Understanding the Rules of Professional Hockey: A Beginner’s Guide to the NHL

Understanding the Rules of Professional Hockey: A Beginner’s Guide to the NHL

Understanding the Rules of Professional Hockey: A Beginner’s Guide to the NHL 2560 1707 The Ultimate Lineup

The wait is finally over! The 2023-24 NHL season is set to begin on October 10.  Fans across the country are eagerly anticipating the start of the season, which promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory. With the return of some of the league’s biggest stars and the debut of some promising rookies, there’s no telling what surprises the new season will bring. So, grab your favorite team’s jersey, get ready to cheer them on, and let’s drop the puck on another unforgettable season of NHL hockey!

Hockey is an exciting and fast-paced sport that has captivated fans for generations. If you’re new to the game and eager to understand the rules that govern professional hockey, you’ve come to the right place. In this beginner’s guide, we’ll break down the fundamental rules and essential aspects of the game.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is the premier professional ice hockey league in North America, comprising teams from both the United States and Canada. Let’s delve into the structure and key components that define the NHL.

League Structure


The NHL consists of 32 teams from both the United States and Canada. Teams are organized into two conferences: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Each conference is further divided into two divisions, resulting in a total of four divisions. Each division contains eight teams.

Conferences and Divisions

Eastern Conference: Comprised of  the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division

Western Conference:  Comprised of the Central Division and the Pacific Division

Regular Season

The regular NHL season typically consists of 82 games for each team, with 41 games played at home and 41 on the road. Teams compete within their divisions and conferences, accumulating points based on wins and overtime or shootout losses. Points are used to determine the standings and playoff eligibility.


At the end of the regular season, the top three teams from each division and two wildcard teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs. The playoffs are a knockout-style tournament, culminating in the awarding of the prestigious Stanley Cup to the champion.

Game Rules

Objective of the Game

Hockey is played between two teams, each striving to score goals by getting a puck into the opponent’s net. The team that scores the most goals within the regulation time or overtime wins the game.

The Basics:  Teams and Positions

Players: Each team typically has six players on the ice at any given time. These players include three forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender.

Forwards: Responsible for scoring goals, forwards are positioned up front and often play close to the opponent’s net.

Defensemen: Primarily focused on preventing the opposing team from scoring and assisting the forwards.

Goaltender: Guards the net and tries to prevent the puck from entering the goal.

Game Format

A standard NHL game is played in three 20-minute periods, with intermissions in between.  In the case of a tie at the end of regulation time, an overtime period is played, and if necessary, a shootout follows.  Each team is allowed to have five skaters on the ice at a time, including the goaltender.


A goal is scored when the puck crosses the opponent’s goal line.  An assist is awarded to a player whose pass directly leads to a goal.  The team with the most goals at the end of the game is the winner.


Penalties result in a player spending time in the penalty box, and the penalized team is short-handed.  Common penalties include slashing, tripping, high-sticking, and holding.

Power Play: The team with a player advantage due to an opponent’s penalty is on a power play. During a power play, the penalized player’s team is short-handed.

Icing and Offside

Icing: Occurs when a player shoots the puck from behind the center red line to the opponent’s goal line without it being touched by anyone, resulting in a stoppage of play.

Offside: Happens when an attacking player crosses the blue line into the offensive zone before the puck does. This results in a stoppage of play and a face-off.


Puck: The game is played with a round, flat disk called a puck.

Stick: Players use hockey sticks to handle and shoot the puck.

Skates and Protective Gear: Players wear skates for mobility and must have protective gear such as helmets, gloves, shoulder pads, shin guards, and more for safety.

Administration and Governance

The NHL is governed by a Commissioner, appointed by the Board of Governors, which is made up of representatives from each team. The Commissioner oversees the league’s operations, implements policies, and represents the NHL in various capacities.  Understanding the structure of the NHL, from its team organization to game rules and playoffs, provides a solid foundation for enjoying the excitement of professional ice hockey. The league’s structure has evolved over the years, and the NHL continues to be a prominent and beloved sports league, capturing the hearts of fans across North America and beyond.

Understanding the basic rules of professional hockey is a great starting point for anyone looking to enjoy this thrilling sport. As you watch games and immerse yourself in the excitement of hockey, you’ll continue to grasp more nuances and strategies that make hockey the dynamic and exhilarating sport it is. Enjoy the game!

Learn more about hockey and the NHL:  Official Site of the National Hockey League | NHL.com


The Sport Lady has been a lifelong sports enthusiast. She believes that sports have the power to unite people, create common bonds, and foster shared experiences. As a wife and mother of sports lovers, she is passionate about her favorite teams and cherishes every opportunity to watch them play. For her, every day is game day!