Field Hockey vs. Ice Hockey: What’s the difference?

When you say the word hockey what do you think of? Depending on which country you are in, you will probably think of ice hockey or field hockey. If you are in Canada, the U.S., the Scandinavian countries, or Eastern Europe, the word hockey will conjure up images of ice hockey. If you are in warmer areas such as central and southern Europe, Australia, or India, the word hockey will bring up thoughts of field hockey

As a boy from Canada, I have been an avid ice hockey fan from before I can remember. I have loved everything about hockey, but I have never really understood field hockey. What are the similarities and the differences between ice hockey and field hockey? I did some research and here is what I found out.

Ice hockey vs. field hockey: what are the differences? Ice hockey and field hockey both have the same goal to get more goals than your opponents. However, there are key differences in: number of players used, what makes a penalty or foul, structure of the game, stickhandling, size & surface of the playing area, and scoring.

With a simple eye test, we can see that there are similarities between the two games. Both of the hockey games involve hitting something with a stick — a ball in field, and puck in ice — and each team is trying to achieve the same objective: to score more goals than their opponent. However, to reach this goal (so-to-speak), a lot of different things happen in each sport.

The 10 differences that will help you understand field hockey vs. ice hockey

#1: Playing surface

The most obvious difference between the two is that one plays on a field and the other plays on ice. 

The interesting part about this is that both desire a really fast moving surface. 

In ice hockey, players can often complain about bad ice because it makes the puck bouncy or harder to move because of snow build up. Whereas in field hockey, the players prefer a water-based astro turf because the ball can really move quickly versus an astro turf that uses the black pebbles which slow down the movement of the ball. 

#2: Number of players

Ice hockey: A team will put out 6 players: 1 goalie, 2 defensemen and 3 forwards.

Field hockey: a team will put out 11 players: 1 goalie, 3 forwards, 4 midfields and 3 defenders. 

(Note: there are variations on this for field hockey, but this would be a typical formation — whereas in ice hockey the formation is constant unless a penalty has been called)

#3: Structure of the game

Ice hockey: A game is 60 minutes divided into 3 periods of 20 minutes each. The reason ice hockey does not have two halves is due to the maintenance of the ice. To maintain the quality of the ice surface, it needs to be treated at least twice during the game — once at a halftime is not enough. 

Field hockey: A game is usually a 70 minute game that is divided into two 35 minute halves or sometimes it is structured as a 60 minute game that is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes each, with a halftime. 

#4: Scoring

A big difference between the two games is where the player is allowed to score from. 

Ice Hockey: A player can score from anywhere on the ice. It does not matter where the puck was shot, if it goes in it counts. 

Field hockey: A player is only allowed to score if the ball is shot from within the D area. The D area is the semi-circle that is approximately 15 M out at the high point from the goal. If a puck is shot from outside of this area, the goal will not count. 

#5: Offsides in ice hockey, but not field hockey

Ice hockey: There are two large blue lines that help determine if a player is ‘offside’. It is determined that a player has gone offside if he crosses the blue line before the puck crosses it. This rule is used to help take away some of the advantage for the forwards and was first introduced to encourage passing. If a player goes offside, either the whistle will blow and a faceoff will take place, or the offensive players must stop pursuing the puck and allow the defensive team to gain possession. 

Field hockey: There are no offsides. The player is allowed to run around anywhere on the pitch at anytime. This rule does go well with the D scoring area, which has already limited scoring.  

#6: Stick handling

Ice hockey: The player is allowed to stickhandle with the front and back of their stick blade.

Field hockey: The stick is composed of two parts: the front flat side of the stick and the rounded backside. A field hockey player is only allowed to touch the ball with the flat side. 

The field hockey player still stick handles the ball, but the technique is different requiring a turning over of the stick blade with the hands so the frontside of the stick will touch it on both ends, whereas in ice hockey it is much more of a back and forth motion with steady hands. 

Using the rounded side of the paddle in field hockey results in loss of possession of the ball. 

