The Basics of Hockey

Hockey is the ubiquitous Canadian activity, with nearly every Canadian having played some form of it. Since it was invented here, to make our long frigid winters tolerable, it’s spread around the world. Hockey is an extraordinarily manly sport, combining brute force and finesse. One article couldn’t possibly teach you enough to play on the level of Gordie Howe, ‘Rocket’ Richard, or the Great One himself, but it should be enough for you to join a pickup game or start looking for a rec league.

The Rink

Like any other sport, you need a place to play hockey. The basic forms of hockey are floor hockey, street hockey, and ice hockey, differentiated by where they’re played.

Ice hockey is played on an ice surface, either an intentional rink or a similar size area of natural ice. Intentional rinks can range from a simple backyard rink to a state of the art arena. A typical hockey rink is a rounded rectangle, about twice as long as it is wide, although the precise dimensions can vary.

Floor hockey is typically played in a gymnasium, using the entire room with only spectator areas being out of play.

Street hockey is played on driveways or public roads, with the width of the road defining the size of the play area. For safety reasons, the “car rule” is almost universally used. Any time a player or spectator notices traffic approaching the game they’re expected to yell “car” and the players and equipment move to the side of the road until the traffic clears. It’s also generally accepted driving etiquette in Canada to never drive through a street hockey game but rather wait patiently for them to clear out, for the same reason.

All hockey venues include a relatively small goal net near each end, that’s only open on the side facing towards the opposite end. Intentional rinks will often have boards around the perimeter to create a barrier to help contain both players and the puck or ball. The best rinks have markings painted on the ice. The purpose of these markings is to allow greater objectivity in applying the rules, but for casual play it’s adequate to estimate where they would be.

The rink is divided into three “zones.” The attacking zone, the neutral zone, and the defending zone. The attacking and defending zones are defined relative to each team. There are also goal lines that mark the behind the net area. One special area on the ice is the goal crease. This is an area immediately in front of the net in which only the goalie may be.

The Team

The total size of a hockey team varies, but there’s never more than six players per team on the ice;

  • 3 Forwards – primary offensive players
  • Centre – the forward primarily responsible for face-offs
  • 2 Defencemen – primarily tasked with preventing the opposing team from shooting
  • Goaltender or Goalie – the goal’s last line of defence

Players may substitute at any point during the game, not just stoppages in play.


Shared Equipment

One puck or ball and two nets must be on the ice at all times.

A puck is a hard rubber disc about 3 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. A hockey ball is about the same diameter as a puck but made of softer rubber.

The open side of a typical goal net is 6 foot wide and 4 foot high. The closed side extends back just far enough to keep it stable, even when catching pucks and being hit by players. It’s also common to secure the net in place with pegs fitted into the ice.

Personal Equipment

The only personal equipment that’s essential for all forms of hockey is the stick. If you’ve never seen a hockey stick, they’re long with a flat blade at one end. The stick is held with the player’s off-hand near the end opposite the blade and and the strong hand half to three-quarters of the way down the shaft. Goalies use a different stick, designed to be held in one hand and effectively block shots. In both cases, the blade is the main way players manipulate the puck.

Ice hockey also requires skates, for obvious reasons. Any skates will work, but the best choice is high quality hockey skates.

Pads are also a good idea, to protect players from the brutality of the sport, and the hard puck. Goalie pads also help him to more easily stop shots, and even catch the puck in mid-air.

In formal games, team uniforms are nearly ubiquitous.


The rules of hockey are intended to limit the brutality.  While hockey is a full-contact sport, there is only one way players may come into contact while playing, the bodycheck. A bodycheck is an intentional collision between players meant to break an opposing player’s control of the puck. To be legal, a check be centred on the players’ torsos and may not involve either player’s stick or the target player’s back.

Two types of penalties are typically used in hockey; the power play and the penalty shot. Most infractions result in a power play, when a player is removed from the game temporarily and his team is forced to play shorthanded. If the infraction prevents a player from scoring a goal, he gets a penalty shot. A penalty shot is an attempt to score a goal with only the opposing goalie to interfere. 

The power play is when one team is forced to play with fewer than six players on the ice, giving an advantage to their opponents. Power plays typically last Two or five minutes, with consecutive power plays being possible. It’s also common for a power play to end once a goal is scored.


Hockey has the simplest possible scoring. Each time the puck passes through the opening in the net, a point is scored. For that reason, points are called “goals” in hockey. It’s also common to track scores for individual players. Players can score “goals” and “assists.” A goal is awarded to the last player to have control of the puck, if giving up control scores a goal (ie. he shot it). An assist is awarded to a player who didn’t actually shoot the puck but played a pivotal role in scoring a goal anyway.


The head official in a hockey game is the referee. His job is to call penalties and goals. He’s typically assisted by one or two linesmen. Their job is to make calls related to the lines on the ice, except for goals. It’s also common to have a second referee on the ice and, in serious play, off-ice officials are also common, to help keep calls objective.


Now down to brass tacks. How do you actually play hockey? To start with, hockey typically consist of three “periods.” On a professional or Olympic level, they’re twenty minutes long with five minute intermissions between them. Shorter periods are also common, to accommodate the limits of the players’ age and skill. Only time spent actively playing is counted towards the length of the period.


Play begins and resumes with a face-off. The two teams line up, facing each other, with the forwards in front and the defencemen in back. An official then drops the puck in one of nine locations on the ice, determined in advance. After goals and at the beginning of each period the centre face-off position is always used. Otherwise, they use whichever position will resume play in the most fair possible manner.


I’ve been talking about stoppage in play quite a bit, but now I’ll go into detail. Along with goals, periods, time-outs, and at the referee’s discretion, there are four things that can stop play.

The first is rather obvious. If the puck leaves the ice play is stopped. If the puck would have left the ice but stayed because of nets or cages put in place to protect spectators or rink-side facilities, it still stops play.

Play can also be stopped for an “icing” call. Icing is when the puck travels from the defending zone past the opposite goal line, but not into the net. “Offside” is a similar call. Offside is called when the puck is passed into the attacking zone.

The last thing that can stop play is a goalie. Immediately after making a save, that is stopping a shot, the goalie must either return the puck into play or “cover it up.” Usually covering it up means literally covering the puck with his glove, and then a face-off takes place at one the positions in his defending zone.


It’s quite common for the rules to not allow a tie after the regular periods. There are two ways to resolve a tie, overtime and shootouts. Overtime is simply continuing play. A shootout is when both teams get an equal number of penalty shots and then the team with the highest score wins. The “sudden death” variant is also common. In sudden death, the game ends as soon as a winner can fairly be declared, regardless of how much longer play could’ve continued. Any combination can be used, but udden death must be last.

Shooting Terms

There are a few terms that are unique to hockey, and relate to shooting, that every player should know;

  • Deke – when’s a player moves his stick as though he’s shooting but does not
  • Wrist shot – a shot with little to know wind up or follow through, used when precision is needed
  • Slap shot – a powerful shot with significant wind up and follow through
  • One-timer – when a player receiving a pass shoots without first gaining control of the puck

Getting Involved

If you want to play hockey, you have the same three options as with most sports: pickup games, leagues, and tournaments. If you have a few friends and a place to play, you can play a pickup game. If you want to join a league, contact your local arena or recreation office and ask about “rec leagues” and they’ll direct you to the league administrator or  the manager of a team seeking new players. If you want to play in a tournament, watch for notices wherever they may be posted in your community and follow the instructions.