What is a faceoff in hockey? (with pictures)

The faceoff in hockey is one of the most common plays, and it is also one that has the most rules around it. For anyone watching hockey a lot of things happen during the faceoff that seem confusing! Let’s take a deeper look at the faceoff rules in hockey and bring some clarity to this common play. 

To get to this point we will start simple and then go to the more complex. First off we will simply look at what a faceoff is and then go into all the nuances. If you are less familiar to hockey read all the way through. If you understand the basics you can skip the first couple of sections before we get into the nuances around all the rules. 

Let’s start with a definition of the faceoff!

A faceoff in hockey is the method that is used to start the play after a stoppage, after a goal is scored, or at the start of a period. The faceoff is accomplished by one player from each team approaching the faceoff area and waiting for an official to drop the puck so they can battle to see who wins possession of the puck. 

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The faceoff is an important part of the game, as teams try to gain possession of the puck and give themselves an advantage in the play. Let’s take a deeper look at the rules and strategies of the faceoff and how it plays out in a game. 


When is there a faceoff in hockey?

There are a number of different scenarios which stop the play, which then requires a faceoff to start the play again. However, these four scenarios are the cause of the vast majority of faceoffs:

  1. The start of a new period (this includes the 5 minute overtime in the regular season or the overtime period in the playoffs)
  2. After a goal is scored
  3. After a whistle due to a penalty or a non-penalty infraction (eg. offsides or icing)
  4. After the puck is shot out of the rink

These scenarios which happen sporadically will also cause a stoppage in play and a faceoff:

  1. An injured player — the whistle will be blown when the team with the injured player touches the puck
  2. When the referee loses sight of the puck 
  3. When something unusual happens outside of the rules 


How do they determine where the faceoff will take place? 

There are nine different spots that you can take a faceoff in the NHL, which is indicated by the red faceoff dots located around the ice rink. The officials will use one of these faceoff dots to conduct the faceoff to restart play, but how do they know which one to choose?

I’ve highlighted the faceoff dots above in green, just to show their placement

Let’s look at the different faceoff dots:

  • Center ice dot — this is located in the centre of the rink and is used at the start of the period or after a goal is scored 
  • 4 Blue line dots — These are located in the neutral zone and are used after plays that have been called by an offside. The official simply chooses the dot which is closest to where the offside actually happened
  • 4 faceoff dots closest to the goaltender – these dots will be used the most during the game. The two major scenarios are:  
    1. After a goalie freezes the puck, the faceoff dot is chosen that is closest to where the play ended.
    2. After a penalty is called the faceoff will be held in the zone of the team that received the penalty and is now shorthanded


Where to stand in a hockey faceoff?

  • Centers — the two centermen will line up facing each other with the faceoff dot between them
  • No other player is allowed to stand within the faceoff circle (these are the 5 located at center ice and near the goalies) 
  • The winger is not allowed to stand any closer then their side of the hash marks 

The actual strategy: As you have noticed all the players do not station themselves around the circles, but some are actually set up away from the faceoff circle. Why is this?

The center is trying to win the faceoff to give his team possession of the puck so they can either have a quick shot on net or set up a play off the faceoff. 

Typically a center will try to draw the puck back to the defensemen. This player is far enough away from the center of the dot that they will either have time to take a shot or be able to find another player on the ice who is open enough to pass the puck to and maintain possession of the puck. 

Although a center is trying to win the faceoff, once the puck is dropped other players are now allowed to come into the faceoff dot to help (a stat called faceoff win percentage is kept on the center). (a stat called faceoff win percentage is kept on the center). . You will often see the centermen tie each other up and then a winger come in and take the puck and pass it back to a defensemen.


Who has to put their stick down first?

When you watch hockey you will notice that one player puts his stick down and then the second player does so. So, how do they know who goes first? 

The player who goes first is the player from the visiting team. This player will put their stick down immediately into the white area, followed by the center from the home team. 

This is an advantage for the home team in the following ways:

  1. The home team gets to see how the opposing center is setup and what hand position he has on his stick – this is a sign of how the player is trying to win the faceoff. When taking a faceoff your bottom hand will either be set forward or backward and this is an indication of which side you are trying to win the faceoff too. The second player can adjust his strategy based on this.
  2. Also the second player to put down his stick has a bit of momentum behind him as the first player to put down his stick has been set and static for a longer period of time
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Why do players switch in faceoffs?

