What are the Basic Rules of Hockey? Hockey 101 Guide

Hockey is a great sport. It is fun to play and it is fun to watch. However, if you are new(er) to the sport it can definitely be confusing to understand why the players are doing what they are doing. 

We have developed a basic guide to the rules of hockey you need to know so you can start playing or watching with enjoyment. This 101 guide will not only explain the basic rules of the game to you, but it will let you know some of the strategies the players and teams are using to win the game. 

If you are interested in learning more about any one topic, I have a link on most topics to a more in-depth article on the subject. Click and search at your own pace and enjoyment!

Let’s start of with a quote from Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan about the game of hockey: 

Is hockey hard? I don’t know, you tell me. We need to have the strength and power of a football player, the stamina of a marathon runner, and the concentration of a brain surgeon. But we need to put all this together while moving at high speeds on a cold and slippery surface while 5 other guys use clubs to try and kill us. Oh yeah, did I mention that this whole time we’re standing on blades 1/8 of an inch thick? Is ice hockey hard? I don’t know, you tell me. Next question.


Object of the game

The object of the game is simply to get more goals than the other team. A team gets a goal by shooting the puck into the other team’s net. Whoever does that the most wins! Simple enough 🙂 

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Well this is where it gets more complicated, because there are certain things a team is allowed to do and not allowed to do in their attempt to get more goals than the other team.  We will be looking at what the players/team can and cannot do in their attempt to win the game.

Note: At the end of each section watch for the What to watch for comment as it will help you figure out common plays that are happening on the ice


The team and players

In the professional leagues like the NHL each game a team is allowed to dress 20 players for the game.  This is usually divided up into 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies (one goalie is playing while the other is a backup who generally sits on the bench the whole game and is there in case of injury). 

At full strength (no penalties), the teams will play 5 vs 5 with a goalie. So teams will usually put on 3 forwards, 2 defensemen and 1 goalie. Here is an in-depth article about the number of players on the ice in any given situation.

Here are the roles and responsibilities of each position:

Forwards

  • They are tasked with the main responsibility of scoring goals 
  • The 12 forwards form 4 different lines of 3 players each. The coach may switch the players on these lines around at anytime in the game, but will generally try to keep the same players with each other. 
  • The forwards are divided into three positions: Center, Left Wing and Right Wing
  • The Center is the most difficult position of the three as they are tasked with a larger defensive responsibility and take all of the faceoffs 
  • All forwards do have a responsibility to help the defensemen and goaltender to prevent being scored on

Defensemen

  • They are tasked with the main responsibility of stopping the other teams attack and preventing goals
  • The 6 defence that play form 3 different pairs. The coach may switch these pairs around at anytime during the game, but will generally try to keep the same players with each other
  • The defence is divided into a Left Defensemen and a Right Defensemen. Both have the same responsibility but coaches usually like to stick right shooting defensemen on the right side and vice-versa – this makes it easier for a defensemen to pick the puck up off the board with his stick. 
  • Defensemen do help out in the offensive zone by helping to rush the puck up the ice or jumping into the play to help the forwards out with an extra attacker. The defensemen who are most skilled at this often win the Norris trophy for best overall defensemen. 

Goalies

“I’m not dumb enough to be a goalie” Brett Hull, 4th on the NHL all-time goal list

  • Goalies are tasked with protecting the puck from going into the net, and this comes with a bunch of special privileges and rules including being able to hold the puck and stop play
  • Goalies have special equipment designed to help stop the puck and for protection – sticks, gloves, and padding
  • Goalies are not allowed to be touched inside the crease – the painted area in front of the net- or checked when they have the puck outside of the crease (What happens if you hit the goalie?)
  • Goalies are the only players allowed to stop play by covering up the puck with their hands or equipment

Related: Why goalie is the hardest position to play?


Points: Goals and Assists

The game is decided by how many goals each team scores. Each goal a team scores can be divided up into three parts: the goal scored, primary assist and secondary assist. Each of these is awarded one point overall – more about points and how many to expect from a player in a game or season.

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A stat sheet could look like this: Goal: Sidney Crosby (Malkin, Letang)

  • This means that Sidney Crosby scored a goal and it was assisted by Evgeny Malkin and Kris Letang
  • An assist is given to the last two players to touch the puck before the goal is scored
  • A goal does not necessarily have an assist or it may only have one assist.
  • Goals and assists count as one point to the player’s overall stats

Related: How to read stats for a player, goalie and team


Time Structure of the Game

A hockey game is a total of 60 minutes, which is divided into 3 periods of 20 minutes each. After each period there is a 15 minutes intermission.  (Have you ever wondered how they came up with three periods?)

The 60 minutes played is stop time in professional and high-level amateur leagues, which means that when the play is stopped by the referees the clock will also stop and not start again until play resumes. In recreational hockey the 60 minutes is played runtime, which means that the clock does not stop after a whistle and only stops at the end of a period.  Here is a further breakdown of how long to expect a game to last at the different levels of hockey.

