How Hockey Works

By: Ed Grabianowski  | 
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

From the frozen lakes and rivers of Canadian winters to nationally televised games played at high-tech arenas before 20,000 fans, ice hockey has come a long way. Though the rules and equipment have changed through the sport's 128-year history, the spirit of the game remains the same. Hockey has always been a sport of speed and grace mixed with grit and a certain amount of violence. That combination has proven irresistible to fans for over a century. A crowd of 5,000 reportedly watched the first ever Stanley Cup competition in 1893. During the 2002-2003 season, attendance at national Hockey League games topped 20 million.

The history of hockey holds more than just changing rules and regulations. A host of colorful characters, bizarre traditions, and strange events mark hockey's timeline. Few sports can top an octopus on the ice, a team traveling by dog sled, or a championship trophy getting dropkicked into a canal.


In this article, we'll learn about the storied history of hockey and the rules that govern the modern game. We'll also take a look at the equipment used to protect players from a puck traveling at over 100 mph (161 kph).

Hockey Basics

hockey basics
Hockey professional player aiming to goal Marco VDM / Getty Images

Although rules for the National Hockey League differ from European and international hockey in some ways, the NHL is widely considered the premier hockey league in the world, so we'll take a look at the NHL rules.

Hockey is played on a sheet of ice 200 feet (61 meters) long by 85 feet (26 m) wide. The nets are 6 feet (1.8 m) wide by 4 feet (1.2 m) high. The puck is a disc of vulcanized rubber 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter. It weights about 6 ounces (170 grams). Pucks are actually frozen before the game and kept in a cooler so they don't bounce as much when they're in play.


The 60-minute game is divided into three 20-minute periods. If the teams are tied at the end of 60 minutes of play, a 5-minute sudden-death overtime period is played. During the playoffs, teams continue playing additional 20-minute sudden-death overtimes until one team scores.

Six skaters per team are on the ice at a time: a goaltender, or goalie, who stays on the ice for the duration of the game (barring injury), and five skaters who take rotating shifts that last from 30 seconds to two minutes or more. Usually, there are three forwards (left wing, right wing, and center) and two defenseman on the ice. In certain situations, some teams play with four forwards on the ice and one defenseman.

A hockey rink is marked by a red center line, which divides the surface into two halves of 100 feet (30.5 m) each. There are also goal lines running across the rink 13 feet (4 m) from each end. Sixty feet (18 m) from each goal line is a blue line, which marks the boundary of each team's defensive zone.

The nets are positioned with their fronts at the red goal line. To score a goal, players must get the puck into the opposing team's net. The puck must completely cross the goal line for the goal to count. It can deflect off of any rink surface, or any part of any player on the ice, including feet, prior to entering the net, and still count as a goal, with a few exceptions: If the puck is deliberately kicked in, or batted in with a hand, the goal will be disallowed. Also, the puck can't be struck with a stick above the 4-foot crossbar of the net.

There are two linesmen on the ice during a game. It's their job to call off-side and icing (see below). Two referees also man every NHL game. They can be differentiated from the linesmen by their bright orange armbands.

When a player moves into the opposing team's zone, the puck must cross the blue line before his skates do. If any attacking player has both skates across the blue line before the puck, off-side is called. This results in a face-off.

At the start of each period, and after stoppages in play due to goals, penalties or the puck leaving the rink, play is initiated with a face-off. The centers from each team face each other over a face-off location designated by the official, and the other skaters line up at least 15 feet (4.6 m) away. The official drops the puck directly between the opposing centers, who then vie for control using their sticks and feet.

Hockey has a second form of off-side, known as the two-line pass. As the name implies, a two-line pass off-side is called if a player receives a pass that has crossed one of the blue lines and the center red line before he touches it.

