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Basic Rules of NHL Hockey: A Visual Guide

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adhilde is a hockey lover and enjoys sharing their knowledge of the game through writing.

This guide provides information on everything from penalties to stoppages.

This guide provides information on everything from penalties to stoppages.

It saddens me to hear people comment that hockey is too hard to understand because the rules make no sense. I also hear that the game is too slow and there are not enough points by each team to make the game exciting. I want to try to fix that here and now.

Like all sports, the NHL (National Hockey League) goes through rule changes from season to season. NHL standard rules are in place to keep the game safe and make the game more fun to watch.

So let's start with the layout of the ice.

Hockey Rink Layout

As seen in the first graphic below, there are different colored lines, as well as circles. As would be expected, each of these has significance, and have at least one rule tied to how it affects the game.

NHL Rink Dimensions

NHL Rink Dimensions

  1. Center Ice/Face-Off Circle: The face-off circle at center ice is where the puck is put in play (dropping the puck) by the referee at the start of each period and after a goal is scored. During the dropping of the puck, only one player from each team may be in the center ice circle. Once the puck is dropped, however, teammates from both teams can enter this area to assist in controlling the puck for his team.
  2. Neutral Zone: The area between the blue lines indicating each teams' defensive zone.
  3. Neutral Zone Face-Off Dots: Four dots in the neutral zone where a linesman can drop the puck after a stoppage of play.
  4. Blue Line: A solid blue line spanning the width of the ice indicates the border between the neutral zone and a given team's defensive zone.
  5. Slot: The area directly in front of the goaltender, between the two defensive zone face-off circles. The "high slot" is an area of the slot that is farthest away from the goal, closer to the blue line.
  6. Offensive and Defensive Zone Face-Off Circles: Two large circles in a given team's zone where a linesman can drop the puck to restart play. There are four on the ice; two in a team's offensive zone and two in that team's defensive zone. Given that each team has an offensive zone and a defensive zone, there are only four of these circles on the ice. I must state the obvious that one team's defensive zone is the other team's offensive zone.
  7. Goal Line: The red line spanning the width of the ice on which the goal sits in each zone.
  8. Trapezoid: The area directly behind the goal in which it is permissible for the goaltender to touch the puck.
  9. Goal/Net: Goals sit on the center of each goal line in a team's defensive zone.
  10. Crease: The area directly in front of each goal. This area is painted blue.

Basic Rules: Non-Penalty Stoppages

The basic rules of hockey are simple and can be described in a few definitions.


This is one of the two most misunderstood calls in hockey. The rule is that if the puck is passed into the offensive zone by a team from their side of the red center ice line, and it is either not touched or could not be determined "touchable" before it passes behind the goal line in that team's offensive zone, then the puck has been "iced." The play will stop in most leagues such as international, collegiate, and amateur play without the need for the defense to touch the puck. In the NHL, play will not stop until the defense touches the iced puck. This gives the offense a chance to get to the puck first. If the iced puck is touched first by the team that iced it (the offense), then play will continue.

In short, if I were on offense and I passed the puck from my end of the ice into my offensive zone, and no one touches it and it is determined that no one could have touched it before it passed behind the goal line in my offensive zone, then one of my teammates or I would have to get to the puck first and touch it with a stick or the play will stop. If play is stopped for icing, the puck will come back to be dropped in a face-off circle in front of my goaltender and the players on the ice at the time the icing was happening from my team must stay on the ice as a penalty. This is significant because many teams ice the puck to get it out of their zone and try to get new players on the ice at the same time.


This is also misunderstood sometimes. Offsides is really not that hard to follow if you remember one thing; the puck always has to be in the offensive zone before the offensive players. There is one exception; a defensive player can put the puck back into his own zone while the other team has offensive players in his zone. Offsides is waived off and the offensive players can touch the puck with no consequence.

