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Learn About Ice Hockey 101

Ice hockey is one of the most exhilarating sports there is–the fast pace, the hard hits, the blinding shots, and the remarkable finesse, all add to the spectacle. Taking in a game can be a wonderful experience even for a beginner, but having a basic understanding of the game can offer a little more in the way of how to appreciate the sport.  This article can give you a step up, and help you learn about ice hockey.

The Objective in Ice Hockey

To better understand the goal in the sport requires a better understanding of the rink. The rink is the sheet of ice the players skate on during the game. In regulation NHL play, the rink is 200 feet in length by 85 feet in width. An Olympic rink is typically 200 feet by 98 feet.

At either end of the rink, 11 feet from the boards (the surrounding walls) are the nets. Each team defends their own net from the other. As in most sports, there is an object in contention, which is usually some sort of ball. In ice hockey, however, a 2.5 inch vulcanized rubber disk, commonly called a puck, is the object the two teams content for. The object is for one team to shoot the puck into the opposing teams net. This is referred to as a goal, and at the end of the game, the team with the most goals, wins.


At the professional level, most teams dress a total of 20 players per game, however, only six are on the ice at a time. They each have specific titles and duties, although their duties in some cases over-lap.

  • Goalie – This is easily the most important player on the ice. The goalie is the last line of defense for prevent the puck to enter the net. The goalies position on the ice is directly in front of the net at all times. This player may move around a bit to handle the puck, or for other reasons, but for the most part, the goalie should remain in front of the net. One thing that separates the goalie from the other players on the ice, is this player is the only one allowed to freeze the puck. Freezing the puck means, covering it up, so that no other player can play it. The goalie does this with a glove or pad, so play will stop, and a face-off will occur to restart play. As it’s the goalie’s job to absorb shots from the other players, the goalie’s equipment is considerably different from the others. The goalie wears enormous leg pads, commonly referred to as just goalie pads, that extend from the ankle up to mid-thigh, and are 11 inches wide. This player also wears a mask with bars, two padded gloves, one called a blocker, the other called a trapper that resembles a baseball player’s glove. The goalie also wears special padding under the jersey to better absorb shots.  This position is also referred to by many other names, including, goalkeeper, netminder, goaltender, and back-stop.
  • Center – The centerman, also referred to as the pivot, is the central forward on the ice. This player takes all face-offs, and works the ice with sort of a two-way capacity. This player’s role is as both an offensive and a defensive player, and typically is one of the more talented players on the ice.
  • Left Wing – The left wing covers the left side of the ice, and is primarily an offensive player. This player is a forward in support of the centerman, and has duties that resemble that position, but has more of an emphasis on offense.
  • Right Wing – The right wing covers the right side of the ice, and is primarily an offensive player. This player is a forward in support of the centerman, and has duties that resemble that position, but has more of an emphasis on offense.
  • Defensemen (2) – There are always two defensemen on the ice, one right and one left. These two work in concert, just back from the forwards, but their main role is in a defensive capacity.
Aside from the goalie, the players in ice hockey have similar roles.  When a team has possession of the puck, each member on the ice is in an offensive capacity, while when possession belongs to the other team, the players are in a defensive capacity.  The positions, and their roles, are fluid, as the game progresses.

Basics of Play

With the goal of the game to move the puck up the ice and deposit it into your opponents net, the basics of the play require things like, skating, puck-handling, passing and shooting. The team in possession of the puck are the ones on offense. It’s their goal to move the puck up ice by any means. All puck movement must be done by a stick or skate. A stick is a long angled piece of equipment that used to be made of wood, but most current athletes use sticks made of composite plastic.

The offensive team can most the puck up ice by skating it up ice and controlling it with a stick, commonly called stick-handling, they can pass it up ice to another teammate, or they can just fire the puck the length of the ice and chase it down. This last technique is called dump and chase. One caveat to that technique is a rule introduced called icing, that keeps players from icing the puck from certain distances. More detail on this below.

The defending team must prevent the offensive team by their own means. This includes, stick-checking or poke-checking, which is using the stick to poke at a puck-carriers stick and force a loss of control, body-checking, which is a more forceful way of colliding with an opponent either using a shoulder or hip, or possibly just trying to interupt a pass. The defending teams job is to basically interupt a team with possession of the puck, and eliminate their rush. Once the rush is eliminated, and possession changes hands, the teams immediately change roles. There is no pause in the game for changing sides, such as in baseball or football. The game progresses naturally, making it a more high speed sport.

Once a team in possession of the puck can get close enough to the opposing net, they will shoot the puck towards it with the hopes of beating the goalie and scoring a goal.

Any time play is stopped for any reasons, whether a goal is scored, the puck is frozen, or the puck leaves the rink area, there is a face-off between the centerman.

Time Limit

The time limit for a regulation ice hockey game is measured in periods. Each period, at the professional level, is 20-minutes, and there are three periods total. If after the three periods the teams are tied, there will typically be an overtime period played of a designated time. There may be other rules instituted in the overtime, such as in the NHL, during the regular season their is a 5-minute overtime, inwhich the teams do not send six players onto the ice, they send only five. During overtime, as soon as a single goal is scored, the game is over, and the team that scored it, is the winner. This is called, “sudden death.”

