Ice Hockey basics: Learn how the game is played

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Interested in hockey? That’s great! Many Manitobans are hockey fans.

How is hockey played?

Hockey is played in an arena.

  • The players skate on ice.
  • People watch behind a clear glass. This protects them from being hit by the puck. The puck is the small, round, black rubber disc that players hit with sticks.

A team wins by scoring more goals than the other team.

  • A goal is counted when a player shoots the puck into the net.
  • The net or goal looks like a cave with netting located at both ends of the arena. Each one is guarded by a goaltender.

The player with the puck will be blocked to stop them from scoring a goal. Players must be fast, strong and smart.

Hockey zones:

The arena is divided into three zones:

  1. Defending zone – the area where the team’s goal is located.
  2. Neutral zone – the middle of the rink between two blue lines.
  3. Attacking zone – 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

How many:
Each team has six players playing.

  • One goaltender and five skaters.
    • Skaters are three forwards and two defensemen.
    • All the skaters can go anywhere on the ice.
    • The goaltender cannot cross the red line that divides the rink in half.


  • Players can be replaced or substituted anytime.
  • They don’t need to ask permission.
  • A player can substitute a team mate within five feet of the bench. The player being replaced must not be involved in any play with an opponent.
  • There is no limit to the number of substitutions.

Referees and linesmen:

  • There are two referees and two linesmen in a game. They are not players.
  • They supervise the game. They make sure that rules are followed. They give punishment (penalties) when players break rules.
  • Referees wear shirts with black and white stripes. Linesmen help referees.

The Game

How the game starts:

The game starts (or resumes) with a faceoff.

  • The linesman or referee drops the puck between two opposing forwards.
  • All the skaters should be in their faceoff spots.
  • The linesman or referee blows the whistle. Each player has five seconds to be on their spot.
  • Each team fight for the control of the puck after it is dropped.

Players can be taken out of the faceoff if they are not in the right position or if they touch or hit the opponent.

How long is it played?

  • Each game lasts 60 minutes. The 60 minutes if divided into three 20-minute periods.
  • There is a 17-minute break between first and second period. Players rest and officials check the ice to make sure it is smooth and clean.

The overtime

  • Teams play five more minutes if the score is tied at the end of the playing time (regular season games).
  • The game ends when a team scores a goal (sudden death).
  • A shootout is done if no one scores a goal. Each team will have three players to shoot the puck against the goalie. The team with the highest score wins.
  • Overtime is 20 minutes in the NHL playoffs. The first team to score a goal wins.
  • If no one scores: additional overtime periods are called until a team scores.

Other rules:

These are the complicated parts of the game. You may hear the following:

  1. Icing– This is when a player hits the puck and it goes beyond the center red line to the far side of the rink, and it is untouched. It is a violation. The offending team will have a faceoff in their defending zone. This gives their opponent a bigger chance to score when they win the faceoff.
    • A team may “ice the puck” (or commit icing) when they have only a few players on the ice. This happens when their other players are serving penalty.
    • A penalty is punishment for breaking a rule. A player who is serving penalty is sent to the penalty box for several minutes. The team is not allowed to substitute the player.
    • A team is only allowed to substitute when their players on penalty fought in a scrum. A scrum is when a number of players pile-up and start to fight.
    • A team is on a power play when they have more players on the ice.
    • A team is on penalty kill when they are waiting for their players who are on penalty to return to the game.
  2. Offsides. This is also a violation. This is when a player of the attacking team is in the attacking zone before the puck gets there and someone on the team touches the puck. The linesman stops and restarts the play. A faceoff is held on the neutral zone where the violation was done.
  3. Minor violations. These are violations that are not punished with a penalty. A faceoff is done. These include:
    • High sticking – hitting the puck with a stick when it is above your shoulder.
    • Hand pass – when a player pushes the puck using his hand.
    • 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. It is not counted when a goal is made in this situation.
    • Distinct kicking motion – when a player kicks the puck into the net. The goal is not counted.
    • Dislodged net – when the net or goal is moved out of its place.
  4. Fighting. Fighting is a part of the game but it is supervised. Referees stop the play when there is a fight. They observe the fight and stop it when one player goes down. Players can get taken out of the game, suspended or fined.

Different Types of Penalties:

  1. Minor penalties – a player is given two minutes in the penalty box. His team is not allowed to substitute. The player’s penalty is over when the opponent scores a goal or when the two minutes is up.
  2. Double minor – a player is given four minutes in the penalty box for head-butting or hitting another player with the stick. The player will not be released when the opponent gets a goal. He will be released if the opponent gets two goals or if the four minutes is up.
  3. Bench minors – a player on the bench (not in the game) 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.
  4. Coincidental penalties – these are violations like fighting in a scrum. Offending players get a two-minute penalty.
  5. Major penalty – these are violations that get five minutes in the penalty box. It is usually for fighting. A player who gets more than one major penalty can be suspended or taken out of the game.
  6. Match penalty – a player who tries to or successfully injures another player is taken out of the game.
  7. Misconduct penalty – a player who verbally abuses another player may be sent off from the ice for 10 minutes. He can also be fined or suspended.
  8. Penalty shot – a player is given a penalty shot if an opponent commits a violation that stops him from scoring. A penalty shot is a one-on-one play between the offended player and the opposing team’s goalie. For this to happen:
    • the player (the one is given the penalty shot) must be in the neutral or attacking zone,
    • he must have no defender between him and the goal,
    • the foul happens from behind, and
    • he has the puck.

Moves that can receive penalties:

See examples of restraining fouls here: Restraining Fouls

  1. Checking – any way that stops an opponent from getting the puck. It is allowed but it is a violation when done excessively. A player can use a shoulder, hip or body to stop an opponent. But there are rules. For example, the player’s elbow must be tucked in for a shoulder check. If not, the player will be penalized for elbowing. A clipping violation is when a player throws his body across or below the knees of an opponent.
  2. Boarding – pushing and pinning an opponent to the boards (the fence around the ice).
  3. Charging – slamming into another player.
  4. Holding – grabbing the opponent to stop his movement.
  5. Hooking – stopping the opponent by using the stick.
  6. Roughing – when two players are in a minor fight (with punching).
  7. Delay of game – any action that delays the game. Examples: covering the puck, knocking the net, or sending the puck out of play.
  8. Throwing the stick – this is dangerous because players can get injured if they get hit or trip on somebody’s stick on the ice. Even goalies are not allowed to let go of their stick.
  9. Tripping – any move that can make another player lose balance and fall.
  10. Unsportsmanlike conduct –it is any “disorderly conduct before, during or after the game, or off the ice and any place in the rink” (Rule 75, National Hockey League Rule Book). Examples: cursing or abusive language, throwing an object onto the ice from the bench, a player removing his jersey (uniform), among others.

Hockey has so many rules! But the more you watch it, the more you’ll understand and enjoy the game.

With thanks to Dan Sylvester for reviewing this article.
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

Know more about hockey: read Newcomer’s guide to hockey. Learn some Hockey terms and lingo to understand the game better.

Immigrant-Serving Organizations may have free hockey programs. Check Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network for free skating lessons in winter.

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