Ice Hockey basics: Learn how the game is played

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Are you interested in learning more about hockey? Read on!

Let’s begin:

Hockey is played in an arena just like other sports. What is different is that the floor is an ice sheet and the audience is separated from the action by a clear, protective glass. This prevents accidents. The puck may fly out in all directions during the game.

The object of the game

The object of the game is to score more goals than the other team. A goal is scored when a player shoots the puck (a small, round, black rubber disc) to the goal or the net. The goals are two cave-like structures with netting. These are guarded by a goaltender located at each end of the rink. Scoring a goal is easier said than done as you will see during a hockey game. The players have to use a stick to move the puck around (they can’t use their hands!). They also have to skate to go around the rink. Anybody with the puck can and will be blocked. Players will use any means necessary to prevent an opponent from scoring a goal. It’s a physical game of speed, stamina and strategy.

Hockey zones:

The ice is divided into three zones: defending, neutral, and attacking (or offensive):

  • Defending zone – For a team, this is the area where their goal is located.
  • Neutral zone – This is the middle of the rink between two blue lines.
  • Attacking zone – For a team, this is the area where the other team’s goal is located.

drawing of a hockey rink with zones shown

Ice hockey rink image by Flamurai, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA.

The Players

Each team has six players on the ice. One will be the goaltender and the other five, skaters. Skaters are made up of three forwards and two defensemen. The skaters can go anywhere on the ice. The goaltender cannot cross the red line that divides the rink in half.

Players can be substituted anytime. They don’t need to ask the referee’s permission or stop the game. A player can substitute a team mate as long as the leaving player is within five feet of the bench and is not involved in any play with an opponent. Substitutions are also unlimited.

In every game, you will see people on the ice wearing black and white striped shirts. They are the referees. Referees are not players. They serve as officials of the game. They enforce the game rules and maintain order. They play a crucial role because they assess penalties and generally supervise the game. They are assisted by linesmen. There are usually two referees and two linesmen in a game.

How the game starts

The game starts (or resumes) when the linesman or referee drops the puck between two opposing forwards. This is called the faceoff. All the skaters must be positioned in their designated faceoff spots. After the linesman or referee signals (a whistle blow), each player has five seconds to be on their spot. After the puck is dropped, each team will fight for its possession or control.

Players can be taken out of the faceoff if they commit an offense. This usually involves not being in the right position or if they make physical contact with the opponent. The referees make the call.

The game

Each game lasts 60 minutes broken down into three 20-minute periods. There is a 17-minute break between first and second period. This is to give the players time to rest and to check the ice to make sure it is smooth and clean.

If the game has a tied score at the end of the 60-minute playing time, they go into overtime. In a regular season game (not the NHL playoffs), this is an additional period of five minutes. The game ends when a team scores a goal. This is called sudden death. If nobody scores a goal, a shootout is done. Each team will nominate three players to shoot the puck directly against the goalie. The team with the highest score wins. In the playoffs, overtime is 20 minutes. Again, the first team to score a goal wins. If nobody scores, additional overtime periods are called until a team scores.

Other rules (usual calls you will see at a game):

Here are more technical and complex aspects of the game. These are the parts that may confuse you when you watch the first time:

What is Icing?

This is when a player passes the puck and it goes beyond the center red line, all the way to the far side of the rink and it remains untouched. This is considered a violation because it diverts from the flow of the game. A referee calls it and the game stops. As punishment, the offending team will have a faceoff in their defending zone. This gives their opponent a bigger chance to score especially if they win the faceoff.

As an exception, a team may “ice the puck” (or commit icing) when they are shorthanded. A team can be shorthanded if their other players are serving penalty. A penalty is punishment for breaking a rule. Usually, a player who is assessed a penalty is sent to the penalty box for a number of minutes. This means the player cannot participate in the game until they are done serving the penalty. The team is also not allowed to send in a substitute. But there are exceptions to this rule (I did say it gets complicated in this part). For example, if players are penalized because of fighting in a scrum. A scrum or a pile-up is when a number of players converge and start to fight. Players who go too far can be charged with a two-minute penalty but their teams will play at full strength, meaning they can substitute.

A team is said to be on a power play when they have more players on the ice. This happens when some of the opposing team’s players are serving a penalty. A team is on penalty kill when they are shorthanded and are waiting for their players who were penalized to return to the game.


This is also a violation. When a player or players of the attacking team is/are in the attacking zone before the puck gets there (their skates are on or behind the blue line) and if anyone on the team touches the puck. When this is called, the linesman stops and restarts the play. A faceoff is held on the neutral zone on the side of the ice where the violation was done.

Minor Infractions

These are violations that are not punished with a penalty (no trip to the penalty box). These are usually resolved with a faceoff. But if the referee sees that it was intentional, he can upgrade it to a Minor Penalty (subject to time in the penalty box). These include:

  • High sticking – Playing the puck when it is above the shoulder with a stick.
  • Hand pass – When a player advances the puck using his hand (without closing his hand over it).
  • Puck out of play – When the puck is sent out of the playing surface (for example into the crowd or benches).
  • Incidental goalie interference – When an opposing player is in contact with a goalie. A goal resulting out of this play is disallowed.
  • Distinct kicking motion – When a player unintentionally kicks the puck into the net. The goal is also not counted.
  • Dislodged net – When the net or goal is moved out of its place.