Timeouts: Each team is given only one 30 second timeout per game. The coach will usually save this timeout for the end of a game in case his team is behind and wants to call the timeout for a special strategy session to help tie up the game and give his offensive players extra rest. 


The Officials

There are four officials responsible for calling the game according to the rules: two referees and two linesman. When an infraction happens outside of the rules the officials will blow the whistle and stop the play. 

There are two types of infractions – ones that require a player to be penalized and sent off the ice for 2 or 5 minutes or ones that just stop the play, which will simply be started again with a faceoff. 

  • Linesmen – they are responsible for calling the non-penalty infractions such as offsides and icing
  • Referees – they are responsible for calling the penalty infractions, making the determination of whether a goal is allowed/disallowed, and communicating with the teams. 


Hockey Rink and the Lines

Zones – Defending zone, neutral zone, offensive zone

On a rink there are a total of 5 lines that go from one side of the boards to the next and 9 big dots spaced across the ice. The 5 lines help determine when a play should be stopped and the 9 big dots are used to help the play start again.

Let’s look at those lines first 

The blue line basically acts a big guard against the offensive team. Its purpose is to give assistance to the defensive side by not allowing the other team to freely roam anywhere on the ice. The blue line does this by forcing the team to carry or shot the puck over the blue line before any player on their team is allowed in the zone from the blue line to the end of the boards. 

If an attacking player crosses the blue line of his attack zone before the puck does then an official will blow the whistle and the game will come to a stop. Want a deeper look at offsides?

What to watch for: The defensive team will position themselves along the blue line to make it extra difficult to enter the offensive zone knowing that an offensive player cannot get behind them before the puck crosses the blue line. This will often force the offensive team to shoot the puck into the offensive zone instead of carrying it in. 

  • Red Line: Icing

Hockey does not want teams to simply shoot the puck all the way down the ice as a defensive tactic to relieve pressure from an offensive attack. This would wreck the flow of the game and decrease scoring opportunities. Therefore, they instituted a few red lines to stop teams from shooting the puck all the way down the ice, which they refer to as ‘icing’. Is icing hockey’s most confusing rule? Here is my full breakdown of it.

Before simply shooting the puck into the other teams zone, a team must first pass the big red line in the center of the ice. If they do not pass this big red line and the puck goes down past the thin red line (called the goal line) in the other teams zone an official will blow the whistle to stop play.

To resume play a faceoff is then taken in the zone of the team who iced the puck. This is a disadvantage because it keeps the puck close to your goaltender, and many scoring chances and goals are developed off faceoffs in the opposing teams zone. 

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What to watch for: You will often see players get to the red line with the puck – the hockey term for this is ‘gaining the red line’. Once they gain the red line they will shoot the puck hard into the zone, which will either allow their team to make a change on the fly (substitute players while the game is still being played) or to start a forecheck.

Since the puck has to go to the end boards to make it an icing, players have adapted to this by simply flipping the puck up in the air so it will go far down the ice, but not far enough to initiate an icing. This allows the team to relieve pressure from their defensive zone and change the players on the ice.

The crease is the painted area in front of the net designated for the goalie. Players are allowed to go into the net to score a goal as long as they do not interfere with the goalie. However, any contact with the goalie will be deemed goalie interference and can result in a penalty. 

The trapezoid is the area directly behind the net. The goalie is allowed to play the puck in the trapezoid or in front of the goal line, but they are not allowed to play the puck in the corners of the rink. This rule was implemented to allow offences a better chance at establishing time with the puck in the offensive zone because goalies had become so good at handling the puck, basically acting like a third defensemen. 

Goal Line: The goal line may be the most important line of them all – well the part in front of the net anyway. Teams are basically trying to do two things in hockey – either get the puck over this goal line into the opponents’s net or stop the puck from going over this line in their own net! The puck has to entirely cross the line in its entirety to count. 

What to watch for: As with most major sports, the NHL has adopted video review to determine if parts of the game are called correctly. The major way the NHL has done this is to help determine whether a goal has been scored or not. As you watch hockey on TV you will inevitably watch a game where they spend 2-5 minutes looking at all the camera angles to see if the puck has crossed the line, and should be a goal. 


Faceoffs

When the play is started again after an infraction (penalized or non-penalized) or a goal, a faceoff is used. 

A faceoff is basically a puck battle between two players where one of the officials drops the puck between them and they both compete to win and gain possession of the puck. Sometimes a player will get kicked out from taking a faceoff: here’s why?

All of the other players are required to give space to the two players taking the faceoff, but once the puck is dropped by the official all players are now allowed to move to any space on the ice they want.

