Hockey Explained

The following document is a brief description of the game of hockey. If any of you die hard fans out there find some technical errors (I don't have a rulebook), just drop me an e-mail and I'll have a look.

Hope you find this useful!

Table of Contents

What is Hockey?

The Typical Hockey Rink

Rink Diagram.

Ice hockey is a game played in a rink on an ice surface. The game is played between two teams, with each team defending it's side of the ice from the opposition. Each player uses a hockey stick to manipulate a black disk, called a puck, into the opposition's net. The team that has possession of the puck is called the 'attacking' team, while the team without the puck is called the 'defending' team. When the game ends, the team with the most goals (i.e. the team who puts the puck in the opposition's net the most) wins the game.

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The Rink

Rink Markings

Figure 1

Ice markings.

The rink is divided by 5 lines that span the width of the rink and 5 face off circles and dots (see figure 1):

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The Teams

All games are played between two teams; the home team, and the visiting team. Each team can dress 20 players for a game. During the game, only six players from each team can be on the ice:

In all, there will be 12 players on the ice at a time (6 from each team). The players are organized by a coach into 'lines'. Normally lines consist of 5 players each, with 4 lines per team...but not all coaches use this method.

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The Players

Positioning of Players

Figure 2

Positioning of players.

Of the 20 players, 18 are 'skaters', and 2 goaltenders (see figure 2). Among the skaters are defencemen and forwards. The defencemen protect the defensive zone from attacking players, while normally pursuing the puck as far as the opposition's blue line. A forwards primary task is to attack the opposition's zone while on the offence. While defending, a forward will usually come back to the defensive zone to aid the defencemen. Forwards are comprised of 3 positions:

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The Game Length

A regulation NHL game is divided into 3 'periods', or possibly longer (see Overtime below). Each period is twenty minutes in length. In between each period is an intermission where players get a chance for rest. When play is stopped by the referee, the clock is also stopped. The play continues when the referee continues the game. Stoppages are at the referee's and linesman discretion, and can happen for a number of reasons, which will be explained later. When the referee decides to recommence the game, a face off will ensue.


A game of hockey can last longer than the 3 periods. If, at the end of the 3 periods (called 'regulation time'), the score is tied, then play will move into 'overtime'. During regular season play, overtime is a single 5 minute period. If the game is still tied after the 5 minute period, then the game goes into the books as a tie and the game is over. However, in a play-off game, overtime periods are a full 20 minutes long. Also, unlike the single overtime period in regular season, a play-off game's overtime periods can add up to be more than one period. Periods will be played until one team scores a goal. This method of overtime is referred to as 'sudden death overtime' because if a team scores, they win the game on that single goal, and the game is over.

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Face Offs

Face Offs

Figure 3

Face off positions.

A face off can happen at any of the five face off circles on the ice, and not necessarily in one of the circles, depending on where the stoppage occurred. The circles are used to keep players, other than the centers, away from the face off. The opposing centers (see figure 3) line up facing each other inside the circle, just in front of the dot on there side of the ice. The left and right wingers stand on the appropriate sides of the center, outside of the circle, and the defencemen also stand outside of the circle, behind the center. The referee stands next to the two centers with the puck in hand. The home team's center must put his stick flat on the ice. After he puts his stick on the ice, the visiting team's center must then touch his stick to the ice. When this happens, the referee drops the puck, and each center tries to scoop the puck back to a team mate.

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Starting a Game

Each game starts with a face off at center ice. Players not on the ice sit on there appropriate bench (home or visiting team benches), while the coach, assistant coaches, and trainer(s) stand behind the bench. In a normal NHL game, the home team wears light colored uniforms (their 'whites'), while the visiting team wears their dark colored uniforms. Game play and the game clock starts immediately after the referee drops the puck for the face off and the action begins...

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Game Play

Hockey is a very fast, dynamic, and sometimes violent game. Game play can be stopped and for many reasons. Injuries, offsides, icings, goals scored, and several other reasons can cause stoppages in play. A whistle from the referee or linesman (see Officials below) introduces the stoppage. The referee or linesman will 'signal' the reason why a stoppage has occurred. The signal is to tell the fans and score keeper why he has stopped play. Some of the reasons are explained here:


A game starts with 3 on ice officials on the ice. A referee and two linesman make up the game's on ice officials. The referee makes the penalty calls and other major decisions. The linesman watch all the lines on the ice and judge icings and offsides. Also, if a linesman witnesses certain important infractions by the players, he can advise the referee acting as a witness, although the ultimate decision to call penalties is left to the referee. Off ice officials include goal judges, video-replay judges, and time and score keepers. One backup referee is available should the referee or a linesman become injured.

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How Offsides Work

Figure 4

Example of offsides.

There are two different types of off sides:

Regular offside

Before attacking players enter the opposing team's zone (cross the opposition's blue line), the puck must proceed ALL players. This applies to passes or a player carrying the puck across the defenders blue line, Any attacking player proceeding the puck into the opposing team's zone is offside. The referee will blow the whistle to stop play for a face off outside the defending teams blue line.