The last "line rule" in hockey is icing. This rule was put into place several decades ago to prevent teams from simply slapping the puck the length of the ice to waste time. If a player shoots the puck into the opposing team's zone from his side of the red line, and the puck crosses the goal line at the other end without anyone touching it, and an opposing player other than the goalie then touches it first, icing is called on the attacking team. This results in a face-off in the attacking team's zone. But if someone on the attacking team is the first to touch the puck, or if the defending team's goalie touches it first, the icing is waived off.



hockey penalties
Referee is trying to stop and giving penalties to two players fighting during the game. gilaxia / Getty Images

If off-side and icing are the traffic tickets of hockey, then minor and major penalties are the misdemeanors and felonies. For infractions like tripping, slashing, roughing, charging, high-sticking, and the always embarrassing too-many-men-on-the-ice, a player must sit out for two minutes in the penalty box, while his team plays on with one fewer skater than its opponent. If that team takes another penalty, then it'll have to make do with only three skaters to the other team's five (goalies are not considers "skaters"). However, additional penalties can't reduce the number of skaters on the ice below three -- any further penalties are staggered so that a new one begins as soon as one ends. If a penalty is called on a goalie, another player sits out the two minutes in his place.

When a team takes a penalty, the other team goes on the power play, which means it has more players on the ice than the opposing team. If the team on the power play scores a goal before the two minutes are up, the penalty ends automatically.


Coincidental penalties happen when a player on each team is called for an infraction at the same time. They both go to the penalty box, and the teams play with four skaters apiece. Goals scored during four-on-four play do not end the penalties in this situation.

The most serious rules violations result in major penalties, and possibly fines and suspensions. A major penalty lasts for five minutes, and it doesn't end if the team on the power play scores. A player who drops his gloves and throws punches will always get a major penalty, though a fighting major is usually offset by a penalty to the other team, since it takes two to have a fight. When two players on opposing teams get major penalties, five players remain on the ice per side. Major penalties can also be called on other infractions that are deemed more severe by the referees. Elbowing and high-sticking can be called as major penalties, particularly if there was an apparent intent to injure the other player. In this situation, league officials will review video tape of the incident after the game, and might add a fine and a suspension for the offending player.


More Rules: Odds and Ends

The NHL has a few quirks among the usual rules. One is the penalty shot, often referred to as "the most exciting play in hockey." There are several circumstances that lead to a penalty shot. The most common is when a player has a clear breakaway, and is pulled down or tripped from behind. A penalty shot is also awarded if a goalie throws his stick, or if a player other than the goalie covers up the puck in the crease (the blue painted area immediately in front of the net). Finally, a penalty shot may be awarded if a player deliberately knocks the net askew, preventing a goal.

The penalty shot pits one player against the goalie in a one-on-one showdown. The player starts at center ice and skates in alone with the puck. The goalie must remain in the crease until the player touches the puck. At that point, the player only gets one shot. If he misses, or the goalie makes the save, then the play stops immediately and a face-off is held. Historically, the odds of scoring on a penalty shot are about 50-50.


In certain situations, teams may pull the goalie, bringing him back to the bench in exchange for an offensive player. This is usually done late in the game by a team that is losing. It's a desperation move that adds some firepower for a late tying goal, but also leaves the net unprotected. Goalies are also regularly pulled during delayed penalty calls. When the referee determines that one team has committed a penalty, he doesn't stop the game immediately. He will raise his arm over his head, signifying the delayed call, and won't blow the whistle until someone on the penalized team touches the puck. Since it's generally not possible for a team to score without touching the puck, the other team can safely send their goalie to the bench in exchange for a sixth attacker.

The tactic can backfire, however. In 1979, Billy Smith of the New York Islanders became the first NHL goalie to score a goal when a player on the Colorado Rockies put the puck into his own net during a delayed penalty call -- no goalie to stop the puck. Smith had been the last Islander to touch the puck, so under NHL rules he was credited with the goal.

The real goalie scoring race started 10 years later, when Ron Hextall actually fired the puck the length of the ice to score a goal. He later repeated that feat in the playoffs. Since then, Martin Brodeur, Chris Osgood, and Jose Theodore have added themselves to the short list of goalies who have scored.

