How to play ice hockey: rules, regulations and more

Ice hockey dates back to 19th century Canada, where the icy conditions brought to life a dangerously entertaining sport that we now know and love. The modern adaptation of the game has become one of the most popular sports around, with America leading the pack. The NHL (National Hockey League) hosts games with the world's greatest talent, attracting countless fans and creating millions in revenue every single year.

Ice hockey arena

Whether you're looking to take to the ice yourself, simply spectate a game or place your first, well-educated bet, then look no further. In this beginner's guide to ice hockey we'll be running through all the basics of the game, from player positions to layout of the rink.


The aim of the game is simple - to score more goals than your opponent and be in the lead when the clock hits zero.

Unlike other sports, such as football and baseball, there is only one way to score and one constant value to scoring; players must use their hockey sticks to hit a small rubber puck in the opposition's goal, which earns the scoring team a single point.

Key Principles


A face-off is how every game begins and how play restarts after a goal is scored. They occur in one of the five small circles depending on the situation. They pose one hockey player from each team opposite each other, while a puck is thrown in the centre of the circle for them to attempt to gain possession.

Face off

Penalty Shot

A Penalty Shot is awarded when the player in possession of the puck is fouled in the neutral zone or attacking zone and has nobody to pass other than the goalie. The reason a foul may be awarded varies, but the main causes are tripping or illegally impeding the player's progress. The shot is an unchallenged attempt on goal, with just the goaltender and gives the player a small 'run up' with the puck before shooting.

Penalty shot


Ice hockey is known as one of the most physical sports in the world, and for good reason. Unlike most other sports, hockey actually allows fighting and is one of the most beloved parts of the game.

Although fighting is supposedly discouraged by the referees and technically a violation of the rules - it happens at some point in most games. Players that choose to fight will throw off their gloves and begin a boxing match upon the ice. Referees will pause play with their whistles, and send all other players to the bench while the dispute is settled. The officials tend to let the fights go on for a little while before separating the players and enforcing the necessary penalties.

Any player who fights is automatically subjected to sitting in the penalty box for at least five minutes - the time varies depending on the circumstances.

Players must not remove their helmets before the fight. If they do, they will receive a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, on top of the major penalty they receive for fighting.

Hockey Fight


NHL games have 60 minutes of play time, which are separated by three periods of 20 minutes each. Between these periods, there are brief intermissions for both fans and players to take a break.

Like American football, the clock will only run while the puck is actually in play. This is why you may see regular stoppages throughout the game, for scores, penalties and more. As a result, most games will last roughly 2 to 2.5 hours in total.

If the score is tied at the end of regulation, there will be overtime, which lasts just five minutes. If the score is still even, there will be a penalty shoot out.

The Rink

A regulation ice hockey rink is 200-feet long and 85-feet wide, with three zones shown by blue lines at each third of the rink. The central zone is always the neutral zone, while the offensive and defensive zones switch depending on who has possession. The red line denotes the middle of the rink.

Two goals sit at either end of the rink and measure 4 feet in height and 6 feet in width.

There are five 'face-off' circles on every rink - one sits in the centre of the neutral zone, while two each are placed in both the defensive and offensive zones.

The rink

Players and Positions

There are just 6 players on the ice for each time at any given point.

These players are:

  • Forward Centre: Mainly responsible for covering the centre of the ice at both ends of the rink. Will also take faceoffs (this is how play begins and restarts after a goal).
  • Forward, Left and Right Wing: Primarily goal score - wing players will mainly play the puck along the sides of the rink.
  • Defence, Left and Right: These players will sit further back on the rink and are mostly responsible for stopping opposing players from scoring when they're attacking. They will also provide offensive support when they have the puck.
  • Goalie: Responsible for stopping the opposing team scoring by preventing the puck from crossing the goal line.

Although there are only 6 players on the buck at any given time, ice hockey allows unlimited substitutions throughout the game. This is why you will repeatedly see bench players jumping onto the ice and swapping with players on the rink.

Hockey positions

Basic Rules

Officials: Each ice hockey game is officiated by two linesmen and up to two referees (depending on the division and league).

The Puck: The puck is live until an official blows their whistle. Players must only progress the puck forwards with their stick or skates, but they can stop the puck with any part of their body.

Offsides: A player can only enter the attacking zone if they are behind the puck. A player in the neutral or defensive zone cannot pass the puck to a teammate in the attacking zone, otherwise they are declared offside. When an offside occurs, the clock will be stopped with a whistle and a face-off will be called to restart play.

Ice hockey offside


Although ice-hockey is a heavy, full contact sport, there are still some things that are not allowed (despite bare-knuckle boxing being encouraged).

There are two types of penalty, both of which call for the player to serve time in the penalty box:

  • Minor penalty: Two minutes in length.

  • Major penalty: Can be up to 10 minutes or a full ejection from the entire match.

While a player is serving the penalty time, the opposing team has an advantage as the penalised team is a player down. This is called a "power play" for the team with the upper hand. It lasts for as long as the penalty is being served, but is called short if it is a minor penalty and the power play team scores a goal.