Hockey 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Rules of Hockey

Let’s face it, ice hockey probably isn’t as popular as football, baseball or basketball. If you were to ask the average American what “checking,” “icing,” or a “power play” was, they’d probably look at you like you had three heads. In all my years as a hockey enthusiast, I’ve often asked non-hockey fans why they don’t like the game. The most common answer I received was that they simply didn’t understand the game. Well, the world's greatest and most exciting game is actually pretty easy to follow once you know a few basic rules and practices. So for you parents looking to understand just what’s happening out on the ice, here’s is a brief guide to the essential rules of youth ice hockey.

Zones

  • The ice surface is divided into three zones.
  • The area where the goal net is located is the "defending zone" for the team defending that net.
  • The middle of the rink, between two blue lines, is the "neutral zone."
  • The area where the opposing net is located is the "attacking zone" or "offensive zone."

The Net

  • A cage measuring four feet tall and six feet wide, strung with nylon mesh in the back.
  • There are two nets at opposite ends of the ice, guarded by the goaltenders.

Object of the Game

  • Score more goals than the other team!

The Teams

  • Each team has six players on the ice, one goaltender and five "skaters.”
  • The five skaters have assigned positions: three forwards and two defensemen.
  • Regardless of assigned positions, all players except the goaltender can go anywhere on the ice.
  • The goaltender cannot cross the center ice red line that divides the rink in half.

Substitutions

  • Substitutions are unlimited and can be made at any time.
  • A substitution does not require an official's permission, or a stoppage in play.
  • A player can join the game during play as long as the departing player is within five feet of the bench and not involved in the play or with an opponent.

The Faceoff

  • The game begins/resumes when the referee drops the puck between two opposing forwards.
  • During the faceoff all other players are positioned on the defensive side of the puck.
  • There are nine designated faceoff spots painted on the ice.

The Game Clock

  • The game is played in three 12-minute or 15-minute periods, depending on the youth level.
  • The clock is stopped during all stoppages in play.

Body Checking

  • Checking isn’t legal in youth hockey until the Pee Wee level (11-12).
  • A player can use a shoulder, hip or torso to hit or impede an opponent, but only when the opponent is in possession of the puck.
  • A body check that targets the head is illegal.
  • A body check to an opponent's back is illegal if the opponent is facing the boards.
  • The upping of checking to the Bantam level, as well as the removal of checking from youth hockey all together have been proposed ad nauseam over the years. The thought here being that only about 1 in every 4000 youths actually go pro one day. So why subject the other 3999 bodies to the physical rigors of checking? You be the judge.

Minor Penalties

Like all other sports, penalties are often open to interpretation. Some refs call a lot of penalties, some don’t. Some call it by the book, some use discretion. But sooner or later, everyone goes to the “sin bin”. A player charged with a minor penalty is sent off the ice to the penalty box for two minutes, with no substitution allowed. The penalty ends immediately if a goal is scored by the opposing team. Minor penalties are called for obstructing an opponent. 

Infractions include:

  • Tripping (with the stick or knee)
  • Holding (with stick or hands)
  • Hooking (with stick)
  • Interference (checking or impeding a player without the puck)
  • Slashing
  • Spearing
  • High-sticking (hitting an opponent in the head or face)
  • Cross-checking (hitting an opponent with the shaft of the stick)
Penalties are called for dangerous physical fouls, including:
  • Elbowing
  • Checking from behind
  • Kneeing
  • Roughing (broadly defined; usually involves a wrestling or shoving match)

Major Penalties

  • Majors can vary depending on any youth program’s handbook. But, majors are commonly differentiated from minors by intent. Any check a referee deems intentional will result in a minimum of a five minute major penalty. Any two major penalties incurred within one game will result in a game misconduct (ejection) which will also carry a one-game suspension.
  • The most common major penalty is fighting.
  • In youth hockey, a fight carries a game-misconduct (ejection) as well as a 2-game, 5-game (or more) suspension, depending on the severity of the fight.

Power Play

This term refers to the team who is “man up” due to a penalty charged to the other team. If the opposing team has one or more players in the penalty box, the other team is considered on the “power play” for the duration of the penalty since they have more players on the ice.

Offside

If a player precedes the puck into the offensive zone, play is stopped and a faceoff takes place in the neutral zone. The puck or the puck carrier must always be the first to enter the offensive zone.

Icing

  • Shooting the puck across the goal line of the offensive zone from behind your own zone’s blue line.
  • In youth hockey, icing is automatic. Meaning, the moment the illegally shot puck crosses the offensive zone’s goal line, play is stopped and the faceoff comes back into the offending team’s zone. In the pros, the puck must be “touched up” by the defending team before the offending team in order for icing to be called.
  • Icing can often be “waved off” by the official if he feels any player of the opposing team is able to play the puck before it passes his goal line, but does not do so, the linesman can "wave off" icing, allowing play to continue.

You Rule!

As you can see, ice hockey really isn’t that complicated at all. Obviously, there are some additional rules, policies and details not listed here. But you now know the most important stuff to get started. Feel free to coach up the other parents around you when the whistle blows and they don’t know why!

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