What is it all about?

Although ice hockey is the fastest team game in the world, the basic rules are fairly easy to understand. Like any sport, the official rule book runs to many pages.

Luckily, you don’t need to memorise all of the rules to understand the sport! Check out the main rules listed below; these should give you everything you need to enjoy the game.


Each match consists of three 20 minute periods, with a 15 minute break between each period. Importantly, when play stops, the clock is also stopped – so, every second counts!

Each team can have a maximum squad of 20, including two goal keepers.

Although only six players from each team can be on the ice at any one time, substitutions can be made at any point (even during active play). The ice hockey playing area is marked on the ice rink’s base and ice built up on top of that to a total thickness of around 3/4 – 1 inch.

The playing area is surrounded by white boards just over a metre high. Protective glass on top of the boards allow fans to watch the match safely.

The puck is made of vulcanised rubber and frozen before the game to reduce its bounce and to allow it to slide across the ice easier and therefore faster.


The ice is marked with a series of blue and red lines. The central red line divides the ice into two halves. The blue lines separate the ice into three equal ‘zones’ – defending, neutral and attacking zones.

Goals are scored by striking the puck into the opposing team’s net. If the puck accidentally comes off another player (attacker or defender), the goal stands.

However, if an attacking player deliberately kicks or strikes the puck with any part of the body (other than the stick) into the net, the goal is disallowed. A goal is also disallowed if the puck comes off an official first.


There are only two principal rules in ice hockey – offside and icing.


Offside is a relatively simple concept. An attacking player isn’t allowed to enter the opposition’s defending zone ahead of the puck – so keep an eye on the defence’s blue line.


‘Icing’ is when a player strikes the puck from his own half across the opposition’s goal line (red) without it deflecting off another player (including a goalkeeper).


Face-offs are used to start periods of play and to restart play (for example after a goal or after an offside ruling).

During a face-off, two opposing players stand opposite each other roughly one stick’s blade apart and the official then drops the puck between them.

The blue centre spot is used to ‘face-off’ at the beginning of each period, or following a goal.

The red face-off spots are used in a variety of other circumstances. For example, after a typical offside, the face-off takes place on the nearest face-off spot in the central, neutral zone.

In the event of the puck leaving the ice, two imaginary lines are drawn along the length of the ice between the face-off spots. A face-off then takes place at a point closest to where the puck left the ice.

Contact and Fighting

Ice hockey has quite a reputation as an aggressive sport and you’d be forgiven for thinking that more punches are thrown on a rink than in a boxing ring.

The rules are explicit when it comes to contact during play (although the speed of the game can make it tough to apply).

Contact from the side and front is generally okay, though deliberate checking from behind will usually result in a penalty.

Tripping and ‘boarding’ (causing another player to violently hit the rink’s walls) are also banned, as is the high use of the shaft of the stick.

Elbowing, charging and using the shaft of the stick to check an opponent (‘cross-checking’) will also result in a penalty.

Fighting (or ‘roughing‘) is subject to the most severe penalties, depending on who started the fight – a player who starts ‘fisticuffs’ is often dealt with more harshly than someone retaliating to another player’s punches.


The referee (red armband) is in charge of the match and makes the final decision on any matter.

However, the referee is also assisted by linesmen (on the ice) and goal judges (behind each goal) who are particularly concerned with offside and goal rulings respectively.


The referee and his assistants are responsible for applying the rules and deciding on penalty decisions.

Penalties range in severity from a minor penalty, which often results in as little as two minutes off the ice for the offending player, or can be as much as the balance of play (in the case of Game Misconduct and Match penalties – e.g. for fighting).

During a game in which only six players from each team are on the ice at any one time, a one man advantage can make quite a difference.

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