The NHL has another regulation for overtime, that began in recent years. If, during the regular season, no winner is decided during the overtime, a shootout occurs. A shootout is when teams alternate sending individual players onto the ice to go one-on-one against the oppositions goalie. They do this in succession until a winner is decided. Player try all manner of tricks, called dekes, to fool to goalie into making certain moves to try and score.


Face-offs occur any time play needs to be restarted. There are two types of umpires on the ice. There are referees, who call the penalties and there are linesmen, who handle the line regulations and drop all face-offs. A face-off can occur at any of the nine face-off dots around the ice. The center ice face-off dot is used only at the beginning of each period or after a goal is scored. There are four offsides face-off dots just outside the bluelines, and four face-off dots inside of each blueline, called the face-off circles.

During a face-off, this is one of the few times hockey resembles football. The goalies remain in their nets, but the forwards (center, right wing and left wing), set up facing one another. The defensemen stand behind the centerman with a bit of distance between themselves. The two centermen take the draw, which means they stand facing one another with their sticks on the ice, in designated white areas at the edges of the face-off dots. A linesman will stand beside the two of them holding the puck at about waist level before dropping it between both sticks. Once the puck is released from the linesman’s hand, it is in play, and both centermen will work to get control of it, by trying to chip it back to one of their defenseman. The centerman can chip it anywhere on the ice, but the most common location is to a defenseman to gain control and begin offensive.

Zones of Play

During a hockey game, the rink is considered to have three zones. It’s best to consider this in regards to one team in particular because it changes for both. The zones are separated by the blue lines.

The first zone, called the defensive zone, is the area within the blue line, in which your team is defending. Any face-offs occuring at the two face-off circles in this zone are called defensive zone face-offs.

The second zone, called the neutral zone, is the center of the rink, in between both blue lines. This is where the center face-off occurs, and it is an area of great contention for puck control.

The third zone, called the offensive zone, is the area within the blue line, in which your opponents is defending their own net. All face-offs occuring at the two face-off circles in this zone are called offensive zone face-offs.

The strategies teams import per each zone are very different, and understanding them can greatly improve appreciation of the game.

Line Rules

  • Icing – This rule prevents teams from just firing the puck the length of the ice when they get into trouble.  The rule of icing involves the red line at the center of the ice and the opposing goal line, both of which are red.  If a team in possession of the puck sends the puck the length of the ice, and it crosses the opposing teams goal line, they must race down the ice and retrieve the puck before the opposing team touches the puck, or they’ve committed icing.  In the case of an icing call, by the linesman, the puck comes all the way back, and there is a face-off in the offending teams defensive zone.
  • Offsides – Offsides involves the blue lines.  If a team in possession of the puck crosses the blue line into the offensive zone, before the puck, they have committed offsides.  One caveat to this rule is, if the player controlling the puck enters the offensive zone before the puck, as long as the puck is in control, it is not offsides.  In the event of offsides, play is blown dead, and a face-off occurs just outside of the blue line.
  • Trapezoid - In the NHL, red trapezoids were painted behind each net.  This rule involves wear goalies are allowed to play the puck behind their own net.  If a goalie goes behind the net, and tries to play the puck outside of the trapezoid, this rule has been broken, and a two-minute minor penalty for delay-of-game will be assessed.  The goalie does not serve the penalty, however, another player must serve it.  In front of the goal line, the goalie can play the puck anywhere.


Penalties are a part of the game, and it’s the way the referees keep the game fair. There are a few kinds of penalties, but the most common are minor penalties and major penalties.

Minor penalties are typically any kind of action a player takes against another player that can impede the player’s progress. These include things like tripping, slashing, hooking, holding, elbowing, spearing, cross-checking, and many others, but primarily, these are stick infractions.

If a minor penalty is called. The offending player recieves a two-minute penalty, and must stay in the penalty box for either the entire two-minutes, or until the opposing team scores a goal, whichever comes first. During the penalty, the offending team must send one less player onto the ice, leaving them with only five players to use, which gives a big advantage to the other team, who will play with a man-advantage.

The team with a player in the penalty goes on what is called a penalty kill, while the other team goes on the power play.

A major penalty is a penalty that is a little more severe, and recieves a five-minute penalty. There are several reasons a player would recieve this penalty, but it is typically up to the referee to deduce the severity.

During a five-minute major penalty, the power play team can score as many goals as they like. The penalty will last until the entire five-minutes is up. That gives a power play a major advantage.

Another type of penalty is, fighting, which is an off-setting five-minute penalty, but does not allow for any loss of man-power on the ice. The offending players must go to the penalty box for five-minutes, and there isn’t much affect on the game, other than a possible shift in momentum.

The last type of penalty is a 10-minute misconduct penalty. This is usually handed out by a referee in the case a player is unruly, and is deemed to need to be removed from the game. Players recieving this penalty commonly serve it in the dressing room rather than the penalty box, as it is not so much a penalty, as more of a banishment. There are also game-misconduct penalties, which are in essence, like a player getting kicked out of the game.


The game of ice hockey is an intense and fascinating sport, and knowing just a few things about it’s play can enhance the experience, and improve the enjoyment.