The Beginner’s Guide to Hockey- Part 1

The NHL has seen a huge influx of new fans during these playoffs. It’s incredibly exciting to see since I truly believe hockey is the best sport in the world. It deserves far more recognition than it gets. But, a huge influx of brand new people watching hockey means there’s also a lot of people who don’t know the rules yet. Well, I’m here to fix that. Presenting: The Beginner’s Guide to Hockey (First Edition). In this guide, you’ll find the very basics of the sports, plus a description of what icing and offside are and how the NHL is organized. Penalties were covered in part two, which you can find here. Without further ado, let’s dig in.

Beginner’s Guide to Hockey Game Play

Game Flow

Starting with the very basics of hockey, there are three periods in a game. Each period is 20 minutes long, and the clock pauses at each whistle. There is an 18-minute intermission in between each period. In the NHL, if a game is tied after three periods in the regular season, it goes to a five-minute sudden death 3v3 overtime, and if it’s still tied after that, it goes to a shootout. During the shootout, teams send out one player at a time to go shoot on the opposing goalie uncontested. They only get one shot, cannot stop or pull back and are not allowed to go for any rebounds. Shootouts start at three rounds. If teams are still tied after that, they keep going until a winner is determined. There is no intermission after the third period or the overtime period. 

In the playoffs, if the game is tied after regulation, it goes to sudden death overtime. But, unlike the regular season, it stays at 5v5. Playoff overtime periods are 20 minutes long unless a goal is scored and there is an 18-minute intermission between each one (and between the third period and first overtime). The teams will play as many overtimes as is necessary to determine a winner.


There are 18 skaters and two goaltenders on each team during a game. Of those 18 skaters, 12 of them are typically forwards (offensive players), and six are typically defensemen. Sometimes, coaches will choose to go with a slightly different configuration, but it’s not ideal so it doesn’t happen often.

Hockey has three different forward positions: center, left wing, and right wing. The center has the most freedom, but also the most responsibilities. They take faceoffs, provide offense and support from all over the ice, and essentially act as a third defenseman when in the defensive zone. Both left and right wings are responsible for providing offense, and they mostly stay on their respective sides of the ice. In the defensive zone, they typically stay between the hash marks on the circle and the blue line. While they have different roles, the primary responsibility of all forwards is to score goals.

As for defensemen, they are exactly what they sound like. Their primary responsibility is to defend and keep the puck away from the goalie and out of the net. In the offensive zone, they typically stay up at the blue line. In the defensive zone, they typically stay below the hash marks of the circle, and there should always be at least one of them in front of the net. Last but not least, there is the goaltender, whose sole responsibility is to keep the puck out of the net. There is one of each wing, a center, two defensemen, and the goaltender at any given time on the ice.


Icing is the rule that seems to get asked about the most by new fans. Luckily, it’s not too hard to grasp. In the simplest possible terms, a team cannot shoot the puck down to the other end of the ice from behind the red line (aka the center ice line) on their side of the ice (which is the side with their goalie). If the puck is touched at any point by either team after it crosses the red line, then icing will not be called.  

That’s the entire rule in youth hockey and many leagues. However, NHL icing is slightly more complicated than that. In the NHL, icing can be negated if a player from the would-be offending team (so the team that shot the puck from their end of the ice) beats all opponents to the dots in the circles in the other end. So, it’s not much more complicated, but it is something to keep in mind.

When icing occurs, the whistle is blown and a faceoff occurs at the end of the ice where the puck was shot from. In the NHL, as punishment, the offending team is not allowed to change their players out, but the other team is. Also, a fairly new rule in the NHL regarding icing is that when it happens, the other team can pick which circle they want the faceoff to occur in.

When a team is on the penalty kill in the NHL, icing doesn’t matter. They can rip the puck down to the other end of the ice from anywhere and there is no penalty for it. But, at all other times, the icing rule is in place.


Offside is another rule that I see frequently confuses people. It seems fairly straightforward at first: the puck must cross the line before anyone on the offensive team. However, it gets more complicated than that in most leagues.

In the NHL, they play delayed offside. This means that if the puck crosses the blue line into a team’s offensive zone while at least one of their players is still in it, the whistle is not automatically blown. Instead, all offensive players must completely exit the zone without touching the puck. Then, once they are all out, they can re-enter without penalty.

Whether or not the blue line is onside depends on the situation. The blue line belongs to the zone the puck was last in. So, if the puck is coming from the neutral zone (aka the center-ice zone), a player entering their offensive zone while the puck is still on the blue line would make them offside. However, if the puck was last in one of the end zones, if it is on the blueline while offensive players are in the zone, it is ok. Regardless of which zone the blueline belongs to, the puck must completely cross it before it is considered to be in the other zone.

Last but not least, a player is determined to be offside if both of their skates have completely crossed the leading edge of the blueline (meaning the edge that touches the end zone) before the puck. If their stick and/or one skate has, but the other is still on the blue line, they are onside. Also, the rule was changed this year so that their skates can be off the ice and they will still be onside as long as they are in the plane of the blue line. Before, at least one skate had to be physically on the blueline or they were offside.

If offside is called, the faceoff occurs at the dot outside the blue line on the side the offside occurred.

The NHL for Beginners

There are countless hockey leagues and levels of leagues all around the world. However, the best one, and the one I’m assuming most readers are watching, is the National Hockey League (NHL). It consists of 31 (32 starting in the 2021-22 season) teams across the United States and Canada. For this article, I will be ignoring this season’s reconfiguration and will only describe it like it normally is. So, there are four divisions: the Atlantic Division, the Metropolitan Division, the Central Division, and the Pacific Division. There are also two conferences: the Eastern and the Western. The Eastern Conference holds the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions, while the Western has the Central and Pacific Divisions. Starting in the 2021-22 season, there will be eight teams in each division, and 16 in each conference.

Now, let’s break down the teams in each division, as they will look in the 2021-22 season.

Atlantic Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs.

Metropolitan Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals.

Central Division: Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets.

Pacific Division: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Seattle Kraken, Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights.

The playoff configuration is potentially changing for the 2021-22 season, so I will be skipping that for now. I may update this guide once we know more though, so be sure to check back.

That’ll Do it For Part 1 of the Beginner’s Guide to Hockey

Hopefully, this beginner’s guide to hockey was helpful to at least some new fans. If anyone ever has any questions about hockey or the NHL, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I am more than happy to answer any questions people may have! If I don’t know, I’ll direct you to someone who does. Be sure to check back here tomorrow for part two of this beginner’s guide to hockey, which will be an explanation of penalties in hockey (spoiler alert: there are a lot of them)!

-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)

Featured image courtesy of sportsnet.ca.

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