Oh, the good old hockey game! An incredible and exhilarating sport to say the least.
Whether you play or watch, ice hockey is undeniably insanely entertaining and wildly athletic. But if you’re just getting into it, as a player or a fan, sometimes the learning curve of a new sport can be a little overwhelming.
We’ve got your back though!
Whether you have hopes to play, are simply curious, or you’re a fan brushing up on your knowledge, this guide will have you up-to-speed on the most important hockey rules in no time!
Grab your pen and paper folks—kidding, just bookmark this website for future reference—and get ready to jot down everything you need to know about hockey! And if you’re looking for online hockey training, start here.
A Short History of Hockey
The term hockey can be found in literature dating back to the 1700s, though it’s hard to determine whether they are references to ice hockey or field hockey, since both were developing around the same time. Great Britain newspapers from the 1840s though reported some version of hockey being played on ice.
In 1875, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the first official hockey game was played in Montreal, Canada. Two years after that first official game, in 1877, the Montreal Gazette published an article outlining seven ice hockey rules.
Fast-forward eleven years from the hockey rules article in the Gazette, and the Governor General of Canada attended the Montreal Winter Carnival tournament. There, he became a hockey fan. In 1892, realizing there was no recognition for the best team in Canada, he purchased a silver bowl for use as a trophy… a bowl that is now known as the Stanley Cup.
The Stanley Cup is still awarded to the winning team of the National Hockey League (NHL)—the most prestigious hockey league in the world—to this day.
Overall Game Objectives and Overview
Ice hockey is a sport played between two opposing teams.
Players skate across an ice hockey rink, passing the puck between themselves with their hockey sticks, with the objective of scoring points on the opposing team. To do so, they must use their sticks to shoot the puck into the opposing team’s goal net.
Each team usually has six players on the ice at one time: three forwards trying to score, two defensemen for guarding, and a goaltender to protect their net. Other players are ready to go on the bench as substitutes and can swap in at a game stoppage or on the fly during gameplay.
The Hockey Rink
Standard hockey rinks are rectangular in shape, approximately 200 ft long and 85 ft wide, with rounded corners. The whole rink is surrounded by waist-high walls, known as boards.
But, most importantly, the ground of the rink is entirely made up of high-quality ice! Painted onto the ice, there are a few different symbols you should be aware of before you hit the rink:
- The center line: a line that separates the hockey rink at the halfway point, lengthwise.
- The blue lines: a line that divides the ice hockey rink into three parts, called zones.
- The goal line: a thin line at the end of each side of the rink. The puck must pass this line, into the net, for a goal to be scored.
- Faceoff Locations: rings and circles on the rink representing the nine faceoff locations. A faceoff location is where the game restarts after a stoppage.
If you’re a beginner just starting your hockey journey, know you don’t need a full rink to play! There are plenty of options to get you going. From small outdoor neighborhood rinks, to synthetic ice technologies like PolyGlide Ice (use code lifeinminnesota for a 15% discount), you get into the game from nearly anywhere!
Hockey Equipment Basics
Hockey definitely has one thing that many sports don’t have: an overwhelming amount of equipment!
Don’t fret though, lots of equipment is for safety. At its very basics, you’ll need the following to get started on the ice:
Other pieces of equipment that are primarily used for safety, include:
- Ice hockey pants
- Elbow pads
- Neck guards
- Shin pads
- Shoulder pads
- Slash guards
If you decide to play for a hockey team, the team will also typically have a uniform that includes a jersey and socks so you match your teammates on the ice!
Hockey Player Positions
Alright, you’ve got the history, you’ve got your equipment list, so it’s time to decide which position you might want to try out first!
The goaltender, more colloquially referred to as the goalie, is probably the position you’re most familiar with! Their role is simple: to block the puck from entering the net.
Simple, yes. Easy? Certainly not! It’s probably one of the hardest jobs on the team!
Goalies wear additional gear, including a goalie glove—which has a large pocket-like space to catch the puck—and a wider hockey stick. They typically do not move far from their net, defending it for the majority of the game.
Centers (or centermen) are part of a hockey team’s forward line. They are responsible for the offensive gameplay in the center of the rink and are one of the main goal scorers in the game.
In addition to their dominance of the rink’s middle, centers are also typically responsible for taking faceoffs at the start of the game or after a stoppage.
Left and Right Wingers
In addition to the center, each forward line has a right and left winger—one on each side of the rink. Like the center, they are also the main goal-scorers in the game.
