PLAYING THE GAME
Updated on December 10, 2008
An introduction to the rules governing hockey are provided below. The Rules of Hockey and the Rules of Indoor Hockey are published by the International Hockey Federation (FIH). Around the world, these Rules govern all levels of play. In the United States, organizations that govern games between colleges (the NCAA) and high schools (the NFHS) publish modifications and additions to the Rules of Hockey; the rules published by the NFHS also change certain measurements. Each year, a comparison chart is published by USA Field Hockey to highlight the rule differences.
For the sake of clarity, the description below is based solely on the Rules of Hockey and measurements are provided in United States customary units (yards, inches, pounds) and rounded to the nearest whole number where reasonable. Exact metric measurements are available within the Rules of Hockey. In the near future we will also provide similar descriptive information regarding the sport of Indoor Hockey.
Hockey's outdoor competition surface is a smooth, flat surface that is 100 yards long by 60 yards wide. Two teams of 11 athletes each compete for 70 minutes. One of each team's 11 players is typically a goalkeeper. Each athlete carries a stick and uses it to move the hockey ball. The hockey stick is about one yard long and weighs about one and a half (1.5) pounds. At one end is a narrow, round handle (like a broom handle). The stick expands to blade-like playing end that is flat on one side and is usually rounded on the other. Athletes dribble and pass a hard, plastic ball to teammates while their opponents try to gain possession. The hockey ball is similar in size to a baseball but is bigger, heavier, and harder. Though most similar to the tactics and stratgies seen in soccer, hockey is unique in sport because the player in possession of the ball may not use their body, equipment, or a teammate to screen, pick, or otherwise obstruct their opponent from reaching the ball. This requires the development of expert dribbling passing and receiving skills. Both teams are trying to dribble and/or pass the ball into the scoring zone, called the circle, and shoot it across the goal line into a goal cage. The "circle" is an area that extends sixteen (16) yards to the front, left and right of the goal line. The circle is actually shaped more like the letter D. Goals can only be scored when an attacker has legally played (pushed, flicked, scooped, hit, deflected) the ball from within the circle. The team with the most goals at the end of the game is the winner.
- Two halves, each thirty-five (35) minutes in length (sometimes reduced depending on level of play and time constraints)
- 11 players per team in the game at any one time, each team typically plays with a goalkeeper
- Two umpires officiate the competition, a reserve umpire is often on hand during tournament games (in some cases a video umpire is used)
- The ball must be played with the flat side of the stick (the stick’s edges are considered part of the flat side of the stick), although a goalkeeper can use any part of their body to play the ball when the ball is inside the circle
- A goal is scored when an attacker plays the ball across the goal line from within the circle (the ball can contact a defender before going across the line)
- Players may not shield the ball from an opponent using their body or stick
- Not all fouls are penalize by the umpires who are to consider each violation's impact on play (i.e. if the umpire judges a foul to be inconsequential, the umpire does not blow his/her whistle)
The Competition Surface and Equipment
- The Competition Surface
The competition surface, or pitch as it is called by many participants, is a smooth, flat surface that is 100 yards long and 60 yards wide. Three lines parallel to the end lines divide the competition surface into quarters. One of these lines is at the center of the competition surface; the others are twenty-five (25) yards away from each end line (if the overall length of the competition surface is less than 100 yards, the distance from the end lines to the nearst "25 yard line" must still be twenty-five (25) yards). At each end of the competition surface is a scoring zone called the circle, encompassing the area 16 yards out from each goal line. Although many competition surfaces in the United States are natural grass, more and more synthetic surfaces (commonly called turf) are in place or being installed. All official matches between national teams must be played on a watered-down synthetic surface. The grass on natural surfaces must be kept quite short (approaching that of a putting green in golf) and, typically, the ground has to be rolled on a regular basis to ensure that the ball will move smoothly and safely across the surface.
- The Stick
The stick is comprised of two identifiable parts, the handle and the head. The length of the stick about one yard. The overall length is limited only by a maximum weight of 1.6248 pounds. The handle of the stick is round (like a broom handle) and about half the length of the stick. The end of the stick used by the athletes to play the ball is called the head. By rule the stick, including any coverings, stickers, or other protrusions, must be less than two inches wide at any point. The head curves at the end (like a candy cane). The head must be flat on one side. More often than not, the other side of the head is rounded. The ball can only be played with the flat side of the stick. The edges of the stick, the area between the flat side and the other side, are considered part of the flat side of the stick (this allows to ball to be played with the edges of the stick). Made of wood, a combination of wood and synthetic materials, or entirely of synthetic material, sticks are not allowed to be designed to propel a hockey ball at a speed greater than the speed of the stick. In fact, ball speed must not be greater than ninety-eight percent (98%) of stick head speed under test conditions. Therefore, if the stick is swung at 100 mph then the ball can only be propelled at 98 mph or less. All sticks are designed to be used in a right-handed fashion (if the head of the stick is pointing away from a player, the flat side of the stick is on the left side). This requirement keeps the follow through of swings by two approaching opponents away from each other’s bodies and causes opponents to take approaches to the ball that cause them to pass on opposite sides of the ball (and, therefore, each other). While some people say that hockey is for right handers only, left hand beginners can often develop dribbling skills more quickly than right handers because fine-motor control of the stick is primarily provided by left hand. Beginners with right hand dominance tend to enjoy an easier time hitting the ball.
