What Is Offside in Hockey? Hockey Offsides Explained Easily

Posted on May 17, 2024 by Dan Kent

If you're a newcomer to the exciting and fast-paced game of ice hockey, you may feel slightly overwhelmed while trying to learn all the rules of play. 

For fans and players alike, trying to keep up with the different plays and rules can sometimes be complicated and confusing. In this article, we will speak on offsides, including what it is and why the rule is in place.

What is offside in hockey?

Offside is when both a players skates cross the blue line before the puck does. In simpler terms, a player cannot have entered the offensive zone before the puck entering. If they do, the whistle will be blown if the offending team has possession in the zone, and the play will be deemed offside.

Unlike penalties, which the referee calls, the linesman calls an offside infraction. 

If a player keeps one of their skates behind the blue line, the play may continue without the official calling for a stop. Or, if they are deemed to have possession of the puck, the play could be called onside even though their body entered the zone before the puck. However, this is a rarity.

In short, the puck must precede the player who possesses it across the opponent's blue line. It is the job of the two linesmen to watch for offsides, and they're the ones who will usually call them as they see them occur.

If a player crosses the blue line ahead of the puck, they are considered offside, and the play is stopped if that player or a teammate touches the puck inside the zone. 

The critical factor here is if both skates crossed the blue line — as a player's body, stick, and a single skate can cross it without it being considered an offside. This is why players often drag their back skate if it is close to being offside.

What does the blue line mean in hockey?

Offsides in hockey

The blue lines serve a critical purpose in the game of hockey. They separate the hockey rink into three key zones, the neutral zone, the defensive zone, and the attacking zone.

The defensive zone will have the team's goal, where they "defend" their goal from being scored on by the opposing team. The attacking zone (or offensive zone) is where the team with the puck tries to score on their opposition's goaltender. Because teams rotate ends every period, a team's attacking and defending zones will change every period.

These zones are divided by two blue lines — with the neutral zone in the center. These lines' main purpose is to prevent players from entering the offensive zone before the puck can cross the line. The puck must precede the player.

This keeps the offence from gaining an unfair advantage over the defence during play. This wasn't always the rule, but it has evolved as the game has changed.

Do you have to touch the puck to be offside?

You do not need to touch the puck to be offside. Any player who crosses their offensive blue line before the puck is offside. 

However, unless the linesman blows the play for an intentional offside, you or your teammates must touch the puck inside the attacking zone with one teammate still offside for the play to be blown down. This is what they call a delayed offside call, and I will discuss this later in this article.

A situation when offside will not be called

If a player is offside, meaning they crossed the blue line prior to the puck crossing it, if a player of the opposing team brings the puck inside of the zone, the player will no longer be deemed offside.

For example, a player from team A enters their attacking zone prior to the puck. The linesman raises their hand, indicating a delayed offside. However, a forward from team B takes possession of the puck and brings it inside the zone. The player from team A will no longer be offside.

What happens when a play is stopped due to offside?

If a play is offside, the linesmen will blow their whistles, and then the puck will be dropped again on one of the designated faceoff spots closest to the blue line where the infraction occurred in the neutral (middle) zone.

When the whistle has been blown, the linesman will signal to where the offsides took place with a chopping motion. Assuming that the offside was not intentional, the faceoff will occur, and the game will resume.

If the offside were considered intentional, the faceoff would instead take place on the opposite side of the ice where it took place — which offers a slight disadvantage to the attacking team due to the puck being in their defensive zone now.

When did the NHL add offsides?

The NHL added offsides to the game in 1929. The official rule was "No attacking player allowed to precede the play when entering the opposing defensive zone."

Offside is such a pivotal element to hockey. It's puzzling that the rule hasn't always existed. However, it's been modified extensively over the years. 

Let's review the different types of icing and when the NHL implemented them.

What are the different types of offsides in hockey?

Delayed Offside Rule

After running an automatic offside, the NHL returned to the delayed offside in the 2005-06 season.

The difference? A delayed offside is called when a player from the attacking team has crossed the blue line before the puck but hasn't touched the puck itself. The attacking team can then "tag up", meaning the players can exit the zone, and the offside won't be called.

The players must skate back across the blue line into the center ice portion of the rink and can then reenter the offensive zone. This neutralizes the original offside and allows the team to avoid the call. It will enable the game to carry on without a stoppage of play.

Before the 2005-06 season, as soon as an offside occurred, the whistle was blown immediately, rather than allowing players to tag up. This killed the flow of play, and it is doubtful the NHL will return to this old format.

Intentional Offside Rule

This is a rarer situation in which the linesman determines that the team attacking intentionally got the offside called on them — which is sometimes done in an attempt to get a line change.

If the players on the ice during the shift are tired but haven't gotten back to the bench, the team may resort to an intentional offside. Of course, it's not ideal, but it happens occasionally.

In this instance, the linesman can move the faceoff all the way back to their defending zone instead of having it just outside of their attacking zone.

Offsides Deflection Rule

Even rarer still are the offsides deflections. Suppose the team on defence attempted to clear the puck to the other end of the rink, but it hit an official in the neutral zone, then went back into the defensive zone. In that case, the play can be called offsides.

What is the point of offside in hockey?

Offsides were put in place by the NHL to make it so players couldn't just hang around the opposition team's net in an attempt to catch a long pass from a teammate. By making it so they cannot enter the attacking zone before the puck, they technically cannot get a head start on the puck to avoid defenders in place.

If offsides didn't exist, it would be a detriment to the game's overall quality and would ruin the flow for both players and fans. It wouldn't so much be about skill at that point as it would be about "cherry-picking" the best moment to take a completely uncontested shot on the goaltender.

What is the difference between offside and icing in hockey?

Offside and icing are the two most common but very different infractions in hockey. Offside is when a player crosses the blue line into the attacking zone before the puck. At the same time, icing is when a team shoots the puck more than halfway down the ice at even strength or on the power play. 

There are specific situations where icing is not called, and we go over those in our article on what the icing rule is here.

Hockey offsides summed up

Now that you thoroughly understand offsides and how and when they occur, you can keep up with the next NHL game you tune into. Offsides are common, and you'll be able to watch out for them yourself now.

Hockey isn't the only sport with an offsides rule, as football and soccer also have them. They keep the game's pace flowing and force players to focus on skill and creative play rather than providing an unfair advantage that would ruin the overall quality of the NHL and ice hockey.

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, Stocktrades.ca.

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