Using Figure 4 as an example, if "RW" were carrying the puck and attempted a pass to "C", then the play would be stopped due to an offside, and a faceoff would take place. "C" is over the opposing team's blue line before the puck.

Two line pass

In order for a attacking player to receive a pass in the neutral zone from his own zone, or from the center red line to the opposition's blue line, the player must remain onside. To do this, he must receive the pass before the center red line or the oppositions blue line. An two line offside will occur under the two following conditions...

  1. If the attacking player receives a pass from a team mate that originates before the attacker's blue line and travels over the center red line.
  2. If the attacking player receives a pass from a team mate that originates before the center red line to the opposition's blue line.

When these conditions occur, then the player is offside and play is whistled down and a face off will take place where the pass originated. If, however, the player takes the pass before either the redline or the opposition's blue line he is onside. A two line pass can seem quite complicated, but just remember this:

Again, using Figure 4 as an example. If "D2" were carrying the puck and attempted a pass to "RW" or "C", then the play would be stopped due to a two-line pass, and a faceoff would take place. "RW" is over two lines, the blue line and the red line. "C" is over three lines, and is also offside. But because the pass originated over two lines away, the play will be stopped because of a two line pass, and the faceoff will be in the offending teams zone.

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Icing the puck occurs when a player intentionally shoots the puck from his half of the ice all the way across the opposing teams goal line. If this infraction is called, play is whistled down and a face off will take place in the team that committed the icing's zone. This type of infraction is used by defending players to relieve offensive pressure from attacking players. For this infraction to be called, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The team commiting the icing does NOT have less players on the ice than the opposition.
  2. The puck does not touch any players on its way down the ice.
  3. The puck does not enter the opposing teams goal. If this does happen, the goal WILL count.
  4. The oppostion touches the puck AFTER it crosses the goal line before the team that committed the icing touches it.
  5. The puck does NOT travel through the opposing teams crease.

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Goals are indicated by a goal judge that sits behind the net, behind the glass in each end zone. The goal judge will turn on a red light directly behind the net of the goal scored upon. After the goal is tallied on the score board and the scorer and assisters are recorded by the score keeper, then game is resumed with a face off at center ice.

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When an injury occurs, play does not stop until one of the injured players team mates's gains control of the puck. After the injured player is attended to, play is continued with a face off.

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A penalty is called if a player, in the referee's judgment, has broken one or many of the rules. The player will spend a certain amount of time off the ice, depending on the infraction, in the 'penalty box'. Not only is the player punished for his offense, but also his team. The team must play with one man short of the normal 5 skaters. If the team takes another penalty, it must play with 3 skaters. A team, however, cannot play with less than three skaters. If another penalty were to be taken, then time would be added to the amount of time the team is 'short handed' and the player who took the penalty would stay in the penalty box. The team that benefits from the penalty will be on a 'power play', and will try to take advantage of fewer players on the penalized team.

The penalized team will stay short handed until the time on the penalty runs out, or the the other team scores a goal (depending on the severity of the penalty, see Types of Penalties below).

Delayed Whistles

Delayed Whistles Delayed whistles are used by the referee to allow one team to continue play until it loses control of the puck to the other team. The referee signals a delayed whistle by raising his arm in the air. Delayed whistles are used in the following situations:

  • When a team is offside and the other team is control of the puck. Once the off side team moves on side, the referee will lower his arm and play is allowed to continue. If the offside team gains control of the puck (while still off side, of course), play is stopped.
  • When one time commits a penalty and the other team is in control of the puck. Once the guilty team gains control of the puck, the referee will stop play, assess the penalty(s), and continue play with a face off near where the offense occurred.

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Types of Penalties

Penalties come in three different times, which depend on the severity of the offence:

  1. Minor Penalties- A two minute penalty. Used for lesser offenses.
  2. Major Penalties- A five minute penalty. A five minute major penalty is handled differently than minor penalties. Because the penalty is severe, the penalty will not end if the other team scores. The other team will be on the power play until the five minutes have run down. They can score as many goals as they can.
  3. Misconducts- A misconduct can be two, five, or ten minutes long. The way a misconduct differs from all other types of penalties is that no power play is awarded. The penalty only punishes the player, not the whole team. If the player is warrants a severe misconduct, he can be given a 'game misconduct', which banishes the player from the game.

If the referee judges that a player intended to injure another player, then that player could also be disciplined by the league with multiple game suspensions, fines, or other harsh punishments.

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Some Minor Penalty Descriptions

These are not all the minor penalties there are, but they are the most common types of penalties.


Holding another player with a stick.


Grabbing and retaining another player, or holding a player down.


Being unnecessarily rough with another player.


Causing another player to fall with a foot, stick, or any other method.


Jumping or taking more than two strides into another player.


Hitting or attempting to hit another player with a stick.

Cross Checking*

Holding a stick with both hands, taking it off the the ice, and hitting another player with it.

High Sticking*

Carrying the stick over the shoulders.

* -The referee can also give these penalties out in major form if the severity warrants it.

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Some Major Penalty Descriptions

Again, these are not all the major penalties there are, but they are the most common.


Stabbing or attempting to stab another player with the a stick.


Striking another player after being struck.

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