- The Ball
Slightly harder, larger and heavier than a baseball, the hockey ball weighs between 5.5 and 5.75 ounces with a circumference of 8.8125 to 9.25 inches.
- The Goal Cage
The goalmouth is 7 feet high and 12 feet wide. The surfaces of the goalposts and the crossbar facing the field must be smooth and are 2" wide. Therefore, the overall height of the goal cage is 7'2" high and 12'2" wide. The cage must be at least 4 feet deep. Boards surround the inside bottom 18 inches of the sides and back of the goal cages and must be position so as not to narrow the goalmouth.
At the end of regulation time, if the score is tied and there is a requirement to determine a winner, various tie breaking techniques can be employed. Typically, in extended play scenarios, the team to score first wins. In some cases the teams play with only seven players per team. After a set amount of time, if the score is still tied, some kind of one-versus-one competition between attackers and goalkeepers is typically used. In the United States this is most often accomplished by using a penalty stroke competition (although, in this case, there is no penalty involved). An alternative is a one-versus-one where the attacker begins at the 25 yard line and, after the umpire whistles, moves forward and attempts to score against the goalkeeper. Typically, each team attacks five times, alternating attempts with their opponent. The successful attempts by these pairs are tallied and if there is still no winner, the tie is broken in a golden pairs competition whereby the first team with a lead at the end of a pairing is the winner. There is, however, no absolute standard.
All violations of the rules are judged by the umpires. If a violation is judged to be inconsequential, the umpire has license to allow play to continue. The umpires are also asked to wait for an advantaged to be determined before blowing their whistle. So, while is it illegal to kick the ball, if the blue player kicks the ball to the red player, the umpire needn’t interrupt play with their whistle in order to demonstrate that the blue player violated the rule. Players are expected to act responsibly at all times.
- Players on the field must hold their stick and not use it in a dangerous way
- Players must not touch, handle or interfere with other players or their sticks or clothing
- Players must not intimidate or impede another player
- Players must not play the ball with the back of the stick
- Players must not hit the ball hard on the forehand with the edge of the stick
- Players must not play the ball with any part of the stick when the ball is above shoulder height except that defenders are permitted to use the stick to stop or deflect a shot at goal at any height
- Players must not play the ball dangerously or in a way that leads to dangerous play
- Players must not intentionally raise the ball from a hit except for a shot at goal
- Players must not approach within five and a half (5.5) yards of an opponent receiving a falling raised ball until it has been received, controlled and is on the ground
- Field players must not stop, kick, propel, pick up, throw or carry the ball with any part of their body
- Players must not obstruct an opponent who is attempting to play the ball
- Players must not tackle unless in a position to play the ball without body contact
- Players must not intentionally enter the goal their opponents are defending or run behind either goal
- Players must not force an opponent into offending unintentionally
- Players must not change their stick between the award and completion of a penalty corner or penalty stroke unless it no longer meets the stick specification
- Players must not throw any object or piece of equipment onto the field, at the ball, or at another player, umpire or person
- Players must not delay play to gain benefit by time-wasting
Goalkeepers have special privileges when they have their stick in their hand and are within the circle they are defending. Goalkeepers are then permitted to:
- Use their stick, protective equipment or any part of their body to push the ball away, deflect the ball (in any direction including over the end line) or stop the ball
- Use their stick, feet, kickers, legs or leg guards to propel the ball forcefully
When the ball is outside the circle they are defending, goalkeepers are only permitted to play the ball with their stick and, if they are wearing protective equipment, must not take part in the match outside the 25 yard area they are defending. If the goalkeeper removes his/her protective equipment, including their headgear, the goalkeeper may take part in the match anywhere on the field.
A free hit is awarded to the non-offending team following an unintentional foul in all areas of the competition surface except for fouls by the defense within the circle they are defending. The free hit is taken near the place where the foul occurred.