Wingers will generally also drop back and help the defensive line when needed, so wingers definitely do a lot of skating in the game!
Left and Right Defensemen
Two defensemen—one on the right and one on the left—position themselves between their forward line and their goalie. Their job on the ice is to help defend their net by preventing the other team from taking a shot. They typically stay in their own team’s defensive zone, or up around the center line if their team is on the attack.
Hockey Rules: Scoring Rules
Every time the puck passes the goal line into the net, a goal is scored. The team with the highest number of goals at the end of the game wins.
Ice hockey has 60 minutes of total playtime. The clock is stopped when the puck is no longer in play (e.g. gameplay has stopped). The 60 minutes of playtime is divvied up into three 20-minute periods, with an intermission of approximately 10 minutes between each period. In the NHL, intermissions are slightly longer.
Hockey Rules: Gameplay Rules
Now that we’ve gone through the basics of the game, let’s get a little deeper and really explore hockey rules that apply while the game is being played.
And there is no better place to start than faceoff rules, because a faceoff kicks off each game!
Faceoffs happen at the beginning of each period at center ice. The game’s referee drops the puck between the two teams’ centermen who each try to gain control of the puck with their sticks.
Faceoffs also occur after each stoppage. These faceoffs happen at one of the nine faceoff locations on the rink. The location of the faceoff is dependent on where and why the stoppage occurred.
Icing occurs when a player shoots the puck from behind the centerline through the other team’s defensive zone, and past the opposing team’s red goal line. The main purpose of the icing rule in hockey is to prevent the team that is on the defensive from haphazardly shooting the puck to the other side of the rink in an effort to delay the game.
When icing is called, play is resumed at a faceoff location in the defensive zone of the team that committed the icing infraction.
An attacking team is considered offside when any member of their team enters the defensive zone of the opposing team before the puck. Or, more simply, the attacking team cannot cross the opposing team’s blueline before the puck does.
If an offside is called, there is a game stoppage and a faceoff occurs at the faceoff spot closest to where the offside happened.
Depending on the hockey league, checking may or may not be allowed.
In the NHL, checking—when a player drives into an opponent with the purpose of separating them from the puck—is only allowed if the targeted player (e.g. the person on the receiving end of the check) has possession of the puck.
Even in leagues that allow checking, there are plenty of forms of checking that are considered against the rules. Hitting from behind, checking to the head, and charging, are all examples of illegal checking techniques that cannot be used.
Hockey Rules: Puck Rules
During a hockey game, the puck is bound to go flying at some point! Knowing basic puck-handling rules will prepare you to deal with a stray puck situation when it arises!
Closing a Hand on the Puck
If the puck flies into the air and a player—with the exception of the goalie—catches it with a closed hand and does not immediately drop it to the ice, play is stopped. A faceoff then occurs.
You are, however, allowed to knock the puck down with your hand.
Touching the Puck with a High Stick
If a player reaches their stick above their shoulder to hit down the puck from the air, a stoppage of play and a faceoff will occur.
Puck Going Over the Glass
In the NHL, if a player shoots the puck from their defensive zone over the glass they receive a penalty for delaying the game. Penalties are a form of punishment in hockey, which will be discussed later in this article. So read on for more must-know hockey rules!
Hockey Rules: Goaltending
The goalie is arguably one of the most important roles in the game of hockey! So, obviously, this position comes with its own set of rules.
So if goaltending has ever piqued your interest, time to listen up to these goalie-specific hockey rules!
Where Can the Goalie Play the Puck?
A goalie can play the puck from their red goal line to the centerline. In addition, there is a trapezoid behind the net where the goalie can also play the puck.
Goalies are not allowed to touch the puck past center ice or outside of the trapezoid.
Goaltender interference is a penalty that occurs when a player of the opposing team comes in physical contact with the goalie in a way that impedes the goalie’s ability to stop a shot. Essentially, players are not allowed to make physical contact with the goalie in the same way they are allowed to make contact with other players.
Pulling A Goalie
A team may pull their goalie out of the net and onto the bench and replace them with an extra player. This is normally done in desperate situations at the end of a game. In the last couple minutes of playtime, a team may opt to try this strategy to increase their chance of scoring a goal on their opponent.
Hockey Rules: Penalties
Penalties are doozies that can come back to bite you and your team. So you’re going to want to be an expert on these hockey rules!
Starting with the basics: what exactly is a penalty?
