling to their knees to make a save. 

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Again, the PCHA was an early adopter of allowing the goalie to go down on the ice to make a save. The NHL would quickly adopt this new rule by their second season.

Goalies were not permitted to pass the puck the first few years of the NHL either. It was not until the 1921-22 season that goalies were allowed this privilege. 

And, the NHL has always being trying to tweak the size of goalie equipment. They are always trying to make it smaller to make sure that goal scoring stays up.

4) Addition of blue and red lines

In 1917 when the NHL started the only lines you would have seen are the two goal lines with a faceoff dot in the middle of the ice. 

It was not until the 1918-19 season that the NHL added the blue lines. As the forward passing rules developed so did the use and purpose of the blue lines. 

On Dec 21, 1929 the rules for the blue line were changed to the following, “no attacking player may precede the play when entering the opposite defensive zone.” This is the start of the offside rule as we know it today. 

In the 1937-38 season the NHL introduced rules to govern icing. However, the red line at center ice was not introduced until the 1943-44 season. As you may know the center red line is the marker a player must be over to shoot the puck to the other end without being called for icing. 

This introduction of the red line is considered the beginning of the modern NHL era. This was also when they introduced the two-line pass. A player could not pass from behind their own defensive blue line to a player who had already passed the red line. 

The elimination of the two-line pass was taken out after the lockout in 2005. It has immediately opened up a number of more breakaway chances, and helped increase the amount of speed in the game, because players are not ‘held up’ by waiting for the puck to have to cross their own blue line. 

The lines have stayed the same until the trapezoid was introduced after the lockout in 2005. I’ll touch on this a bit more in the lockout rules. 

5) Overtime changes and the shootout

The overtime rules have changed fairly significantly over the years. 

1917 – For the first fours years of the NHLs existence there were no ties. Instead, every game – even regular season would be decided in overtime. These overtime periods were for an unlimited time and would end when someone scored. 

In 1921-22 the NHL limited overtime to 20 minutes and the first ties in the NHL were introduced. 

The 20 minute overtime period would last until 1927-28 when the NHL would reduced the overtime period to 10 minutes.

In 1942-43 the NHL removed overtime altogether from the schedule and any game that was tied at the end of regulation would remain that way and be counted in the standings as a tie. This change of the game was due to World War II and the wartime restriction on train scheduling. Overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs would remain. 

The NHL would maintain their no overtime stance for four decades. An upstart revival league called the World Hockey Association in the 1970s implemented a 10-minute overtime period, but the NHL still did not follow suit. 

The NHL finally put overtime back in the game for the 1983-84 season that would introduce a five minute overtime period where teams would continue to skate 5-on-5. The play was sudden death, but if nobody scored after the five minutes of play then the game would still end in a tie. 

1999-2000 was the next major change for overtime when the NHL moved from a 5-on-5 overtime to a  4-on-4.  This was not the only significant change as the NHL also introduced the loser point.  

In previous overtimes, if a team lost in overtime they would get zero points in the standings and it was simply considered a loss; they would get one point for a tie. 

When the NHL switched to 4-on-4 they thought it was unfair to give zero points to a team who lost in overtime while playing 4-on-4 because it was not under ‘normal’ conditions they lost. The move to 4-on-4 was to increase scoring, but they did not want to penazlie teams to harshly who lost in overtime, and they wanted to create conditions where teams would attack in the overtime.

Therefore, since this time any team who losses in overtime is awarded a point. This changes the game in regulation because if the game is tied with a few minutes to go you often see teams play more conservatively because they know if they can hold out until overtime they will get a point. If both teams are doing this, then goals during the last 5 minutes of a tied game become more rare. 

2005-06 – After the lockout was over the NHL was intent on adding more scoring and excitement to the game. One of the innovations was the shootout. 

The NHL wanted to have a winner at the end of every game, and eliminate the tie game. So the NHL would continue to play a 4-on-4 overtime after regulation ended in a tie. However, if the game was still tied after overtime the game would be decided by a shootout. (click here to learn more about overtime and the shootout). 

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The loser in either overtime or the shootout will receive one point in the standings, whereas the winner will get the standard two points. 

2015-16 -The latest change to overtime is that overtime is now played 3-on-3. The NHL found that too many of the games in overtime were heading to a shootout, and they wanted to limit this. 

What was the best way to do it? Put less players on the ice. With less players on the ice the game will be more wide open and result in more scoring chances. 

So far it has worked and more games are being decided before the shootout is reached.  

6) Post-lockout rules

During the NHL lockout of 2004-05 the NHL set up several committees to look at tweaking play with the end goal of introducing, again, more scoring.

The late 90s and early 2000s are best characterized by the term, ‘The Dead Puck Era’. The play was best described as been defensive with a lack of scoring, obstruction, and slow play. 

The NHL introduced a number of rules to help turn the tide back towards the scoring days of the 1980s. 

Here are a list of the changes they made, and the how it would lead to more scoring 

  • Martin Brodeur Rule (trapezoid) – the goalie is not allowed to play the puck in the corner of the end boards and can only play it in the trapezoid behind the net. It was called the Martin Brodeur rule because Brodeur was so good at handling the puck that he acted like a third defensemen and teams would find it extremely difficult to establish a forecheck in the offensive zone.
    • Analysis: this gave the offensive team a better chance at being able to setup play in the offensive zone, and generate more scoring chances. Overall, it has worked but it does add some confusion to the game for new fans – more lines; more confusion. 
  • Icing Modification – a team that ices the puck is not permitted to make substitutions and must keep their current players on the ice. 
    • Analysis – this is basically allowing the player who were attacking to put fresh players on so it becomes a fresh set of players versus tired players. The rule did the trick and made it so players did not ice the puck as much to relieve pressure when they are under attack
  • Size of goaltender equipment reduced – the goaltender equipment definitely got too big. Look at some pictures of goaltender equipment from the 1980s to the 1990s. (Look at the size of Garth Snow’s pads below: massive) Huge differences. There has been increased scrutiny on this and attempts to reduce the sizes even further. I would like to see this trend continue. Players used to be able to score from slapshots from far out, but this is no longer the case – it is too hard to find open net to shoot at. I wish most games were 5-4 or 4-3. 
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  • Increase scrutiny of stick infractions – not new, but enforced. The NHL officials would let so many things go that were actually infractions in the rule book. For example, the NHL actually started to call penalties on players who would use their stick to slow down other players skating. Players would ‘water ski’ behind other players by hooking onto them with their stick and slowing them down. This and other calling other stick infractions have been a net positive for the game.


With all of the rule changes over the years the NHL has put itself in a good position. The game is as fast and exciting as ever.

We do know that more rule changes will be made in the future. I think the next major rule change will be the elimination of fighting as all of the evidence around head injuries makes it untenable for it to be in the game.

Other changes will usually be around helping to increase scoring. It has always been the way.

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