There are a few things to understand about offsides. First, the whistle will only blow if a player attempts to make a play or touches the puck while the linesman has indicated that a team is offsides. The puck will then be dropped to start play on a face-off dot in the neutral zone. Second, delayed offsides is the term used when a linesman has indicated that a team is offsides and the whistle has not yet blown. During this time, if all offensive players have left the offensive zone (retreated back to the neutral zone), and the puck has not come out of the zone in question, the linesman will indicate that the delayed offsides is over and the offense can then re-enter the offensive zone to pursue the puck. Third, there are times that teams will cause offsides in the offensive zone intentionally. If the linesmen feel that this is the case, then the face-off will come back in front of the goaltender of the team that is offsides.

Hand Pass

Before explaining hand passes (which really is self-explanatory), at no time during play can anyone close their hands on a puck. That will be discussed in a later topic where minor penalties are explained. So, to pass a puck with a swinging motion of a player's arm (like a baseball bat), or to push the puck along the boards or ice with any part of the arm or hand is considered to be a hand pass. Hand passes stop play if the puck is touched by a player of the same team as the one who committed the hand pass. Hand passes are considered legal only if a defensive player does a hand pass in his own zone. The puck will be dropped in the neutral zone on a face-off dot closest to where the puck was touched after a hand pass.

Puck Over Glass

Simply put, the puck leaves the rink and ends up in the spectator seating. There are times that this can be considered a minor penalty, but again, we will get into that later. For this variety of play stoppage, if the puck leaves the rink, the face-off will then happen as close to where the player was when he put the puck off the rink.

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Puck Touched by a High Stick

This is a simple rule to see and understand. If the puck is touched by a stick above the player's shoulders, it has been played with a high stick. If this occurs, play will stop if the next player who plays the puck is on the same team as he who touched the puck with a high stick. Also, if a goal is scored by a player who last touched the puck with a high stick, that goal will not be counted and the face-off will come to the face-off circle or dot closest to where that player was standing at the time of the high stick. There is no grey area for this call. If the other team controls the puck after the incident of a high stick, and play has not yet been halted (meaning the same team has not touched the puck), then the high stick infraction is waved off and play will continue.

Puck Kicked in Net With Distinct Kicking Motion

In hockey, sticks get dropped, broken, tangled with another player, etc. So, players are trained to develop the ability to kick and control the puck with their feet. Kicking the puck is very common and is often used by skilled players to trick other players all the time. No matter how fancy a player's footwork is, it is not allowed to kick the puck in the net intentionally. This is not saying that a puck that is scored off the feet of an offensive player does not count. The rule is stated that the puck cannot be scored with a "distinct kicking motion." Players may angle their feet with the intent of deflecting the puck in, as long as it does not appear that their feet move in a kicking motion. Officials have spent considerable amounts of time reviewing goals scored off of players' feet to determine if they were "kicked" into the net. In the event of the non-kicking motion goals, they will count (subject to the opinion of the referee and official staff reviewing the goal.) However, in the case that the staff feels that the puck was kicked in with the motion of a kick, the goal will not be counted and the faceoff will come to the closest face-off circle or dot to where the puck was kicked.

Goaltender "Freezes" the Puck

I have included this event in this section only because the whistle will blow and play will stop. In hockey, the only person who can stop the puck on the ice, catch it and close his hand on it, or pin it in clothing and equipment with the intent to stop play is the goalie. The goaltender can and often does stop play when the opposing team is threatening to score. Referees are instructed to stop play once they lose sight of the puck under a goalie. Unlike soccer where the game clock continues to run even if the goaltender has the ball, hockey game clocks will stop and the puck will be dropped in a face-off circle close to that goaltender to resume play upon goalies freezing the puck.

NHL Penalty Signals

NHL Penalty Signals

Basic Rules: Minor Penalties

To start, penalties are stoppages where players do personal offenses against other players. In the event that a penalty is to be called and play is to be stopped, a referee will raise his hand above his head. He will then wait to stop play until a player from the offending team touches the puck. The referee waiting for this touch up is known as a delayed penalty. During this time, teams often will have their goaltender rush to the bench to get an extra offensive skater on the ice to try to score during the delay.