Like the National Football League, the NHL struggled for a while with modern video-replay technology. The current system strives to combine efficiency and accuracy. Instant replay is only used by the NHL to review goals. Specifically, the video goal judge is only empowered to determine if:

  • the puck completely crossed the goal line
  • the puck was hit into the net with a hand or a high stick, or was kicked in
  • the puck entered the net before the net was knocked off its moorings
  • the puck was in before the period ended

The replay judge must find conclusive evidence to overturn the original call made by the referee on the ice.

In addition to two referees, two linesman, and dozens of camera angles, there are two more sets of eyes monitoring the goal line. The goal judge sits in a small booth directly behind the net, his hand ready to flick a switch that will illuminate a large red light if he should see the puck cross the line. In earlier eras, whether or not that goal light went on was the deciding factor when the referee had to decide if a goal counted. With video replay in use, the goal judge is more of a tradition, one that added the phrase "lighting the lamp" to hockey lingo, as well as a hundred jokes about the bad goalie needing sun block on the back of his neck.

The International Game

There are a few important differences between NHL rules and the rules used during international competitions such as the Olympics. An Olympic rink is 100 feet (30.5 m) wide -- 15 feet (4.6 m) wider than a regulation NHL rink. Only one referee is used in international games. The center red line is not considered for purposes of the two-line pass off-side rule. Icing is called as soon as the puck crosses the goal line; they don't wait for it to be touched. Anyone who fights in an international game is immediately thrown out of the rest of the game.


Hockey Gear

hockey gear
Ice hockey players wearing hockey gear face off Ryan McVay / Getty Images

Like other aspects of the game, the equipment worn by hockey players has evolved over the decades. At first, the only "equipment" worn was a turtleneck wool sweater and a pair of leather boots with blades strapped to them. Sticks were carved out of heavy pieces of wood.

Goalies were the first to adopt padding, since they were the ones throwing themselves in front of the puck. At first, goalies were not allowed to fall to the ice when making a save. To protect their legs, they wore leather or horsehide pads stuffed with sponge or deer hair. When they soaked up water, the pads became very heavy.


The other players started wearing shin pads, and by the 1920s, most players wore padded gloves, or gauntlets, and padded pants. Skates became one-piece boots with permanently attached blades.

The next major equipment development came for the goalies. Until the 1940s, they wore the same gloves as the players. A goalie named Emile Francis showed up wearing a first-baseman's glove for one game, and the league approved it. He also started attaching a rubber wedge to his other glove. These primitive designs would develop into the distinctive trapper and blocker worn by modern goalies.

Amazingly, despite facing blazing slap shots and repeated injuries, goalies did not wear any kind of facial protection until the late 1950s. Clint Benedict wore a temporary protective leather shield after a serious face injury in 1930, but the idea was soon discarded.

Jacques Plante is considered the true father of the goalie mask. He designed and made his own fiberglass mask and started wearing it in practice, but his coach wouldn't let him wear it in games. Finally, on November 1, 1959, Plante was hit by a puck and required stitches. He refused to return to the game without the mask. Eventually, other goalies starting wearing them. The last goalie to play without one was Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was still stopping pucks with his face in 1973.

The early fiberglass masks still allowed goalies to be injured, because the mask rested too close the player's face. For several years, a wire cage design was adopted. Later, a hybrid design was developed by taking one of the old fiberglass masks, cutting out a section in front, and covering it with a cage. This design is the most widely used today.

Finally, in the 1970s, players began wearing helmets. The threat of severe head injuries, and NHL rules requiring all new players to wear helmets, made the helmetless hockey star an endangered species. In 1997, the last bareheaded player retired, and the species became extinct.


Modern Equipment

Today's hockey equipment comes from the realm of high technology. Ultra-lightweight synthetics have replaced heavy padding and leather. bullet-proof vests) is popular, as is Clarino, a Japanese-made material that is light and won't absorb water. Special foams are sewn into the pads to absorb impacts and deflect the puck. Helmets are made of a polycarbonate lightweight plastic. The outer shell offers protection, while an inner liner provides extra padding and comfort.

The research and development that goes into goalie pads is astonishing. Every surface of the pad is designed to deflect the puck in a certain way, depending on the goaltender's style. Even the graphics on the pads can be designed to create the illusion of a gap for a player to shoot at. While today's goalies are completely armored, with virtually no spot on the front of their bodies going unprotected, their gear weighs less than ever.


