For the avid hockey fan, the icing rule may seem straightforward but for many new and veteran fans, it can be confusing. I know when I first got into hockey, the nuances of icing confused me to no end. It took years of playing and watching the game for me to truly understand the rule.
So, what in the world is icing in hockey?
Icing is when a player sends the puck over the center red line and the opposing team’s goal line, without the puck being touched by either team. The result of an icing call is a faceoff in the defensive zone of the team who committed the icing.
The above definition of icing sounds, on its face, black and white. But if you’ve been to a crowded arena to watch a game at any level, you’ve witnessed the controversy tied up in this call.
Understanding how a seemingly simple rule came to involve so many intricacies of the game and strategy, requires a much longer answer than a two-sentence definition.
What Happens When Icing Is Called in Hockey?
When a player shoots the puck or dumps it into the offensive zone and the puck crosses two red lines (center red line and red goal line) without being touched by any other players on the ice, the official will raise their arm indicating an icing infraction.
The official will then blow his whistle and skate the puck back into the defensive zone of the offending team that committed the icing infraction. Icing is called in the event the puck is shot from one end of the ice to the other without any intention to ice the puck.
The players will then line up at the respective face-off circle of the offending team and then the official will blow the whistle again, indicating that play will resume with the puck drop.
In some cases, some players and coaches may choose to make substitutions during this break in play, but certain restrictions surround these instances.
Why Is Icing a Penalty?
The icing rule, in tandem with the offsides rule in hockey, is a defense against what is often termed ‘cherry-picking’.
If offsides and icing were not in place, players would be free to be anywhere on the ice at any time, waiting for their team to retrieve the puck from the opposing team and pass it on to them.
Because there are only five skating members from each team on the ice during even-strength play, this would significantly spread out and slow down gameplay. The icing rule also defends against too easy of a breakout.
A breakout is when the defending team gains possession of the puck and moves the puck out into the neutral zone and beyond without losing the puck to a player on the opposing team.
Without the icing rule, a player could gain possession of the puck in their defensive zone and just as quickly ice the puck past the opposing team’s goal line, allowing the team’s defense a reprieve and potentially spurring an offensive charge.
Where the controversy and interpretive strategy of icing the puck comes in is the situational exceptions to the rule, of which there are several.
In traditional icing, the linesman is free to blow the whistle for icing as soon as the puck crosses the goal line no matter who is near, as long as no one other than the committing player has touched it by that point.
This is generally employed throughout youth and upper-level amateur ice hockey leagues. Touch icing, however, provides a slight exception.
In most cases, the linesman will make the signal indicating an icing has occurred, but will not stop play with the whistle in the case that a member of the offending team is the first player to touch the puck after the puck crosses the goal line.
This provides some excitement to a seemingly boring rule, as it forces players on the ice to try and touch the puck first after the puck crosses the goal line.
Another exception is when a penalty has been committed and one team is either one or two skaters short of full-strength in comparison to the opposing team.
In either case, if one team is on the power play, the defending team on the penalty kill may ice the puck past the other team’s red goal line without any consequences, even if they’re on their team’s side of the center red line.
This advantage, for the team who committed the penalty to have an easier than usual breakout strategy and ability to line change for fresh legs, is one that does not sit well with everyone.
Many people have suggested that having the ability to line change is an unfair advantage for the penalty-committing team and that they should not be able to ice the puck without any consequences.
This has gained so much attention that many youth leagues have eliminated the exception for both experimental and developmental purposes as it teaches the young players to better handle the puck and avoid needless time on the penalty kill.
But for leagues with higher skilled players, being on a power play becomes too effective and oftentimes the only way to have a chance at killing a penalty is to, as often as possible, ice the puck past the opposing team’s goal line and substitute for well-rested skaters.
The most common, and likely most controversial of all exceptions to icing the puck, however, comes throughout play and is not based on a particular situation.
How should it be determined whether, at the high speed of the game today, a puck carrier reached the center red line before dumping the puck into the other team’s defensive zone?
Even more commonly, how should a linesman use their discretion appropriately to determine when to exercise their ability to call off a potential icing?
These are questions that leave adamant fans, players, and coaches alike in a deep fog of frustration and confusion.
Many officials will not call an icing when a player has nearly, but not quite, reached the center red line before slapping the puck into the zone. Others are very strict, and yet others, inconsistent at best.
And then there are the officials who use their power of discretion only when the puck is clearly going slowly enough for the defending player to catch up to it reasonably before reaching the end zone – but then there are others who seem to believe their whistle is only to be used sparingly as if it will break if used too often.
Surely, though, all of this is complicated by sneaky players who try to deceive the officials by skating much slower than they are truly capable after a supposed icing is called, hoping to get it called when it could be called off.
And then there is the strategy of when to ice the puck on purpose even when the play is at full strength and the call is as clear as day.
With these exceptions to the rule, it is difficult to know exactly what should be done, and this does not even include fans’ and coaches’ opinions.
Weeks could be spent in a study on the web of inconclusive speculation about the icing rule, but a closer look at the specifics of the rules among large hockey organizations will give more of a foundation to work and base informed opinions from.
NHL Icing Rules
Rule 81 in the Official Rules of the National Hockey League for the 2018-2019 season designates the rules of icing, including distinctions from other league’s gameplay rules.
The icing rule is within the category of game flow, and as such, is a major determinant of how play proceeds.
Concerning what has already been discussed regarding the icing rule, the National Hockey League uses a form of touch icing. In this case, however, the linesman has the discretionary power to decide who wins the race to the puck and when indeed that is relevant to the call.
If any player on the opposing team is deemed able to have played the puck but did not, icing will not be called. It is also important to note that contact between the puck and an official does not inherently nullify a potential icing call from happening.
Another distinction that the NHL has made in their rules is that in the case of a deflection by a player who has not yet gained the center red line, icing only results when it was that player’s team who was committing the icing in the first place.
Additionally, if a goalkeeper makes an intentional move to play the puck after the opposing team tries to ice the puck but then doesn’t touch the puck, the linesman is not to make the icing call.
Conversely, icing is called if a skater is able to play the puck but lets it go to try and draw an icing call.
If the referee determines that the linesman erred in calling the icing, the following face-off will be conducted at the center-ice (red line) face-off circle.
The most important rule that the NHL has differentiated itself by is that when a team commits an icing violation, they may not substitute any players who were on the ice during the call until the following face-off has ensued.
Exceptions to this rule include: replacing the goalie with an additional attacker, replacing an injured player, or when a penalty affects the on-ice strength of either team.
One major rule change that the NHL made back in the 2013-14 season was in regards to their version of touch icing.
In traditional touch icing where a player must touch the puck, the race to the end wall can be a dangerous, high-speed battle between two players that has resulted in numerous injuries throughout the years.
What Is Hybrid Icing in Hockey?
What has been called the hybrid icing rule is a measure taken in an attempt to make the game safer for players. This new hybrid icing rule, however, gives more discretionary power to the linesman and makes the call less objective.
Under the hybrid rule, the linesman must decide which player is in the most likely position to reach the puck first, and this decision must be made by the instant the first player’s skates reach the end-zone face-off dots, with the player’s skates being the determining factor.
Hybrid icing removes the need for a player to touch the puck for icing to be called.
This does not necessarily make it a race now just to the dots instead of the puck, rather it is still up to the official to determine who would reach the puck first. As with touch icing in hockey, if the offending team were to reach the puck first, hybrid icing is not called.
USA Hockey Rules
The USA Hockey Official Rules of Ice Hockey has its own definition of icing described under rule 624.
The basis of this rule description is the same, as the linesman is the official in charge of making this call and the offense is committed in the same manner.
But, as with all leagues and their distinctive rules, there are special exceptions under these rules that are not present elsewhere.
USA Hockey regulates all youth hockey in the United States, and as such, icing is called and play is stopped as soon as the puck crosses the goal line.
Keeping the same spirit as the NHL rule of error of a linesman, if such an event occurs, the ensuing face-off will occur at the nearest face-off circle to where the puck came to rest at the time of the whistle.
Another distinction is that for any level under the High School and 16U classifications of youth and/or girls’ hockey, icing is called even when a team is shorthanded. This removes any incentive to ice the puck.
This is a relatively recent rule change and has caused much dissension among players and coaches. While the icing rule can seem to be a force causing stagnation of the game at times, this investigation into its purpose and variations has shown that it is essential to the integrity of the sport.
While it is not always as easy to determine the accuracy of an icing violation as some fans may like, it is the ambiguity of this call that adds to the excitement and intrigue of the strategy of the game.
Can a Goalie Cross the Red Line in Hockey?
Goalies in hockey may not cross the center red line but can play the puck behind their team’s red line (goal line), as long as they are within the trapezoid area. If a goalie plays the puck beyond the center red line or behind his red goal line (and not in the trapezoid area), a minor penalty will be assessed.