Rules of Hockey

For those new to hockey, it can be a pretty intimidating team both as a fan or a player. If you’re watching a hockey game for the first time and everyone is skating around a million miles and hour and the ref is constantly blowing the whistle and stopping play for who knows what, its pretty tough to pick up the rules of the game.  There are hundreds of rules in the game, so we are going to focus on the main rules you need to know to watch and understand a game of hockey.

Main Hockey Rules

Players – The game of hockey is played with 5 skaters per side, and one goalie.  The 5 skaters are comprised of three forwards and two defense men.  The goalie is a unique position as he stays within the goal crease right in front of the net, and doesn’t move up and down the ice.

Game Length – A standard game of professional or high level hockey is comprised of three 20 minute periods, with a 15 minute intermission between periods 1 and 2, and periods 2 and 3 (The first and second intermissions).  If a game of hockey is tied at the end of the third period, it will go into overtime which we expand on below.

Goal – I thought we had better start with the main objective in hockey, scoring goals. How do you score, what do you need to do to score? A goal occurs when the puck completely crosses the goal line. This can happen almost any possible way except hitting the puck in to the net with your hand, or kicking the puck in the net with your skate. The most common way for a goal to be scored is the player on the attacking team shoots the puck into the net with his stick.

Icing – What is icing in hockey? I get asked this a lot so i’m going to try and give as simple a breakdown as possible. When a player shoots the puck across the red line and also across the opposing teams goal line, this is deemed icing. If a player on the opposing team happens to touch the puck, or the official thinks he should have been able to touch the puck icing will not be called. If the team is killing a penalty, the players are allowed to ice the puck without a whistle. If the goalie on the opposing team decides to play the puck, icing will not be called. There is some discretion on the refs part, and if the player is close enough to the red-line sometimes the ref will not call the icing. This can be a huge source of controversy in the game, especially if you aren’t playing in the NHL and have video replay. If the ref does call icing, a face-off will occur in the offending teams zone. 

Offsides – The ref will call offsides if a player on the attacking team crosses the opposing blue line before the puck. This can be tricky to call, as both of the players skates have to be across the blue line for it to be offsides. If a player straddles the blue line (one skate in the offensive zone and one skate outside of the offensive zone) it is not considered offsides. 

Face offs – In order to start play at the beginning of each period, or re-start play after a whistle, a face off must ensure.  Faceoffs normally take place at any of the 5 circles seen below, or the four red dots beside the blue lines.  Teams normally line players up with three forwards parallel to the dot, and two defense men behind them.  The ref will drop the puck and each center man will try to pull it back to his defense to gain possession.

Puck Out Of Play – No one usually means to, but with the speed and strength of players these days pucks can fly out of the rink and into the crowd.  Typically if this happens, the refs will have a face off right where the player who shot the puck out did so.

Rink Dimensions

Hockey Penalties

Penalties are a huge part of hockey, especially in todays game where the refs are a more strict on calling penalties. Depending on the penalty the length can be 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 5 minutes, and even an additional 10 minutes.  Here is a quick naming convention –
Minor Penalty                 – 2 Minutes
Double Minor Penalty    – 4 Minutes
Major Penalty                 – 5 Minutes
Misconduct                    -10 Minutes
For Minor, Double Minor, and Major penalties, the team will have one player in the box for the duration of the penalty.  If a goal is scored against a team serving a minor penalty, the penalty ends immediately.  On a major penalty, a goal scored does not end the penalty.  The player must sit in the box for 5 full minutes of playing time.  The tricky one is the double minor.  If a goal is scored against a team serving a double minor penalty, if there is between 2:01 (M:SS) and 4:00, the penalty is dropped to 2:00 (2 Minutes).  If there is 2:00 or less on the double minor, the penalty is ended.  10 minute misconducts do not force the offending team to lose a player on the ice and they will still play 5 on 5.  However, the player receiving the penalty will have to sit in the box for the full 10 minutes no matter what.

PENALTY DEEP DIVE: What Is Cross Checking In Hockey?

Minor Penalties - 2 minutes


Hockey Penalties - Cross Checking

A cross-checking penalty is called when a player holds both ends of his stick and hits another player with the shaft of his stick. The ref will signal this penalty with two closed fists and a forward + backward motion.  Cross checking can also be a major penalty if it is severe enough, is on a players head, or if a player is cross checked from behind into the boards.  The referee will scale the penalty up to 5 minutes at his discretion, but it has to be an extreme case.

High Sticking

A high sticking penalty is called when a player hits another player in the helmet or face with his stick. The ref will signal this penalty by holding his two hands above the shoulder area like one would hold a stick.  High sticking is an automatic 4 minute penalty if it causes the player struck to bleed.


Hockey Penalties - Slashing

A slashing penalty is called when a player swings his stick at another player, similar to how one would swing a baseball bat and makes contact with the other player. The ref will signal this penalty by hitting his wrist with the opposite hand with his hand held flat.  Slashing is normally a 2 minute, but in severe cases can be a double minor or a major.


