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The Rules of Ice Hockey

Updated on December 1, 2016

Ice hockey is a game played on skates by two six-man teams. Ice hockey is an extremely fast game in which the players try to score by using a wooden stick to propel a rubber disk, called a puck, into the opposing team's goal. Started in Canada, the game is still most popular there. It is also played in other countries, particularly the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. There are hundreds of amateur, high school, and collegiate teams in Canada and the United States, and professional hockey teams draw large crowds of spectators. North America has two major professional leagues, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the World Hockey Association (WHA). In addition, there are minor leagues.

Photo by Jason Antony
Photo by Jason Antony

Ice Hockey Rink

An ice hockey rink measures 200 feet (60 meters) by 85 feet (26 meters), or as near these dimensions as possible. It is bounded by a wooden fence, called the boards, which is not more than 4 feet (120 cm) or less than 3 feet 4 inches (100 cm) high. The white playing surface is divided into three sections by two 12-inch (30-cm)-wide blue lines. There are also two red goal lines, each 2 inches (5 cm) wide, set 10 feet (3 meters) in from each end of the rink.

The three large areas formed by the blue lines are called the defending zone (of the team defending that goal), the neutral zone, and the attacking zone (of the team attacking that goal). In all but U.S. college hockey the rink is divided in half by a 12-inch (50-cm)-wide red center line. There are also five circled face-off spots, two in each end zone and one in the center of the rink, and four face-off spots in the neutral zone. The goals consist of a frame, 4 feet (1.2 meters) high and 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide, centered on each goal line and backed by netting. Around the front of each goal is a 2-inch (5-cm)-wide red line marking the goal crease, an area within which the goalkeeper has certain privileges.

Ice Hockey Playing Equipment

The puck is a disk of vulcanized rubber or other approved material. It is an inch (2.5 cm) thick and 3 inches (7.5 cm) across and weighs from 5 1/2 to 6 ounces (155-170 grams). The wooden sticks used by all players except the goalkeeper are no more than 53 inches (135 cm) long from the heel to the end of the shaft and 14 3/4 inches (37.5 cm) from the heel to the end of the blade. The blade may not exceed 3 1/2 inches (8.9 cm) in width except at the heel, where an additional inch (2.5 cm) is permitted. The goalkeeper's stick may be up to 3 1/2 inches (8.9 cm) wide at the blade and for a distance of 24 inches (61 cm) along the shaft from the heel. Players wear special ice skates designed for speed and maneuverability. Ordinary speed skates, figure skates, or other types that might cause injury are not allowed. Players also wear protective equipment, including padded gloves and headgear, and pads to protect the legs, knees, torso, elbows, and shoulders. Goalkeepers are allowed to wear face masks. The average weight of a player's equipment is 20 pounds (9 kg). However, goalkeepers, with their enlarged leg pads and chest protectors, wear about 40 pounds (18 kg).

The Game

Each team consists of two defensemen, a forward line composed of a center, right wing, and left wing, and a goalkeeper. To start a game the teams line up facing each other, with the rival wingers opposite each other and the two centers at the center face-off circle. The defensemen stand behind their team's forwards. The referee drops the puck between the two centers, one of whom gains control of it and passes it to one of his teammates. The team in possession of the puck then tries, by passing and shooting, to maneuver it to the opponent's end of the rink. Meanwhile, the other team defends its goal and attempts to gain control of the puck. A goal is scored when the puck is shot into a goal, and the team with the most goals at the end of the game wins.

The game lasts one hour of actual playing time, divided into three 20-minute periods. Because of the fast tempo of the game, substitutes are allowed. In professional hockey, forwards are usually changed every two or three minutes, and defensemen usually play a little longer before substitution. The goalkeeper plays the full 60 minutes unless injured, in which case a substitution is made.

Rules of Ice Hockey

The puck may be passed in any direction within each of the three zones and from one zone to the next. When it is passed between the neutral and attacking zones, it must precede the attacking team's player over the opponent's blue line. Play is stopped as offside if a pass crosses a blue line and the center red line and must be resumed by a face-off at the spot nearest where the offside pass was made. Except when his team is below the numerical strength of the other team because of penalties, no player is allowed to shoot or deflect the puck from his side of the center red line beyond the goal line of the opposing team unless the puck enters the opponent's goal. The infraction of this rule is known as icing the puck. When the puck is iced, play is stopped and a face-off is held in the zone of the offending team. A face-off is also held after a goal is scored, at the start of each period, after a penalty has been called, when a goalkeeper has forced a stoppage in play by freezing the puck within his goal crease, or when the puck has gone over the boards.

Body checking, or blocking an opponent with the body, is permitted only from the side or front and only against the puck carrier. The puck may be blocked by any part of the stick or body but cannot be carried or held except by the goalkeeper, who may handle the puck but may not throw it forward.

Penalties in Ice Hockey

For rule infractions the offending players are compelled to spend time off the ice in an area known as the penalty box, which is located along the boards near the center ice red line. A minor penalty is called for such infractions as holding an opponent; slashing with the stick; hooking with the stick; jousting with the stick held above the shoulders; spearing, or using the stick as a spear either in a threatening motion or in actual contact; and interfering with a player not in possession of the puck. The duration of a minor penalty is two minutes, but if the nonoffend-ing team scores while the offending team is short-handed, the penalized player is allowed to return to the ice immediately after the goal is scored.

A major penalty of five minutes is called for such infractions as injuring the face or head of an opponent with a stick and fighting.

There are two types of misconduct penalties, but both allow for immediate substitution. A ten-minute misconduct penalty is assessed against a player for such infractions as abusive language or general misconduct and for two major penalties in one game. A game misconduct penalty, which expels the offending player for the balance of the game, is assessed for gross misconduct. A match penalty also means that a player is banned for the rest of the game, and his case is investigated promptly by the league president, who has the power to impose further punishment by suspending or fining the player. A match penalty is assessed for a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent or a deliberate injury to an opponent. In the former instance, substitution is allowed after five minutes of playing time; in the latter, after ten minutes of playing time.

A penalty shot is a free shot awarded to a player if be is fouled from behind by an opponent during a breakaway or if he has a clear shot at the defensive goal and is fouled.

A team must have at least four players on the ice at all times. If more than two players are penalized on one team at the same time, all players penalized after the first two must go to the penalty box, but substitution is allowed until the earlier penalties have expired.


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