Understanding high-sticking in hockey: when it is a penalty or stoppage of play

One of the most common calls you will see in hockey is high-sticking. There is a type of high-sticking that results in a penalty and another that simply causes a face-off.

What is high-sticking in hockey? The term high-sticking is used for two different infractions in hockey: (1) A penalty where a player makes contact with his stick on an opponent above the shoulders; (2) Touching the puck with your stick when it is above your shoulders, which can result in a stoppage of play. 

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Now that we have our definition out of the way we should note that there is a fair bit of nuance in these calls and it helps in watching the game to have a full understanding. 

Let’s look at both types of high-sticking starting with the penalty infraction before moving onto the non-penalty version. 


When is high-sticking a penalty? 


High-sticking that causes a penalty – a 2 minute minor penalty – is when a player makes contact with his stick to an opponent’s head. 

Now, this can instantly strike a picture of violence with a player swinging a stick at another player’s head, but that is not the picture you should have in your mind. 

In hockey, it is deemed that a player should always be in control of their stick. However, in the fast play of hockey they do lose control of their stick and will often unintentionally hit another player in the head with their stick. 

For instance, a player will try to lift another player’s stick. This means that you try and put your stick under their stick to lift it off the ice so they, for example, can’t receive a pass or make a shot.This is one of the most common things a player does in a defensive posture.

As a player goes to lift another player’s stick they will often miss that stick and will inadvertently come up and hit the player in the face. They were not intending to do this, but it has been determined that a player must be in control of their stick – so a penalty it is!

There are a lot of examples when a player inadvertently hits another player in the head with their stick:

  • When they are trying to skate around them they will lift their stick up too high and clip the opponent
  • When they are finishing a hit into the boards they stick will come up too high 
  • When they are battling with an opponent their stick may come up and hit a different opponent that is close by (unlucky but they must be in control of their stick)
  • When they turn around quickly or suddenly it is easy to lift your stick up high, and sometimes they hit another player

All of these are examples of players being careless with their sticks and, although not intentional, they will receive penalties for the play. 

Remember: a player is always responsible for their stick, and it should never touch an opponent in the head. 


When is high-sticking a double-minor?


High-sticking is an automatic double-minor (4 minutes) when the high-sticking infraction draws the blood of their opponent

After a player is high-sticked you will always see the ref go and look at the player to see if that player is bleeding, and if they are it will be called at least a double minor, which is 4 minutes in penalties. 

As well, you will also see the player take their glove off and touch their mouth area after a high-stick. 

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They are not doing this because it hurts, which it does. What they are doing is seeing (hoping) there is some blood. 

They know that if there is any blood then the penalty will go from a 2 minute penalty to a 4 minute penalty. 


When is high-sticking a major penalty? 


A major penalty is a 5 minute penalty, and there are 5 minute major high-sticking penalties. 

What moves it from a 2 or 4 minute penalty to a 5 minute one? Intent. 

The 2 or 4 minute penalties are of the nature of carelessness – you shouldn’t have done that, but we know that you were not trying to inflict any damage. 

A 5 minute high-sticking major would be called for extreme carelessness or if it is deemed that a player intentionally hit another player in the head with their stick

This is the violent image of a player actually swinging their stick at another player’s head. They most likely wouldn’t do this with full force, which would result in a very long suspension. 

However, if there was an egregious play were they ref thought a player deliberately targeted an opponents head with their stick this would definitely be called a major penalty and they would also likely get a game misconduct and be thrown out of the game. 


Is it high-sticking on a follow-through?


When a player takes a shot their stick will often come up quite high on the follow through (the time after they puck is released from their stick).

A player will not be penalized if their stick hits an opponent in the head from the follow through of their shot. 

At this point it is not deemed that the player taking the shot is not responsible for their stick, but that the player who has chosen to try and block the shot has put themselves into a position where they could willingly be hit. 

A dominant strategy in the NHL is to block shots. You can block shots by standing in front of the stick or going down on the ice. The player taking the shot has no responsibility over someone who is trying to come and block the shot – they are putting themselves in a position where they can get hit by the puck – or a stick. 

If you closely watch players taking shots it actually doesn’t happen very often where a follow-through hits an opposing player. 


What to watch for with high-sticking?


The easiest way to tell if a player is high-sticked is to watch their head. Seems obvious, right?

What I mean is that when a player gets high-sticked his head will snap back right away. This is the easiest way to know if there was an actual penalty on the play. 

This is what the referee is actually looking for as well. Hockey is a fast game, and every penalty is not going to be called, and infractions are often missed. 

A ref may not actually see all of the high-stick, but if they see a head of a player snap back they can have a good idea that they were just high-sticked

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A warning though: players do embellish and try to fake a high-stick penalty. If a stick hits them in the shoulder they may snap their head back trying to get the ref to call a penalty. It works – and you will love it if your team gets the power play and hate it if your team is penalized. 


Non-penalty high-sticks in hockey


A stoppage of play will occur if a player hits the puck above his shoulders with a stick. No penalty will be assessed on the play, but a faceoff will occur. 

One exception to this is that if the puck after being struck by a high-stick goes to the other team the play will usually continue.

For example, why would the whistle be blown if a puck that is touched with a high-stick bounces to the opposing team that now has a breakaway? 

You will see numerous stoppages of play each game because a player has touched the puck above his shoulders with his stick. 


Can you score on a high-stick? 


No, a player cannot score on a high-stick. If the ref or video replay determine that the puck touched the stick above the shoulders of the player and then goes into the net it will be disallowed

This is a hard call because often a player will start with the puck above their shoulders and then bring the stick down to deflect the puck that is high up in the air. 

As you watch the reply it is hard to determine where and when the puck actually struck the stick – was it above or below the shoulders?  I know I have disagreed with the call on the ice and from the video officials before!

One caveat: if a player knocks the puck into their own net with a high-stick it will be counted as a goal against. 


How high can your stick be when you touch the puck?


The player is allowed to touch the puck with his stick anywhere below the shoulders. 

You will see this every game as players will try to knock pucks down or tip pucks in front of the net with their stick. As long as it is below the shoulders – game on. 

However, if the puck is deemed to be higher than the shoulders the play will be whistled down or, worse, the goal will be disallowed. 

This is one aspect of what is so amazing about the play called: The Michigan. The player will scoop the puck up behind the net while keeping it below his shoulders the whole time and tuck it into the net below the crossbar. 

Here is a video of how how Andrei Svechnikov of the Carolina Hurricanes did it:

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