#7: Goalies

In both sports, the goalies have to face extremely hard shots coming at blistering speeds. 

Ice hockey: Goalies will often face a higher volume of shots per game, and roughly stop (on average ) 91.5% of them.

An ice hockey goalie’s padding is larger, there is a smaller net to cover, and the goalie has a larger stick with a distinct paddle at the bottom that aids in stopping pucks.

Field hockey: There will be less attempts to score, partly due to the scoring area being smaller, but on average a save percentage will be about 70%. 

Field hockey padding is slightly smaller, they have a larger net to cover and the goalie uses the same type of stick as the players who are out.

#8: Fouls and Penalties

Here is small list of the differences of what you can and cannot do in each of the sports.

Field HockeyIce Hockey
The ball cannot hit your feet or body, play will be stopped with possession give to opponentThe puck is allowed to hit any part of your body during play, players will actively use their feet during the game
You cannot raise your stick above your waist You can raise your stick above your waist but if it hits an opponent above the neck it is a penalty
No third party: Two players are not allowed to go for the ball against an opponent it must be one-vs-one at all timesThere is no such third party rule, multiple players are allowed to check an opponent
You cannot tackle from behind, you must face your opponent directly or shoulder-to-shoulderYou are allowed to tackle from behind, but must play towards the puck and not hold, hook or trip
Sticks should never touch your opponentsSticks are allowed to touch your opponents, but could be penalized if too aggressive

Fouls and penalties in field hockey

Possession: In field hockey, many fouls will result in the other team gaining possession of the ball. Many of the obstructions above, such as making contact with your stick, will result in the other team getting to take the ball from the spot of the foul.

For more aggressive fouls, the player can receive a penalty, which are divided into three categories with increasing consequences for each type:

Green Card — warning; going off the field for 2 minutes

Yellow Card -— a penalty of 5 minutes or 10 minutes off the field; one player down for the entire duration of the penalty

Red Card — kicked out of the game with no substitution; entire rest of the game

Infractions and Penalties in Ice Hockey

When a player breaks a rule it will be either a non-infraction stoppage of play or a penalty.

Non-infraction stoppage

The two most common non-infraction stoppages are 1) when a player goes offside at the blue line or 2) ices the puck (shoots the puck down the length of the ice); in both cases, the whistle is blown. But, instead of the other team simply getting possession, there is a face-off between the teams to restart the play.


Hockey Penalties are basically divided into three types: Minor, Major and Misconduct

Minor: A player has to leave the ice for two minutes and your team does not get to substitute another player into the game. If the opposition scores while the penalty is on, the penalty automatically ends. This is the most common type of penalty.

Types of minor penalties: Hooking, holding, slashing, tripping, elbowing, charging, highsticking, goaltender interference, and delay of game

Major: This is a five minute penalty, where the player sits in the penalty box with no substitution, that involves many types penalties similar to the minor penalty but in a more violent nature. If the opposing team scores during this penalty the player will still stay in the penalty box until the whole five minutes has been served

Misconduct: This is either for 10 minutes or a game. The team receiving the penalty does get to substitute a player onto the ice and will not be shorthanded

#9: Shooting

Ice Hockey: The puck is allowed to go in the air at anytime and anywhere on the ice. It does not matter if a player is in front of the shot or not, the puck is allowed to be raised in the air. Players get hit in the body with the puck all the time, and in the face from time-to-time.

Field Hockey: The ball cannot go in the air, especially on free hits. This is judged by the discretion of the ref. The exception is a shot on goal, as long as there is not a player in the direct line of the ball and no one is in harm’s way

#10: Ties and overtime

Ice Hockey: In professional ice hockey, games do not end in a tie, but instead go to overtime where there is a five minute overtime followed by a shootout if the game is still tied. The shootout is three penalty shots by each team to see who scores the most, followed by individual shooters if the game is still tied.

In recreational ice hockey, games will still end in ties.

Field Hockey: Games can still end in ties, but the game can have overtimes and penalty shootouts if it is part of tournament play or in the playoffs.

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I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

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