When players switch in the faceoffs it is because there has been a faceoff violation. A faceoff violation is simply any player on the ice doing something outside of the faceoff procedure set by the rules before the puck is dropped.  

So when a faceoff violation happens the consequence for the team who has incurred the faceoff violation is to have to replace the faceoff person with another member of the team on the ice take the faceoff.

After the team has been given a faceoff violation the players must switch immediately the player taking the faceoff or the linesman will simply drop the puck before they are ready. 

If a team has two faceoff violations on the same faceoff they will receive a 2-minute penalty for delay of game. 


What constitutes a faceoff violation? 

  • A non-center player moves into the faceoff circle prior to the puck being dropped (a player’s stick can be in the faceoff circle just not the body).
  • A player crosses the hash marks line, the players skate may touch the hash marks line but cannot go over
  • Any physical contact between an opponent before the puck is dropped
  • When a center does not position himself correctly 

Having your original center kicked out of the faceoff can be quite a disadvantage for a team. 

Every team has certain players who are best at taking faceoffs. They simply win a higher percentage of faceoffs then the others, and these are the players the coach entrusts to take more of the faceoffs. 

Often at the end of a game when a team needs to win a draw desperately they will put two centers on the ice just in case there is a faceoff violation to make sure they have a player who is good at taking draws out there. They do not want to give quick possession of the puck to the other team.

Note: It is quite rare to see a 2-minute minor penalty for a faceoff violation. First of all, the players will be on guard after the first violation. But more importantly, this is an area where the officials do give a lot of rope and are very hesitant to give a penalty. The players of course know this and will push it right to the limit in trying to help the team win the faceoff. 


Does the puck have to hit the ice on a faceoff?

No, the puck does not have to hit the ice before a center can move his stick or a player is allowed to come into the faceoff circle. Once the official drops the puck out of his hand the players are allowed to engage in the play. 

However, it is difficult to hit the puck out of the air with your stick before it hits the ice. Most centermen will try to time the puck hitting the ice with their own stick to pull it back to one of their teams. 

A different strategy involves one of the centers trying to lift the stick of his opponent before the puck hits the ice and then kicks the puck with the skate back to his defensemen. 


How is a faceoff win determined?

A faceoff win is determined by the team that ends up controlling possession of the puck after the faceoff has taken place. It is not determined by who touches the puck first. A player can touch the puck first and then the other team can still push the puck to gain possession and win the draw. 

So possession of the puck counts, not first contact with the puck. 


How important is it to win a faceoff in hockey? 

The topic of how important winning faceoffs in the NHL has been debated recently. Some people argue that there is not much correlation between winning a game and the team’s faceoff percentage. 

By simply watching the game there are so many faceoffs and so few of them result in goals against. Who really cares who wins a neutral zone faceoff at the start of the second period? 

On the other side, you could see a big goal come off a faceoff win with under two minutes to go in the game to tie it up. So it would seem that some faceoff wins are really important.

In addition, teams put so much emphasis on having possession of the puck. They want to have a greater percentage of possession over the course of the game then the other team, because this highly correlates with winning. And, what is the first step in gaining possession of the puck? Answer: winning the faceoff!

Ultimately, I have to agree with the coaches and the players who put a premium on faceoff wins. Nothing may happen off a faceoff win, but if you win enough of them there is eventually going to be good things happening. Maybe not in a certain play or game but over the course of the season the more you possess the puck the better a team’s odds are at winning. And winning the faceoff is the first step in possessing the puck. 


Related Questions

Why does the faceoff come into the neutral zone after a scrum (where there is a lot of pushing between players after a whistle)?

The faceoff does not come into the neutral zone after every scrum in the offensive zone, however it will only come into the neutral zone if the attacking team’s defensemen leave the blue line to come and join the scrum. Otherwise, the faceoff will stay in the offensive zone. The NHL does this to help control and manage the number of scrums in the game – ie. they want less of them. 

Is the player taking the faceoff allowed to bat the puck with his hands? 

No, if a player uses his hand to bat the puck before the puck has dropped to the ice this will be considered a faceoff violation that results in an automatic 2 minute minor penalty

Can a goalie take a faceoff?

No, a goalie cannot take a faceoff, but it makes me laugh thinking about a goalie trying to do it!

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