What are the different hockey positions? (with pictures)

When getting familiar with any sport one of the first things you need to do is get to know the positions and the purpose of each. Hockey does have multiple types of positions and each one has a different function in trying to win the game. Let’s look at each of the hockey positions and what they are trying to do.

Each team will have a total of 6 players on the ice which comprise of 5 types of positions:

  • 3 Forward Positions:
    • Center
    • Left-Wing 
    • Right-Wing
  • Defensemen: Each team will have two defensemen on the ice 
  • Goalie: The player responsible for stopping pucks from going into the net

Here is a diagram of how each of the positions lines up on the ice:

Now, let’s look at the different purpose and function of each position and its role in the game:

The Five Hockey Positions

Forward Position: Center

The centermen is arguably the most important position on the entire team. They have the most influence on the game in the offensive zone and, in addition, are key in the defensive zone.

The first thing you will see the center do at the start of shifts is take the face-off. This is a small indication of the role of the center – to help control the play. Just as the centermen is trying to win the faceoff so their team can control the puck, the center is tasked with the responsibility of leading the play up the ice on the attacking rushes and controlling the play once in the zone. 

In addition, of all the three forwards the greatest responsibility on the defensive side will fall onto the centers. They are tasked with stopping the other centermen from the opposing team, who is also controlling much of the attack. Whoever can win this battle and control the attack, and gain a greater amount of puck possession time for the team usually has the best chance at winning.

In the NHL draft, where the young players are selected to come in the league, the most desirable player to draft is a highly skilled centre. This is the most difficult player in drafts to find, and the player that all the teams covet. 

As you look at the list of greatest hockey players the majority will fall into the category of a center who can score and pass. This list includes Hall of Fame players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux but also current stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Nathan MacKinnon. 

Forward Position Wingers: Left-Wing and Right Wing

The Left Wing and Right Wing forwards have similar functions as each are tasked with similar roles, but there can be some variations depending on the system used.

It is typical for the highest goal scorer on a team to be a winger.  On the offensive side of the puck the centre, who is controlling and distributing the puck, is looking to find a winger in a scoring position to pass the puck too.  The wingers job is to get into a position where they will be able to get an open shot. Many high-scoring wingers such as Ovechkin, Laine, Iginla, and Hull where known for having amazing shots that they could quickly release.

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In the defensive zone the winger is required to do two things: help clear the puck out of the zone on the boards and stop the opposing defence from entering into the offensive play.

As well in the defensive zone, the winger will set up somewhere between the faceoff circle and the blue line. The winger needs to make sure that they are ready to receive a pass along the boards, if there own defensemen tries to pass the puck up, or cover an opposing defensemen who is trying to help his team score. 

As well, the winger needs to guard the point. The offensive team often passes the puck to the defensemen at the point or the defensemen will rush, or pinch, into the offensive zone looking to create a scoring chance. The winger needs to either try to block the shot from the defensemen or guard the defensemen as they move in so they will not get a quality shot on net.

In some hockey systems there is an added responsibility for the left winger in a defensive system aptly called, the left wing lock.

The left-winger is tasked with staying up higher in the offensive zone so that they can easily drop back to play parallel with the defensemen when the other team tries to exit their defensive zone. This will cause the other teams to have a hard time transitioning from defence to offence as it creates turnovers, which can be quickly capitalized on by the team utilizing the left-wing lock to create scoring chances after the turnover. 

Defensemen Position

A good defensemen is tasked with two main tasks: keep the opposition from scoring and transitioning the team from defence to offence. 

The major task of a defensemen is to keep the opposition forwards from scoring. To do this they will try to do 4 major things:

  • Protect the net – this involves trying to box out the forwards from in front of the goaltender who are trying to screen the goalie, and stick checking the opponents by lifting their stick with your stick.
  • Block the passing lanes and shooting lanes – the defensemen will try to intercept or stop any shot or pass from reaching the goalie or opposing forward 
  • Upset the momentum of the offence during breakouts and transition – using body-position and stick position to funnel the players to the outside and stop them from heading towards the net
  • Move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly – a great defensemen will be able to retrieve the puck from the opposition and then either skate the puck out of their zone or pass it quickly to a forward to help transition to an offensive attack
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To accomplish all of this the defensemen will need to learn to skate extremely well backwards – they are often as good at skating backwards as the forward is at skating forwards. Develop the ability to ‘gap control’, which is maintaining a good distance between the defensemen and forward. This allows the defensemen to keep the forward in from of him, and slows the play down so the team’s forwards can get back and help the defensemen breakup the play.

Goalie Position

Facing a barrage of shots travelling at 100 mph does not sound fun to many people – even legendary goaltender Glen Hall called it ‘60 minutes of hell’. 

However, the goalie is tasked with one thing: stop the puck from entering into the net using any means possible. Now there are better ways to try and stop the puck than others, but the goalie is allowed to use all parts of his body to stop the puck from entering the goal. 

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The goaltender is often the most important position on the team. Although a goaltender cannot score goals, no team can win with below average goaltending. In the end, winning any game will count on the goaltender to make a few big saves.

How many of each position are on a ice hockey team?

Professional Hockey 

For a professional hockey team, such as in the NHL, each roster is comprised of up to 23 players. However of those 23 players only 20 players will dress for the game.

For the most part the roster for each game will be made up of 12 forwards and 6 defensemen and 1 goalie. There is a backup goalie dressed, but he will simply sit on the bench all game unless the coach decides to make a change due to poor play or injury. 

Of the 12 forwards dressed there will be 4 centermen, 4 left-wing, and 4 right-wing. Of the 6 defensemen dressed there will be 3 left-defensemen and 3 right-defensemen. 

It is typical for the defensemen to lead in the amount of ice-time played during each give game – there are only 6 of them in a game. 

Minor Hockey

In Minor Hockey or recreational hockey a typical team will have smaller numbers. Most times an average team will have 9 forwards and 4 defensemen. So there will be three lines of forwards and two lines of defensemen. All players will be dressed for the game on the team as there are no healthy scratches – thank goodness!!!


Each of the three main positions in hockey, forward, defensemen and goalie, have a different set of skills required to make the players successful. If you are starting to play hockey, it is fun to experiment by trying each position and get a feel for how each is different and the skill set needed to be successful at it. If you are watching hockey, do look to see the individual battles and roles that each player is trying to accomplish to help their team win. 

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

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

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

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