The current cutting edge in stick technology is the one-piece composite design, made of Kevlar and carbon. Fewer players are using wood sticks these days, though there is some debate over the advantages of the composite sticks. Some claim they offer few benefits in terms of shooting, are too expensive and break too easily. On the other hand, many players swear the new sticks add power to their shots.

The Hockey Season

hockey season
These girls are members of the Sun Valley Suns hockey team Tony Anderson / Getty Images

During the regular season, teams receive two points for a win and one point for a tie. Teams automatically receive one point if they are tied at the end of three periods. If one team wins during overtime, it receives an additional point. For the losing team, this is known as an overtime loss. That's why NHL teams have an unusual looking win loss record, with four numbers instead of three. The fourth column is for overtime losses.

The NHL adopted a six-division, two-conference format in 1998-1999. The Eastern Conference holds the Northeast, Southeast, and Atlantic divisions, and the Western Conference is home to the Central, Northwest, and Pacific divisions. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs at the end of the regular season, with the division winners seeded first through third. Teams are paired off within their conference, with the top seeds playing the bottom seeds.


Each playoff round is a best-of-seven series. The top-seeded team in a given playoff series gets to play four games at its home arena, known as home-ice advantage. After three rounds, only two teams remain -- the winners of each conference final. These two teams compete in the final best-of-seven round for the Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup

It has been called the most famous trophy in all of sports: the Stanley Cup. The original cup was purchased at the request of Frederick Arthur, Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor-General of Canada, who felt the growing sport needed some "outward sign" to designate a champion. It was first awarded in 1893, and for several decades, various amateur athletic associations and hockey leagues would compete for it.

One of those leagues was the NHL, which first formed in 1917. By 1926, it was the only league left standing, so the Stanley Cup was awarded to the NHL champion each year. No other league has laid claim to the cup since.


The design of the Stanley Cup is kind of complicated, as far as sports trophies go. The trophy Lord Stanley purchased was just the wide bowl that sits atop the cup. When the tradition of engraving the names of every player who won the cup was formalized, extra bands were added to make room. For a while, the cup had a different shape almost every year. It didn't take on its current form until 1958.

The silver rings on the bottom portion of the cup are where players get their names engraved. It takes 13 years to fill a ring, at which point the top ring, the oldest, is removed and placed in the Hall of Fame.

The Stanley Cup that teams carry around the ice when they win the NHL championship isn't even the original Stanley Cup. In 1969, league officials realized Lord Stanley's 78-year-old trophy was getting brittle. Worried that it would be seriously damaged, they commissioned an exact replica. The original bowl was retired, and the replica is used today.

Wait -- it gets even more confusing. If you've been to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario, to see the Stanley Cup, you might not have seen the real Stanley Cup. Each year, every player on the winning cup team gets to spend one day with the trophy. In addition, the cup travels 250 days per year to charity events and NHL promotional activities. When the cup is out, yet another replica takes its place in the hall. How can you tell the difference? The real cup has about a dozen misspelled names, like the name of goalie Jacques Plante, and the word Boston in the 1972 engraving. All the errors are corrected on the replica.


Hockey Through the Years

World wars, the Great Depression, and influenza outbreaks kept the young NHL in a state of flux. Teams joined the league and then folded under the financial pressure regularly. It wasn't until 1942 that a period of stability would allow the NHL to prosper. With the roster reduced to six solid teams (hockey's Original Six), new league president Clarence Campbell guided the NHL through 25 years of prosperity, and later took the reins for the first major NHL expansion.

The era of the Original Six came to an end in 1967, when the NHL doubled in size. Teams were added in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Several more franchises joined the league in the early '70s. In 1979, a competing league, the World Hockey Association, folded. Four WHA teams joined the NHL. Meanwhile, financial troubles forced some teams to move, and some to fold altogether. For roughly a decade, the league was stable, adopting a four-division, two-conference system, with the groups named after important figures in hockey's past. The NHL underwent further expansion throughout the 1990s, helmed by commissioner Gary Bettman. The league roster stands at an even 30 teams, with no immediate plans for future expansion.