This one of the most controversial aspects of ice hockey. While fighting is somewhat part of the game, it is also heavily regulated and sanctioned. Fights usually start with a heated verbal exchange. Then the players’ gloves are dropped, and a fight ensues. Referees stop the play to observe and assess fights. When one player goes down, the referee steps in.

Penalties vary depending on the referee’s call. Excessive force can get a player removed from the game, suspended, or fined. Recently, the NHL introduced Instigator and Aggressor penalties to reduce fights. An Instigator is the player who clearly starts the fight by any number of ways. An Aggressor, on the other hand, is a player who hits another player who is unwilling to fight or is defenseless. Instigators and Assessors are given punishment ranging from minor penalty, major misconduct penalty, to suspensions and fines based on the referee’s and league’s decision.

Different Types of Penalties:

  • Minor penalties – A player charged with a minor penalty is usually given two minutes in the penalty box. His team will play shorthanded. The offending player’s penalty is over when the opponent scores a goal or when the two minutes is up.
  • Double minor – Slightly worse violations such as head-butting or high-sticking can get a player to spend four minutes in the penalty box. This time, if the opponent gets a goal, the offending player will not be released. The offending player will be released if the opponent gets two goals or if the four minutes is up.
  • Bench minors – A player not in the game but on the bench can receive a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct (see moves that can receive penalties below) or if the team has too many men on the ice. The punishment is the same as committing a minor.
  • Coincidental penalties – These are violations, like fighting in a scrum, that does not cause the team to play shorthanded. Offending players serve a two-minute penalty.
  • Major penalty – These are grave violations that receive five minutes in the penalty box. The most common major penalty is for fighting. Incurring more than one major penalty can get a player ejected from the game or suspended from the next game.
  • Match penalty – This is equivalent to an ejection from the game. A player who tries to or successfully injures another player intentionally is charged with this penalty.
  • Misconduct penalty – A player usually gets this for verbal abuse or emotional outbursts. The player is not ejected from the game but may be sent off from the ice for 10 minutes. Depending on the severity of the offense, the player can also be fined or suspended.
  • Penalty shot – A player is awarded a penalty shot if an opponent commits a violation that prevents him from a genuine scoring opportunity. The player must be in the neutral or attacking zone, has no defender between him and the goal, the foul happens from behind, and he has the possession of the puck. A penalty shot is a one-on-one play between the offended player and the opposing team’s goalie.

Moves that can receive penalties:

  • Checking – Any defensive technique that disrupts an opponent from getting the puck. Checking in itself is allowed. It becomes a violation only when done recklessly or excessively. A player can use a shoulder, hip or body to stop an opponent. It is allowed as long as the opponent is in possession of the puck. But there are specific rules. For example, when using a shoulder check, the player’s elbow must be tucked in. Otherwise, the player will be penalized for elbowing. Meanwhile, a clipping violation is called when a player throws his body across or below the knees of an opponent.
  • Boarding – Pushing and pinning an opponent to the boards (the fence around the ice).
  • Charging – Deliberately slamming into another player.
  • Holding – Grabbing the opponent to stop his movement.
  • Hooking – Restraining the opponent by using the stick.
  • Roughing – When two players are in a minor altercation (usually involving punching). It is usually unintentional and is seen as more minor than a fight.
  • Delay of game – Any action that delays the game like intentionally covering the puck, knocking the net, or sending the puck out of play.
  • Throwing the stick – This is a dangerous illegal move. Players can get seriously injured if they get hit or if they trip on somebody’s stick on the ice. Even goalies are not allowed to let go of their sticks.
  • Tripping – Any move that can make another player lose balance and fall. An example would be using the stick or skates against the opponent’s feet to trip him.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct – In the NHL, this extends even to the non-playing members of the team. It is any “disorderly conduct before, during or after the game, or off the ice and any place in the rink”. This includes using profanities or abusive language directed at any person, throwing an object onto the ice from the bench, or a player deliberately removing his jersey (uniform), among others.

Getting too much for you? You’ll get the hang of it when you watch the games often. For now, just observe and have fun.

You may also notice that some ice hockey rules are different depending on the league or age-bracket playing. Most of those mentioned here are for pro-hockey, based on NHL rules. Also, ice hockey is a continually evolving game. Rules may change and/or additional rules may be set.

With thanks to Dan Sylvester for reviewing this article.

Article updated December 15, 2023.
Sources: Hockey 101: A beginner’s guide to Ice Hockey, The Hockey Writers; Hockey 101: A beginner’s guide to the rules of hockey, Rink Management Services Corporation; The length of a professional hockey game, Jeremi Davidson,; National Hockey League Rule Book, All retrieved May 3, 2018.

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Community Resources

Want to get to the roots of hockey? Read Newcomer’s guide to hockey where you’ll learn the origin of the sport. While you’re at it, learn some Hockey terms and lingo to understand the game better.

Want to experience playing hockey yourself? Check with Immigrant-Serving Organizations around Manitoba. Some may have free programs related to hockey. For those who don’t know how to skate (an essential skill needed to play ice hockey), check Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network. They usually offer free skating lessons in winter.

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