NHL Faceoff Rules – Ice Hockey Faceoff Rules Explained 2023

Posted on May 17, 2024 by Dan Kent
face-off hockey

If you're looking for a complete guide regarding NHL face-off rules or just face-off rules for ice hockey in general, you've come to the right article. In this piece, I will discuss absolutely everything regarding face-off rules in the NHL, whether it be why players switch, how the refs decide where to drop the puck, or even which player has to place their stick down first.

Let's get right into it. Remember, many of these rules will not apply in your normal recreational league, primarily because ice time is limited, and face-off violations would eat up ice time. So, you'll often see most of these rules deployed on a professional level.

Faceoff Rules

What are the face-off rules in the NHL?

Anyone outside of the goaltender can take the face-off in hockey. In addition, you are not allowed to make any body contact with the opponent, whether with your body or stick, while taking the face-off. After the puck has been dropped, you can engage in body content with the opposition team.

Here are some other general face-off rules:

  • Players taking the face-off must have their shoulders square to their opponent
  • The players taking the face-off will be approximately one stick-length apart
  • The toe of the player's stick blade must be set flat on the ice.
  • All players participating in the face-off (think wingers) must be at least 15 feet away from the players taking the draw
  • Any player committing a face-off violation will cause the player taking the draw to be kicked out of the face-off and replaced by another player
  • A team committing two face-off violations in the same instance will be assessed a delay of game penalty

Although these are the primary rules when it comes to face-offs, many minor rules and regulations come into play when the puck is drawn. Let's dive into those.

Who has to put their stick down first in an NHL face-off?

The visiting team's centerman must put their stick down on the ice first. This is a distinct advantage for the home team, as the center can decide when the puck can be dropped, as once they place their stick on the ice, the linesman will drop the puck.

Keep in mind, however, that once the referee or linesman blows their whistle, all players have five seconds to get set for the draw. If the home team does not set during this time, the linesman or ref can kick them out and replace them with another player.

Why do NHL players get kicked out of face-offs?

If a player gets kicked out of the face-off dot, it is likely because they have committed a face-off violation. The Official will remove a player from the draw if they commit an infraction or feel the player is trying to gain an advantage. If this is done twice during the same draw, the offending team will be assessed a two-minute delay of game penalty.

“(d)…A second violation of any of the provisions of this subsection by the same team during the same face-off shall result in a minor penalty for delay of game being assessed to the player committing the second violation."

As mentioned, once the referee gets to the face-off circle and is ready to drop the puck, the players have just five seconds to get into position. If the player is not in position or ready in time, then the Official will either drop the puck anyway or ask the players to swap.

Rule 613

"(a) Play shall start when one of the officials drops the puck between the sticks of two opposing players….

…(d) If a player facing-off fails to take his proper position immediately when directed by the Official, the Official may order him replaced for that face-off by any teammate then on the ice." USA Hockey Rules

"(c) After the line change procedure, the Official conducting the face-off shall blow his whistle. This will signal each team to have no more than five seconds to line up for the ensuing face-off. "

What is a face-off violation in hockey?

Common face-off violations include:

  • Not being square
  • Refusing to place their stick
  • Attempting to win the draw before the puck is dropped (similar to a false start in football)
  • Trying to gain any edge versus their opponent on the draw

Along with these centerman violations, their wingers or defenseman could also commit face-off violations by crossing into the opponent's face-off area or encroaching on the face-off circle. In this instance, the player taking the draw will be removed and replaced by a player other than the goalie.

When the official drops the puck into the face-off dot, both players are poised to take control of the puck. The players, however, are not allowed to contact each other until the puck leaves the official's hand.

If any players initiate contact by moving forward or hitting their stick before the referee drops the puck down, then the Official will either re-start the face-off or ask the players to switch.

Who has the advantage in a face-off?

Because the home team player can place their stick on the ice last and initiate when the puck is dropped, typically, they have the advantage when it comes to a face-off. 

Is a hand pass off a face-off a penalty?

A relatively new rule, brought in during the early 2010s, any player who attempts to win a draw with their hand or cover the puck with their hand off the draw will be assessed a minor penalty. 

After the puck has touched a player outside of the two taking the draw, the centermen can touch the puck with their hands again. However, the hand pass rule still applies.

What do refs say during face-off?

There are many things the ref or linesman could be saying to the players before a face-off. For one, the linesman will remind the players to get set and tell them who needs to be set first. They may also attempt to verbally correct a player's positioning before issuing them a face-off violation.

Finally, it may be when the linesman or ref is issuing a face-off violation. In this case, they will tell the player to exit the draw circle and bring in another player.

Why do hockey refs fake drop the puck?

Generally, hockey refs do not fake drop the puck. There are instances where it may look this way, however. A linesman or ref could abort dropping the puck if a player has committed a face-off violation or they notice something is not correct in the process of dropping the puck.

You will often notice that a linesman looks to have "faked" dropping the puck when a player attempts to anticipate the draw before the puck is dropped and swipes his stick or moves forward.

In this instance, they could decide to kick a player out of the draw or reset, go through the face-off process again, and drop the puck.

How do they decide which face-off circle?

The face-off circle will be decided by where the puck was shot on the ice or which side of the ice the goaltender froze the puck. For example, suppose an attacking player comes into the attacking zone and shoots the puck on net on the left-hand side, and it is frozen by the goalie. In that case, the face-off spot will be on the left-hand side of that zone.

After a goal or possibly a missed call by the linesman, say a missed icing call, the puck will be dropped at center ice.

Suppose an attacking player knocks the net off or shoots the puck out of the zone without being touched by a defending player. In that case, face-off locations can be moved outside the player's attacking zone.

In the event of an offside, the face-off will be done in the neutral zone on the side the puck entered the attacking zone.

What determines who wins a face-off in hockey?

The team that wins the face-off is ultimately the one that gains possession of the puck. It is not the player who touches the puck first. If a scramble inside the dot occurs and a winger comes in to retrieve the puck, the face-off win will be awarded to the team who retrieves the puck from that scramble.

Winning the face-off is crucial becomes it determines a team's possession and ability to score or defend. When a team wins the face-off, they can immediately pass to a teammate and control the play. For this reason, face-offs are so fiercely competitive, and it is common for multiple rule violations to occur throughout a game.

You'll often see the referee re-doing a face-off or asking for a new player to take up position inside the circle at least a few times throughout a period.

Face-off strategies by players and coaches

Because the NHL is so talented and face-offs are so fierce, many coaches and skaters need to adapt their strategies to try and win as many draws as possible.

For one, a coach may put players out on the ice depending on which side of the ice the face-off is on. This will be in an attempt to get a player to take the draw on their "strong side."

Additionally, coaches may put two centermen on the ice. In this instance, if the first one commits a face-off violation, the second centerman can step in, and the team can have a better chance of winning the draw even after the violation.

In addition, many players have started to reverse their sticks when taking draws so that they can take draws on their strong side regardless of what face-off dot they are at.

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.

Looking for more hockey content? Have a look at these articles