Basic rules

A game of ice hockey has two teams. It is played on an ice rink of a specific size (depending on the requirements of the league) and has two goals at opposite ends from each other.

The objective of the game is to shoot the puck (flat, round-edged rubber object) into the opponent’s goal which is guarded by a goaltender/goalie.


A typical hockey game will consist of 3, 20 minute periods. This means most games will last 1 hour in total (excluding stoppages in play). The game will continue onto ‘overtime’ if there is no team in the lead. Each team will be awarded at least 1 point if the game goes into overtime, and wins/losses are recorded as seperate ‘overtime wins’ or ‘overtime losses’. Overtime periods typically last 5 minutes and teams are limited to 4 skaters (instead of 5) in an attempt to speed up the game and weaken each team’s defence.


Each team can only have 6 players on the ice at one time. This usually consists of 1 goaltender, 2 defencemen, 2 wingers (forwards) and a centre. In most leagues, teams have the ability to substitute their goalie for an additional winger, but this is only used as a last resort in the last few minutes of the game as it leaves the team incredibly vulnerable.


Players not currently on the ice sit on the team’s bench which is located directly next to the rink. Players will join the ice by hopping over the wall of the rink (or using the door) and will usually stay in play for just under a minute. This is known as a shift. Players are sent out on shifts because ice hockey is a massively tiring sport and all players should be playing at their best all the time. If you play rec hockey, you will know that this is far from the case.


A referee will be present on the ice, and in most cases, 2 linesmen who observe play between the two bluelines and the centre line. The referee(s) can be identified by their orange armbands. The linesmen will provide support to the referee.

If a player breaks a rule, the referee has a variety of punishments which he or she can hand out. Please note: below is a general guide. The specific rules differ depending on the league.

  • Minor – lasts 2 minutes and is the most common. Includes things like tripping, slashing and holding. If the advantaged team scores during their power play, the penalty is cancelled. The player’s team will be down 1 player during the penalty.
  • Double minor – lasts 4 minutes and is called when 2 minor offences occur at the same time. If the advantaged team scores during their power play, the remaining block of 2 minutes will be cancelled. For instance, if the player has 3 minutes left on their penalty, the time will be dropped to 2 minutes. The player’s team will be down 1 player during the penalty.
  • Major – lasts 5 minutes and mostly comes down to fighting or attempt to injure. Depending on the league, this may automatically lead to a game misconduct penalty (this is the case in IIHF rules). The player’s team will be down 1 player during the penalty.
  • Misconduct – lasts 10 minutes. The player can be substituted on the ice. Receiving multiple misconducts will result in the player being given a ‘game misconduct’.
  • Game Misconduct – the player is ejected from the game but can be replaced by another player. In many cases, a game misconduct is handed out with a minor or major penalty which another player must serve instead so the team is still weaker.

The full rules

Read up on the full rules for each league here: