How Hockey Works

More Rules: Odds and Ends

The NHL has a few quirks among the usual rules. One is the penalty shot, often referred to as "the most exciting play in hockey." There are several circumstances that lead to a penalty shot. The most common is when a player has a clear breakaway, and is pulled down or tripped from behind. A penalty shot is also awarded if a goalie throws his stick, or if a player other than the goalie covers up the puck in the crease (the blue painted area immediately in front of the net). Finally, a penalty shot may be awarded if a player deliberately knocks the net askew, preventing a goal.

The penalty shot pits one player against the goalie in a one-on-one showdown. The player starts at center ice and skates in alone with the puck. The goalie must remain in the crease until the player touches the puck. At that point, the player only gets one shot. If he misses, or the goalie makes the save, then the play stops immediately and a face-off is held. Historically, the odds of scoring on a penalty shot are about 50-50.


In certain situations, teams may pull the goalie, bringing him back to the bench in exchange for an offensive player. This is usually done late in the game by a team that is losing. It's a desperation move that adds some firepower for a late tying goal, but also leaves the net unprotected. Goalies are also regularly pulled during delayed penalty calls. When the referee determines that one team has committed a penalty, he doesn't stop the game immediately. He will raise his arm over his head, signifying the delayed call, and won't blow the whistle until someone on the penalized team touches the puck. Since it's generally not possible for a team to score without touching the puck, the other team can safely send their goalie to the bench in exchange for a sixth attacker.

The tactic can backfire, however. In 1979, Billy Smith of the New York Islanders became the first NHL goalie to score a goal when a player on the Colorado Rockies put the puck into his own net during a delayed penalty call -- no goalie to stop the puck. Smith had been the last Islander to touch the puck, so under NHL rules he was credited with the goal.

The real goalie scoring race started 10 years later, when Ron Hextall actually fired the puck the length of the ice to score a goal. He later repeated that feat in the playoffs. Since then, Martin Brodeur, Chris Osgood, and Jose Theodore have added themselves to the short list of goalies who have scored.

Like the National Football League, the NHL struggled for a while with modern video-replay technology. The current system strives to combine efficiency and accuracy. Instant replay is only used by the NHL to review goals. Specifically, the video goal judge is only empowered to determine if:

  • the puck completely crossed the goal line
  • the puck was hit into the net with a hand or a high stick, or was kicked in
  • the puck entered the net before the net was knocked off its moorings
  • the puck was in before the period ended

The replay judge must find conclusive evidence to overturn the original call made by the referee on the ice.

In addition to two referees, two linesman, and dozens of camera angles, there are two more sets of eyes monitoring the goal line. The goal judge sits in a small booth directly behind the net, his hand ready to flick a switch that will illuminate a large red light if he should see the puck cross the line. In earlier eras, whether or not that goal light went on was the deciding factor when the referee had to decide if a goal counted. With video replay in use, the goal judge is more of a tradition, one that added the phrase "lighting the lamp" to hockey lingo, as well as a hundred jokes about the bad goalie needing sun block on the back of his neck.

The International Game

There are a few important differences between NHL rules and the rules used during international competitions such as the Olympics. An Olympic rink is 100 feet (30.5 m) wide -- 15 feet (4.6 m) wider than a regulation NHL rink. Only one referee is used in international games. The center red line is not considered for purposes of the two-line pass off-side rule. Icing is called as soon as the puck crosses the goal line; they don't wait for it to be touched. Anyone who fights in an international game is immediately thrown out of the rest of the game.