On the ice, as in life, there are consequences for your actions. In hockey, the most common hockey rule violations can force a face-off, penalizing the team in control of the puck when it committed the violation. Other hockey penalties call for a player to be sent to the penalty box for a certain number of minutes, giving the opposing team a one-player advantage. A minor penalty is the lowest level of infraction in the game of hockey. More serious hockey penalties include double-minors, major, misconduct, game misconduct, match, penalty shot, and gross misconduct.
Different Hockey Rules for Different Leagues
Most fans know hockey rules as they pertain to the National Hockey League, the sport’s North American professional league. But different leagues, age groups, and affiliations do not observe the NHL rules precisely. Hockey rules and penalties are tailored for the league, with National Hockey League, college, junior, and youth hockey players each playing under their own set of rules. There are also differences between leagues in the United States, Canada, and countries around the globe. In almost all cases, the hockey rules and penalties are tailored for safety concerns. Youth hockey follows the USA Hockey rules, but local youth leagues can make adjustments to fit their local needs as long as the changes don’t affect the safety of players.
Hockey Rule Violations That Aren’t Penalties
For the uninitiated, hockey may seem like a chaotic, mad scramble with no seeming order. But a closer look reveals finely detailed roles for each player, and rules keeping the game fair and safe. A few hockey rules don't result in penalties, but instead stop play and require a faceoff to restart the action.
The most common of these occurs when a play is ruled offsides. That’s where an offensive player crosses the blue line from the neutral zone into the opposing team’s zone — called the attacking or offensive zone — before the puck enters the attacking zone. If an offensive player enters the attacking zone before the puck, the team on offense has to slow and reset the play, and allow all players to “clear the zone.”
Another play that brings a lot of whistles in hockey is icing, where a player shoots the puck the length of the ice crossing both the center line and the opponent’s goal line. In some leagues, like the NHL, icing is called only if an opposing player other than a the goalie touches the puck. Icing is waved off if the team icing the puck is killing off a power play or if it is first touched by a member of the team that iced the puck. An official may also blow the whistle and stop play without a penalty if a puck becomes dislodged in a player's equipment, the goal netting, or goes out of play.
Minor Penalties in Hockey
Most of the hockey penalties called in a game will be minor penalties, bringing a two-minute trip to the penalty box. This leaves that team short-handed, while the other team is on a “power play,” which means they have a one-person advantage. If the team on the power play scores, the remaining time on the two-minute penalty is erased and the player in the box is released, putting both teams back at full strength. Officials can issue double or triple minors resulting in four- and six-minute stays in the box. While there are many, many minor hockey penalties, a few are called regularly.
The most common minors include:
- High sticking — Making contact with an opposing player above the shoulder with your stick, whether intentionally or inadvertently. If the play results in an injury, the penalty can be increased.
- Holding — Grabbing a player’s body, sweater, or stick, or preventing them from getting to the puck.
- Hooking — Using the blade of the stick to hold an opponent and prevent movement.
- Cross-checking — A hit in which a player uses the stick, held with both hands, to check an opponent.
- Roughing — Striking an opponent during an altercation that the officials decide is not severe enough to earn a more severe penalty. If a player punches another with gloves on during a skirmish officials will sometimes give a roughing penalty.
- Tripping — Causing an opponent to fall by tripping with stick or body.
Major Hockey Penalties
A major hockey penalty can be assessed for some of the same actions in the minor category, but is, in the judgment of the officials, a stronger penalty for a more severe infraction. A major penalty comes with five minutes in the penalty box, during which that team plays shorthanded. A major penalty is not shortened if the team on the power play scores a goal. However, in the case of fighting, if both combatants receive fighting majors and are sent to the box, substitute players can step in and both teams play at full strength.
Some typical infractions that earn players a major hockey penalty include:
- Boarding — Checking, tripping, or pushing an opponent into the side or end boards.
- Spearing — Striking an opponent with the blade of the stick in a stabbing motion.
- Slashing — Striking an opponent with the stick; often seen as a chop to the lower body.
- Charging — A hit in which a player takes multiple strides to gain speed to punish an opposing player, or if a player leaves his or her feet to maximize the impact.
- Check from behind — A check that impacts an opposing player from behind, preventing the player from preparing for the impact.
- Check to the head — Any contact above the shoulder that puts the head at risk.
- Fighting — Many scrums break out around the net or after a whistle, but a fighting major is called when a player drops the gloves and throws blows at another player.
Misconduct Penalties in Hockey
A misconduct penalty comes with a 10-minute spell in the penalty box. However, while that player must sit in the box for 10 minutes, the team can substitute another player onto the ice and the teams remain at even strength. Misconduct penalties are often called in conjunction with another penalty, such as a fighting major when an officials believes a player needs time to calm down and tempers to cool.
Some of the actions that can result in a misconduct penalty include fighting off the ice, continuing to fight or attempting to continue a fight after it has been broken up and parties separated, throwing equipment onto the ice, or speaking to an official with profanity or abusive language.
Game Misconduct Penalties
A player assessed a game misconduct penalty is ejected from the contest and sent to the dressing room. Game misconducts are often assessed along with another penalty, such as a five-minute major. The game misconduct is added in the official’s judgement. For example, when a player is assessed a major for boarding an opposing player, but that player suffers an injury, the infraction can be upgraded to a game misconduct resulting in an ejection.
The penalty goes into the books as a 10-minute penalty, but the team can immediately substitute another player and the teams remain at even strength. However, if the game misconduct is paired with a five-minute major, another player from the team will be sent to the box to serve the five minutes.
A player who earns three game misconducts in a season in the NHL, or two such hockey penalties for stick infractions, boarding, or checking from behind, automatically gets a one-match ban.
In addition to a penalty that results in an injury, other examples of hockey penalties that can earn a game misconduct include leaving the penalty box before the penalty is up, striking a spectator, leaving the penalty box during an on-ice fight, racial slurs, attempting to injure nonplayer personnel like a coach, or returning to the ice after being ordered to the dressing room.
Hockey Match Penalties
A match penalty is essentially an ejection from the game. It goes in the scorebook as a 10-minute penalty, but the player is immediately sent to the dressing room. The player’s team must play shorthanded for five minutes just as with a major penalty. A match penalty is used when a player intentionally hurts, or tries to hurt, another player. Other infractions that can result in a match penalty include stick offenses, checking from behind, boarding, biting, checks to the head, or punching and injuring an unsuspecting player.