Basic Rules of NHL Ice Hockey Explained For New Players & Fans

Posted on August 11, 2022 by Dan Kent
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Like many other sports, hockey rules are essential for ensuring fair play and preventing unnecessary injuries. There are many rules and people in place to ensure that ice hockey is a fair and safe sport while also retaining the best aspects of the game intact.

To win a game of ice hockey your team has to score more goals than the opposing team at the end of 3 periods of 20 minutes. Players get penalties for violating a rule (typically that means being sent off for 2 minutes). Five skaters and one goalie per team on the ice. Pass the pack to one another to outsmart the opposing team and shoot to score.

There are many different types of ice hockey rules that constitute the game with different penalties associated based on the rule that was violated. In this article, we will unpack the many rules and details of ice hockey to better understand and evaluate the game.

The Basic Rules of Hockey

A hockey team must always have five skaters on the ice and typically holds 16-24 players depending on team philosophy and league size. The five skaters include one goaltender who is protecting the net and preventing the opposing team from scoring. The five skaters are comprised of three forwards (left-wing, center, and right-wing) and two defensemen.

Ice Hockey Players
Photo by IQRemix at licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Typically, a shift, the time a group of players is on the ice, will last 1-2 minutes, but there are no specific rules to managing players’ ice time; this depends on the team or coaches’ philosophy of play. Oftentimes the better players or best players will receive the most ice time because they give the team the best chance to receive positive opportunities and most importantly win the game.  

A hockey goal is scored when the puck completely crosses the goal line, past the goaltender, and into the net. Although it seems simple, many aspects must come together to score a goal in ice hockey.

Whether it is a great wrist or slapshot, tip-in, or backhand, it takes a team effort to be granted a favorable goal-scoring opportunity. An assist in hockey is awarded to the previous two players that passed to the goal scorer. To recap, in ice hockey, secondary assists fully count as regular assist.

Championship Game

How do Ice Markings work?

On the surface of the ice include several color-coded lines that help determine any of the rules of the game. For example, a face-off, where two players fight for possession of a dropped puck from the referee takes place at a faceoff dot in which there are eight on the ice hockey rink.

Two blue lines make up the offensive and defensive zone and are where offsides are determined. The offensive and defensive zone are determined by which side the team is on, the home team is facing one side twice in a game (three side switches occur in total).

Offsides are when a player advances across the blue line for the possession of the puck by another player who crosses the line. This rule ensures that players don’t camp out in the opposing zone and have an unfair advantage in scoring a goal.

Caps Flyers
Photo by Gary McCabe at licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Offsides is not a penalty, but rather a whistle that stops play and is followed up by a face-off at the nearest face-off dot.

A goal crease is another marking on the ice surrounding the goalposts and net that makes sure players don’t get too close to the goalie to either score or hit the goaltender. A goal will be called back if an opposing player possesses or touches the puck in the goal crease.

What does Hockey Equipment need to Be Worn?

Each hockey player must wear a helmet with a face-protecting mask. Other required equipment includes shin guards, gloves, skates, hockey sticks, and goalie equipment for goalies. Referees will examine players before the start of the game to ensure that each player is properly protected in a violent sport.

ice hockey player
Photo by davidgsteadman licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Periods and Timing in Ice Hockey

There are three periods of play in a game that are usually 20 minutes each with stoppages due to whistles or penalties, etc. Most penalties are 2 minutes long but can sometimes be up to 4-5 minutes depending on the circumstances which we will review momentarily.

Another interesting rule in hockey is pulling the goalie. This most often occurs towards the end of a hockey game when the losing team is trying to increase their chances of scoring by acquiring an extra or 6th skater.

Additionally, subbing the goalie out for a skater happens during a delayed penalty when the whistle blows when the opposing team touches the puck

The Power Play

A power play occurs when the other team gets a penalty which forces them to be down to four skaters and one goalie versus five skaters and a goalie. Commonly 5 vs 4 skaters between teams will happen which is a major advantage for the team not penalized.

A 5 vs 3 powerplay is significantly adverse for the penalized team because possession will be on their end for most of the allotted penalty time.

What is Stick Checking?

Hockey Player with Stick

A common penalty in ice hockey is when a player uses his/her stick as a means of contact or for self-defense. Getting the stick checked hurts because the opposing player forcefully grabs the stick and hits you. The penalty duration for stick checking is two minutes.

Tripping Penalties

Another common penalty is when one player uses their skate or stick to make the other player fall. This commonly happens when a defenseman is beaten and needs to slow down the opposing player. Like stick checking, this penalty is two minutes.

Delay of Game

Photo by Mark Mauno licensed under CC BY 2.0

A delay of the game occurs when an ice hockey player shoots the puck out of play and into the crowd. Fans can get hurt by an unexpected flying puck which has unfortunately happened many times during NHL games.

It is essential for fans to always be paying attention to what’s happening on the ice because a bad head injury can occur. This penalty is two minutes as well.

Roughing Violations

Roughing is an interesting penalty because the amount of period time depends on the specific action between players. A dirty hit into the boards can lead to an ejection of that player for the rest of the game or a 4–5-minute penalty. Unnecessary contact also falls under the roughing umbrella of violations; this can include hitting the goalie when trying to score or trying to hit an opposing player when they are unaware.

What Does High Sticking Mean?

High sticking is another very interesting violation of the rules. High sticking occurs when one player hits another player in the face with the stick either on purpose or by accident. If the player hit with the high stick has any blood drawn, then the penalty is enforced from two minutes to four minutes.

Is Fighting Allowed or Not?

Unlike many other professional sports, fighting is allowed in NHL hockey. If two players mutually agree to fight, then they are permitted to until one player falls onto the ice. Both players have assessed a two-minute penalty after the fight is over and are welcomed to join the game after the penalty is served.

How Is Overtime Handled for the Regular Season and the Playoffs?

Over time, an extra period of play happens when the game is tied after the 3rd period and there must be a way to determine a winner. Both teams earn a point for forcing overtime but are given another point and more positive momentum moving forward if they win in overtime or shootout.

During the regular season, overtime is five minutes (compared to the typical 20-minute period) and is 3-on-3 play with both goalies in the net. This format is new from two years previous and favors the team with more speed and skill. Some ice hockey players and fans complain that it isn’t the proper way to determine a winner.

If the game is still tied after the 5-minute 3v3 overtime, then a shootout is played. A shootout is a skater vs goalie duel in the regular season where a breakaway opportunity is granted versus a goalie until one team scores enough goals to win.

As you can tell, hockey has many rules that determine the parameters and fairness of the game. After reading this article, I hope that you are able to understand the game better and know what is happening in real time.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada,

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