At its fundamentals, it’s when a player or coach breaks a rule and is therefore given a punishment.
In ice hockey, most of the time, the punishment for the rule break (e.g. the penalty) is that the player is taken off the ice and sent to the penalty box—a place where the player is isolated from their team—for a certain period of time. The team of the offending player must then play one player short—referred to as playing short-handed—for the duration of the penalty.
The opposing team is now on what is called a power play, meaning that they have more players on the ice than the offending team, giving them the upper hand.
In the NHL, a whopping 20% of all goals are scored on power plays! Considering how few power plays happen in a game, it just goes to show how truly advantageous they are.
Multiple penalties can occur at once.
Why do Players Get Penalties?
Clearly not every breach of a hockey rule results in a penalty. If the referee stops the game on an icing call, for example, there is no penalty.
But if a player or coach conducts themselves in a way that is unsportsmanlike, dangerous, or negligent, it usually results in a penalty. Here are just a few of the most common penalties in hockey:
- Gameplay delay
- Unsportsmanlike conduct
What Happens When a Player Gets a Penalty?
Different things happen depending on the type of penalty called. Check out our breakdown below:
- Minor penalty: the least severe of all the penalties in which the offending player must spend two minutes in the penalty box.
- Major penalty: a more severe penalty in which the offending player has typically done something more dangerous. The offending player must spend five minutes in the penalty box.
- Misconduct penalty: the offending player must remain off the ice for ten minutes. This type of penalty does not result in the offending team playing shorthanded.
- Game misconduct penalty: the offending player or coaching staff is ejected from the game. This type of penalty does not result in the offending team playing shorthanded.
- Match penalty: the offending player or coaching staff is ejected from the game. A five-minute penalty is served in the penalty box by a substitute from the offending team.
- Suspension: multi-game suspensions may occur for offenses on the ice.
All You Need to Know About Penalty Shots
Penalty shots are rare, and always thrilling if you get to take or watch one!
If a player has used an illegal move, like a trip or a slash, to stop the attacking team from a legitimate opportunity at scoring a goal a penalty shot is awarded. The player who was pursuing the goal-scoring opportunity is allowed to take an unobstructed shot on the net, the opposing goalie being the only defense.
Hockey Rules: Overtime
Now let’s take a look at the end of the game.
Overtime—adding additional playtime—occurs if the score is tied at the end of the 60 minutes game.
Overtime rules differ from league to league. They can also change between regular season games and playoff games. So definitely worth asking your league about their specific hockey rules!
In the 2022-2023 NHL season, if the score is tied at the end of a game, teams play an extra five-minute overtime period. During overtime, teams only have three players on the ice, plus their goalie. The five-minute period is considered to be sudden death, meaning the first team to score wins.
If no goal is scored in the overtime period, a shootout occurs. Each team chooses three players to take a shot on the opposing team’s goalie, in a similar fashion to a penalty shot. The team who scores the most goals during the shootout wins.
If the shootout is a tie, each team alternates sending one additional player to shoot. This continues to occur until one team scores and the other does not.
And shootouts can go on for a while! The longest in NHL history happened in 2014 and went for 20 rounds!
During NHL playoffs, overtime is a sudden-death 20-minute period. There are no shootouts in the playoffs, so if a goal isn’t scored in the first overtime period the game continues into subsequent periods until one of the teams scores a goal.
Enjoy Your Time Playing the Good Old Hockey Game!
With overtime covered, that brings us to the end of the good old hockey game and its rules!
You’ve got absolutely everything you need to be a well-informed—or, dare I say, the best-informed—fan or player.
So pull on your favorite jersey and hop on the Minnesota Wild bandwagon! Or, lace up your skates and hit the rink with all of your new hockey rule knowledge!
And if you’re looking to up your game in the future, check out our recommendations for the best synthetic ices that will keep you training all year round!
Still want more hockey content? Then check out our hockey page for training guides, equipment rankings, and fun facts about our favorite sport!
- About the Author
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Born in Madelia, MN, to a now 5-generation Minnesota family, Ryan’s MN roots go deep.
A painter by day, Ryan founded Life in Minnesota in 2013 with his wife Kelly to chronicle their musings on everything Minnesota. Ryan and Kelly are raising their 7 kiddos in Maple Grove, MN.
When he’s not shuttling his kids around to hockey practice, you might find him in the shop working on his leatherwork. Undoubtedly, there will be a family trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area every summer, and of course weekends at Grandpa’s cabin up north in the summer.