Here is how they determine which faceoff dots to use:

  • For offside calls, they will use the four dots just outside the blue lines
  • For stoppages by a goalie, they will use the faceoff circles closest to that goalie
  • For icings, they will use the faceoff circles in the zone of the team responsible for icing
  • For penalties, they will use the faceoff circles in the zone of the penalized team 
  • For goals and the start of periods, they will use the centre faceoff circle


Penalties

  • Types of Penalties
    • Minor penalty – these are 2 minute penalties and are most commonly called for tripping, slashing, high-sticking, holding, interference, and delay of game
    • Major penalty – these are 5 minute penalties that can be the same type as a 2 minute minor penalty but the referee in his judgement has deemed the penalty to be one of an extra egregious play. Fighting by a player is deemed a major penalty
    • Match Penalty – this is a 5 minute penalty that also results in a player being removed for the duration of the game for intentionally injuring or attempting to injure another player
    • Misconduct Penalty – this is a 10 minute penalty but does not require that the team will be shorthanded while it is being served
    • Penalty Shot – there are a few scenarios where a penalty shot is awarded but the most common is when a player is interfered from behind when he is on a breakaway. The player then gets to take the puck from center ice in on the goalie for a free shot with no other players on the ice – very exciting! 

Here is the full list of all the penalties!

  • Power play – the power play is the name given to the team that has gained an advantage by having more players on the ice when the other team takes a penalty. The team with the power play will either have a 5 vs 4, 5 vs 3 or 4 vs 3 advantage. 
  • Penalty kill – this is the same scenario as a power play but from the view of the team that has taken the penalty. When a penalty is taken the team will be on the penalty kill. A team can take more than one penalty at a time but will never have less than 3 players on the ice. 

Here are the strategies that a team is trying to use to score on a power play!

What to watch for I: Power plays and penalty kills together are known as special teams, and special teams play is a big deal in determining the outcome of any hockey game. When given a power play a team will send out its top offensive players, and it can be extremely difficult for the penalty kill to stop. On average a team will score about 20% of the time on the power play, and scoring a power play goal or two during the game makes a big difference in winning a hockey game. 

What to watch for II: When a team gets a penalty called against them, and the opposing team has the puck the play does not automatically stop. Instead, the team with the power play coming up gets to keep the play going until the team taking the penalty touches the puck and then the whistle will be blown. The thing to watch for is that during this time, the team going on the power play will pull its goalie out of the net, and send an extra attacker onto the ice. So if you ever see a goalie rushing out of the net to the bench during a game, this is what is happening!


Bodychecking and Fighting

Bodychecking is allowed in professional hockey and high-end recreational and development leagues. Whereas, most recreational leagues and women’s hockey do not allow body checking except for simple jostling and minor body contact when battling for a puck

Fighting is allowed in the NHL, but it will be penalized. The amount of fighting in the NHL has gone down substantially over the years.  Some of this has to do with cultural expectations from the public and another part of it has to do with increased information and awareness of the repercussions of concussions and head injuries.  Most teams used to carry a player who would be strictly on the team to fight, but this practice has essentially been replaced.  


Overtime and the shootout

When a game is tied at the end of regulation (60 minutes) a game does not end in a tie (unless you are playing recreational hockey). At the professional level when the game is tied at the end of 60 minutes there is an additional 5 minutes of overtime. In the playoffs a full 20 minute periods are added until a winner is determined.

The great thing about regular season (non-playoff) overtime in the NHL is that instead of playing 5 vs 5 the teams go to a 3 vs 3 format. This really opens up the play of the game, and will result in many scoring chances. Playoff overtime remains 5 vs 5 for the duration of the game.

Overtime in hockey is sudden death, which means that once a player scores the game is over.  I love, love overtime in hockey – here is a deeper look at it and some of the longest overtimes in playoff history.

If the game is still tied at the end of the 5 minutes of overtime, the game will then be decided by a shootout. A shootout involves each team getting to select three players on their team that get to take an unimpeded breakaway chance on the opposition goalie. The team that scores the most number of goals in the shootout will win the game.  If the teams are still tied at the end of this they simply keep on choosing a player from each side until one scores and the other does not. A shootout is different than a penalty shot: here is the difference.

What to watch for: As teams get down to the final minutes of the game and they are tied, it is common for both teams to play very cautiously. Why? Because they know if they get to overtime they will at least secure one point in the standings. If you lose in regulation time your team gets zero points, but if you lose in overtime your team gets one point towards the teams place in the standings. 


Line changes 

A great thing about hockey is that players are allowed to change on and off at any point in the game. If you watch other sports like football, soccer or basketball the only time players can change is after a stoppage in play. Not in hockey. Players are allowed to come off the ice and substitute for another play while the action is going on.

The hockey term used for players substituting for each other while the action is going on  is ‘changing on the fly’. Players are allowed to change with each other after whistles, but changing on the fly is a huge part of the game of hockey.  Have you ever wondered how they know when to change?

Being able to change on the fly is what keeps the flow, action and intensity going in the game of hockey. Shifts are high energy, and being allowed to change while the action is still going on keeps the players performing at the top of their game every shift.  How long do those shifts actually take?

What to watch for: Players will know which player they are supposed to change on for. A center will go on when the center from the previous line is shifting off. However, the coach is responsible for letting the players know which line is next up.


Conclusion

There you have it – this will give you a good basic understanding of the game of hockey. Please check out the rest of the website for a more in-depth look at this wonderful sport.

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