Ice Hockey Rules at a Glance

A look at ice hockey rules and how the game works.

Ice Hockey Layout

The world's greatest and most exciting game is easy to follow once you know a few basic rules and practices. Here is a brief guide to the essential ice hockey rules.

The Playing Surface
see diagram

  • The ice sheet is commonly known as the rink.
  • The rink is divided into zones by a red line at center ice and two blue lines.
  • A standard North American rink measures 200 feet by 85 feet.
  • European ice surfaces are slightly larger.
  • The ice is enclosed by boards and Plexiglas.

Rink "Zones"
see diagram

  • The ice surface is divided into three zones.
  • The area where the goal net is located is the "defending zone" for the team defending that net.
  • The middle of the rink, between two blue lines, is the "neutral zone."
  • The area where the opposing net is located is the "attacking zone" or "offensive zone."

The Puck
see picture

  • The puck is made of black, vulcanized rubber.
  • A standard puck measures one inch thick and three inches in diameter, and weighs between 5.5 and 6 ounces.
  • The puck can be moved with the hockey stick or the feet, but picking it up with the hands is illegal.

The Hockey Stick
see picture

  • A stick held by each player and used to retrieve, control, carry, pass and shoot the puck.
  • Goals are scored by using the stick to shoot the puck into the opponent's net.
  • A shot that inadvertently deflects into the net off another player's body is allowed to stand as a goal.

    The Net
    see picture

    • A cage measuring four feet tall and six feet wide, strung with nylon mesh in the back.
    • There are two nets at opposite ends of the ice, guarded by the goaltenders.

    Object of the Game

    • The object of the game is to score more goals than the opposition.

    The Teams

    • The five have assigned positions: three forwards and two defensemen.
    • Regardless of assigned positions, all players except the goaltender can go anywhere on the ice.
    • The goaltender cannot cross the center ice red line that divides the rink in half.


    • Substitutions are unlimited and can be made at any time.
    • A substitution does not require an official's permission, or a stoppage in play.
    • A player can join the game "on the fly" - during the flow of play - as long as the departing player is within five feet of the bench and not involved in the play or with an opponent.

    The Faceoff
    see picture

    • The game begins when the referee drops the puck between two opposing forwards.
    • During the faceoff all other players are positioned on the defensive side of the puck.
    • The faceoff is used to resume play following any stoppage in the game.
    • There are nine designated faceoff spots painted on the ice.

    The Game Clock

    • The game is played in three 20-minute periods.
    • The clock is stopped during all stoppages in play.

    Body Checking

    • A player can use a shoulder, hip or torso to hit or impede an opponent, but only when the opponent is in possession of the puck.
    • A body check that targets the head is illegal.
    • A body check to an opponent's back is illegal if the opponent is facing the boards.

    Minor Penalties
    Note that the difference between a legal check and a penalty is open to interpretation, and remains a source of dispute among fans, players, and everyone else involved in the game.

    • A player charged with a minor penalty is sent off the ice for two minutes, with no substitution allowed.
    • The penalty ends immediately if a goal is scored by the opposing team.

    Minor penalties are called for obstructing an opponent. Infractions include:

    • Tripping (with the stick or knee)
    • Holding (with stick or hands)
    • Hooking (with stick)
    • Interferance (checking or impeding a player without the puck)

    Penalties are called for dangerous use of the stick, including:

    • Slashing
    • Spearing
    • High-sticking (hitting an opponent in the head or face)
    • Cross-checking (hitting an opponent with the shaft of the stick)

    Penalties are called for dangerous physical fouls, including:

    • Elbowing
    • Checking from behind
    • Kneeing
    • Roughing (broadly defined; usually involves a wrestling or shoving match)

    Major Penalties

    • A player charged with a major penalty is sent of the ice for five minutes.
    • The most common major penalty is fighting. If both fighters receive five-minute penalties, substitutions can be made.
    • At the referee's discretion, an infraction commonly deemed a minor penalty can be increased to a major. This usually occurs if an opponent has been seriously injured, or if the referee believes there was a deliberate attempt to injure.
    • A player charged with a major penalty involving serious injury or attempt to injure is ejected from the game.
    • If a penalized player is ejected, a teammate is assigned to serve his major penalty. No substitution is allowed.

    Ice Hockey FAQ:
    What is offside?
    What is icing?
    How does the shootout work?
    What's a power play?
    More Hockey FAQ

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