If you want to adopt a sport on a whim, hockey is a commendable choice. Not only is the game exciting and fast-paced, but it’s also relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Yes, there are nuances, strategies, and rules that take time to learn, but being able to talk the talk—and actually enjoy the game—in front of a friend’s basement flat-screen shouldn’t require more than giving this abbreviated explainer a once-over.

So, before the puck drops for the Avs (tonight at 7:30 against the Blackhawks), the Pioneers (Oct. 14 against University of Massachusetts in Amherst), and the Angels (the first week of December), allow us to help you sound like you know what you’re talking about, eh?

The Rink

National Hockey League (NHL) rinks, and most college hockey surfaces, are 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. The ice is surrounded by “the boards,” waist-high plastic walls that are topped by “the glass,” clear partitions made of tempered glass or acrylic that protect spectators.

The ice is delineated using several lines, circles, dots, and shaded areas. The center-ice line is the red ribbon that divides the surface in half. The two blue lines demarcate each team’s defensive zone, or the area they defend in front of their goal. The area between the two blue lines at center ice is the neutral zone, the area from which the offensive team must decide how best to enter the other team’s defensive zone. The two red lines at either end of the ice are the goal lines; if a puck crosses the goal line and goes into the net, the result is a goal. There are nine faceoff spots on the ice; four large circles and four small dots in the neutral zone, plus a spot at center ice. In front of each goal is a blue shaded area called the crease, where the goalie spends much of his time and inside of which an opposing player cannot interfere with the goalkeeper. The trapezoid shape behind the goal is an area where goalies can put their sticks on the puck and move freely.

The Players

Each team has six players on the ice to begin a game: three forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie. Teams frequently change players during so-called line changes that can happen almost any time play is ongoing. A team may not always have six players on the ice at one time, though. As punishment for a penalty, referees can send a player to the penalty box for a prescribed amount of time, which gives the other team the advantage of having more players on the ice. This is called a power play. A hockey team can also “pull the goalie,” a do-or-die move typically deployed at the very end of a game, when a team is down by one goal. In this situation, a team’s goalie abandons the net and is replaced by a fourth forward to increase the chances of tying the game. Of course, without a goalie, a team’s net is left undefended, often leading to easy empty-net goals.

Basic Rules To Know

Icing: Icing is called when a player shoots the puck from his team’s side of the center-ice red line down past the other team’s red goal line. When a player does this—usually in an attempt to hit pause on an offensive onslaught—play is stopped and the puck is returned to the other end of the ice for a faceoff in the offending team’s defensive zone. Icing can be waived off if the goalie leaves the crease to play the puck, if an opposing player could have played the puck before it crossed the goal line, or if the referee deems that it could’ve been an errant pass.

Offside: Offside occurs when any player on the attacking team precedes the puck over the defending team’s blue line. The position of the player’s skate is the critical factor. If both skates are over the blue line before the puck, the player is officially offside. If the player has only one skate over the blue line and one on it, there is no violation.

Penalties: Players who violate the rules of the game may be given penalties. Penalties are classified into three categories: minor, major, and misconduct. For a minor penalty, players serve two minutes in the penalty box while their teammates play short-handed. A minor penalty lapses if the opposing team scores. Major penalties last five minutes and only expire at the end of that time. Misconduct penalties vary in length of time. Common penalties include cross-checking, elbowing, high-sticking, holding, hooking, roughing, slashing, tripping, and misconduct (usually for fighting).

The Game Clock

Hockey matches are broken down into three 20-minute periods. In the NHL, any regular-season game that ends regulation play with a tie goes to a five-minute, sudden-death overtime period. If at the end of overtime, the game remains knotted up, the match goes to a shootout. A shootout is a series of penalty shots in which each team is allowed three attempts to score in alternating fashion. If after three attempts the teams remain tied, the shootout will continue to alternate shots until one team fails to match the attempt of the other. During the playoffs, there are no shootouts and overtime periods are 20 minutes long. In the college game, regular-season overtimes last five minutes, are sudden death, and are played three-on-three. NCAA games can end in ties, although conferences may elect to use a three-person shootout to award points in league standings after the initial five-minute overtime.

Body Checking

Hockey is an intensely physical game, and one of the hallmarks of the sport is the body check. Body checking occurs when a defensive player purposefully collides with an offensive player who’s handling the puck. The defenseman can lead with the hip or the shoulder. The contact is intended to separate the player from the puck and disrupt the play. Checking is legal so long as the contact follows the rules. Players cannot use their sticks to check (that’s called cross-checking and it’s a penalty); check a defenseless player into the boards; or take more than three strides in advance of delivering a check (this is called charging).


Hockey is the only professional team sport in America where fighting is allowed—or at least doesn’t lead to a suspension or disqualification. Instead, fisticuffs between two players only merits a five-minute stay in the box. Fighting has long been part of the game—there’s even official rules that govern how physical altercations must unfold—but its frequency has diminished greatly in recent years in the NHL as concerns over associated concussions and mental-health problems have heightened.