Hockey Penalties - Holding

A holding penalty is called when a player uses his  hands or arm to grab another player or obstruct his motion. The ref will signal this penalty by grabbing his opposite wrist.


Hockey Penalties - Hooking

A hooking penalty is called when a player uses the blade or shaft of his stick to slow a player down or disrupt his shot by hooking a part of his body. The ref will signal this penalty with two closed fists and a pulling motion towards him.


Hockey Penalties - Interference

An interference penalty is called when a player hits another player when he doesn’t have possession or control of the puck. The ref will signal this penalty by crossing his arms in front of him.


Hockey Penalties -Roughing

A roughing penalty is typically called when a player punches another player with his glove on. The ref will signal this penalty by sticking out his arm beside him with a closed fist.  Players sometimes receive double minors for roughing if the referee deems it appropriate.


A tripping penalty is called when a player uses the blade or shaft of his stick to trip another player so he falls to the ice. The ref will signal this penalty with by making a pendulum motion with his arm beside one of his legs.


Hockey Penalties - Elbowing

A elbowing penalty is called when a player uses his elbow to hit another player in the helmet or body area. The ref will signal this penalty by holding one hand out at a 90 degree angle and using the other hand to grab his elbow.


Hockey Penalties - Charging

A charging penalty is called when a player uses excessive speed to hit another player or attempts to cause injury with a hit. The ref will signal this penalty by rotating clenched fists around one another.

Major Penalties - 5 minutes


A fighting penalty is usually called when two players drop their gloves and engage in a fight. In minor hockey the ref will call a match penalty for this but in the NHL there is no standard signal.

Misconduct Penalties - 10 minutes


A misconduct penalty is called at the discretion of the referee, and can be called for verbal or physical abuse of another player or official. The referee will signal this penalty by placing both hands on his hips.  The team assessed this penalty will not be a man short if they receive only a 10 minute misconduct.

Hockey Positions

There are six players on the ice at all times in hockey unless there is a penalty, the positions of these players are: three forwards [2 wingers and 1 centerman], two defenseman, and one goalie.

Centerman – One of the main responsibilities of the centerman is to take faceoffs, which is a huge responsibility especially in the defensive zone. The centerman is also responsible for covering the middle of the ice at both ends of the rink. This is one of the hardest positions to play as they typically skate further and have a higher degree of responsibility both offensively and defensively.

Winger – There are two wingers on the ice to “flank” the centerman in both the offensive and defensive zone. Wingers are typically faster skaters and relied upon for goal scoring.  Their responsibilities in the defensive zone are to cover the opposing teams defenseman and to provide an outlet for the defenseman or centerman to break out of the zone.

Defenseman – The defenseman play behind the forwards and are the last line of defense to the goalie. The main responsibility is to stop the opposing teams forwards from getting a chance to score. In the defensive end they are also responsible for orchestrating the breakout and taking the puck away from the opposing teams forwards.

Goalie – The goalie has one main responsibility, stop the puck from going into the net. He does not typically leave his crease for the entire game and wears special, more protective gear then the rest of the players on the team. 

Overtime Rules

Regular Season Overtime – Overtime rules are different in the regular season and the playoffs, but both occur when the game finishes and the score is tied. In regular season, both teams will start a 5 minute period of 3 vs 3, with the first team to score winning. If one of the team takes a penalty, the team with the power play will get 4 skaters for the duration of the penalty. If either team fails to score after the 5 minute period of three on three, the game will go to a shootout. The rules of regular season NHL overtime are constantly changing and we will update this article accordingly. 

Playoff Overtime – Playoff overtime is a lot different than in the regular season, as in no scenario will there ever be a shootout. Teams will continue to play 20 minute periods of 5 vs 5 (unless there are penalties) until one team scores. The longest NHL overtime game went to 6 overtime periods all the way back in 1936!

Shootout – The shootout is a pretty new concept in the NHL and makes for a very exciting finish to the game. Each team will get a 3 shooters, with the winning team scoring the most goals. If after the 2nd shooter for each team, one team leads 2-0 that team will win the game. Just for fun, check out some of the best shootout goals I’ve seen in the NHL to date!  If no one scores after the first 3, each team can select one player per team that has not shot yet to shoot next, and first team to score unanswered wins!


Well that just about concludes our breakdown of some of the essential rules and terms of hockey.  There are many more in depth rules that we could write for pages about – let us know if you have any questions or if there is anything else you’d like to see on this page!

4 thoughts on “Rules of Hockey”

  1. The two line pass? I know it’s not used now but what was it?

    • Hi Robert, great question! A two line pass is when a player passes it from inside his defensive zone to a player located between the offensive blue line and the red line.
      So the puck would have to cross two lines, the defensive blue line and red line! The ref would then stop the play and there would be a face off in the defensive zone.


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