Pivotal Events Hockey history is punctuated by events whose repercussions are still felt today. We'll look at some of the events that have shaped the game.

The Richard Riot Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the French-Canadian hero of the French-Canadian fans in Montreal. He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, doing it in just 50 games. But his talent for scoring was matched by a fiery temper. In 1955, he attacked an opponent with his stick, and then punched an official. League president Clarence Campbell announced that Richard would be suspended for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.

In the province of Quebec, where there had always been tension between French and English Canadians, the suspension was a spark that set off an explosion. Campbell was not French-Canadian, and his decision was decried as anti-French. He received numerous death threats, but attended the next Canadiens game regardless. He was repeatedly assaulted at the arena, and was pelted with fruits, eggs, coins, and bottles. Finally, someone threw tear gas into the seats near Campbell, and the panicky crowd fled the arena. The game was forfeited to Detroit, but the debacle wasn't over.

Outside, the fleeing fans ran into thousands of angry French-Canadian protesters. The crowd whipped itself into a fury that moved down Rue St. Catherine, smashing windows and burning cars until 3 a.m. The next day, Richard pleaded for calm on the radio. His suspension stood. The Canadiens would lose the Stanley Cup to Detroit that year.

The Summit Series Canada had long dominated international hockey, but with its best players in the NHL, the remaining amateurs began to fall to more talented Russian teams in the '60s. The 1972 Summit Series was intended to pit the best professional Canadian players against the best Russia had to offer. Four games would be played in each country, and the Canadian fans had little doubt their pros would wipe the ice with the Russians.

It was no small shock, then, when Russia won the first game in Montreal 7-3. The Russian stars quickly made names for themselves, wrapping up the four Canadian games with two wins, one loss, and one tie.

Team Canada would face great adversity while trying to compete in Russia. They were disturbed in their hotel rooms. Their food was stolen. During a game, when Alan Eagleson got angry over a bad call, Russian police grabbed him and starting hauling him off. The Canadian players dove to his rescue, fighting off the Russian officials at rink side, and dragging Eagleson back to the bench.

It all came down to game eight, and virtually every Canadian was watching on TV or listening on the radio. Team Canada was bolstered by 3,000 fans who made the trip to Moscow, and Paul Henderson beat Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak to win the series.

The Great One If the career of Wayne Gretzky can be considered a single event, then it is surely one of the most pivotal in hockey history. From 1979 to 1999, Gretzky set 61 NHL records. He has the most career goals (894) and most career assists (1,963). He holds the record for most goals in a single season, putting in an astonishing 92 goals during the 1981-82 campaign. The closest player to that mark is… Wayne Gretzky, who scored 87 goals in 1983-84. He not only holds the record for most assists in a season (163 in 1985-86), he actually holds the top eight spots for that record, and 11 out of the top 12.

Labor Pains The NHL's players formed their own union, the NHL Player's Association, in 1966. In the 1990s, negotiations between the NHLPA and the owners twice brought the game to a halt. In 1992, the players went on strike late in the season. That time, it took only 10 days to hammer out an agreement.

Only two years later, relations got far worse. With no collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in place at the start of the 1994 season, the owners locked the players out. Months went by, and it looked as if the entire season might be called off. At the last possible minute, a deal was reached, and the season finally began, nearly four months late.

Hockey owners and players went through yet another crisis in 2004. Although both sides made concessions, they could not reach an agreement in time and the 2004-2005 hockey season was cancelled.

Hockey has evolved steadily throughout its long history. Each year, the NHL Board of Governors examines potential rule changes. Usually, these changes are subtle, but over time, hockey continues to change. Women's hockey is gaining prominence, mostly as an international sport. European players are an increasingly familiar presence in the NHL. Hockey is gaining popularity in non-traditional hockey countries like Japan and England.

For more information on hockey and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How Ice Rinks Work
  • How Basketball Works
  • How NFL Equipment Works
  • How the Physics of Football Works
  • How Golf Clubs Work

More Great Links