- No player of the opposing team may be within five and a half (5.5) yards of the ball when the free hit is taken
- When the attack is to take a free hit within five and a half (5.5) yards of the circle they are attacking, no player other than the athlete restarting play may be within five and a half (5.5) yards of the ball when the free hit is taken
- Prior to being put into play, the ball must be stationary (though inconsequential movement is not penalized)
- The player restarting play must push or hit the ball along the ground (though an inconsequential rise is not penalized when the ball rises and is not dangerous)
- The player who restarts play may not approach within playing distance or replay the ball until another player from either team has contacted the ball
The penalty corner is unique to hockey. If an unintentional foul is committed by a defender within the circle, or if a defender intentionally fouls an attacker within twenty-five (25) yards of the end line that the defenders are defending, the attacking team is awarded a penalty corner.
To start a penalty corner, the ball is placed on the goal line on either side of the goal cage at least eleven (11) yards from the nearest goal post. One attacking player hits the ball to a teammate just outside the circle. All attackers and defenders must be outside the circle before the insertion is made (though the inserter may have one foot within the circle before they put the ball into play). A goal cannot be scored until the ball has traveled outside the circle. There is no rule forbidding the attack from shooting before the ball has left the circle but a goal cannot be scored until after ball has left and then returned to the circle. On defense, a maximum of five defenders may be behind the goal line while the remaining defenders must be positioned beyond the center line. Prior to the insertion, only the inserter may be within five and a half (5.5) yards of the hockey ball. If the first shot at goal is a hit (as opposed to a push, flick or scoop), the ball must cross the goal line, at a height of not more than eighteen (18) inches unless deflected by either team, for a goal to be scored
A penalty corner is awarded for the following offenses:
- An unintentional foul by a defender within the circle that would have resulted in a free hit to the attacking team if the breach had occurred outside the circle
- An intentional foul by the defenders outside the circle but within twenty-five (25) yards of the end line the defenders are defending
- An intentional hit, push, flick or scoop of the ball over the end line by a defender from any part of the field
A penalty stroke is awarded for an intentional foul by the defenders in the circle or for an unintentional breach by the defenders which prevent a sure goal. Players who intentionally foul, no matter where they are on the competition surface, are typically shown a green, yellow or red card for their misconduct, especially when it involves interactions with an opponent or when repeating a foul.
A penalty stroke is a one-on-one competition between an attacker seven (7) yards in front of the goal line and a goalkeeper standing on the goal line. The goalkeeper must stand with both feet on the goal line and may not move either foot until the ball has been played. The attacker may push, flick or scoop the ball from the penalty stroke mark after the umpire blows the whistle. During the penalty stroke, all other players must stand further than twenty-five (25) yards from the end line the goalkeeper is defending and must not be in the goalkeeper’s direct line-of-sight.
Ball Out-of-Bounds / Ball in Circle / Ball in Goal / etc.
- A ball is not out-of-bounds until the whole of the ball is completely beyond the vertical plane of the line in question
- A ball is not in the goal until the whole of the ball is completely beyond the vertical plane of the goal line
- The ball is in the circle when any part of the downward plane of the ball is above the vertical plane of the line marking the circle
- The ball is on the side line/in-bounds when any part of the downward plane of the ball is above the vertical plane of the side line
- A ball set on the side line for a foul near the side line does not have to be moved off of the side line to be considered on the field of play
Ball Over the End Line
When the attacking team is the last to touch the ball before the ball goes over the end line, and no goal is scored, the team defending that end line restarts play with a hit-out. The hit-out may be taken on the spot where the ball crossed the end line or anywhere in-line with where the ball crossed the end line up to sixteen (16) yards away from the point of departure. This restart is commonly called a sixteen although there is no need to bring the ball all the way out to what would be the 16-yard line. Calling the hit-out a sixteen often causes people to think that the ball must be brough 16 yards away from the end line. The rules governing free hits apply.
When the defending team is the last to touch the ball before the ball goes over the end line, and no goal is scored, the attacking team restarts play with a corner hit, which is taken on the side line closest to where the ball crossed the end line; five and a half (5.5) yards away from end line. This is commonly called a long corner or a long hit. The rules governing free hits apply.
Ball Over the Side Line
When the ball goes over a side line, the team that did touch it last restarts play with a side-in from the side line at the point of departure. The rules governing free hits apply.
Offenses & Misconduct
For rough or dangerous play, repeatedly making the same foul, any intentional offense, delaying the game and/or other types of misconduct, the umpire may:
- Caution the offending player
- Warn the offending player with a green card
- Temporarily suspend the offending player for a minimum of five (5) minutes with a yellow card
- Permanently suspend the offending player with a red