What Is Offsides in Hockey? The Ultimate Guide to the Rule

Hockey fans look on during an NHL game.

Hockey is vastly different from other sports in the sense that the playing area is split into three different areas or zones. Each of these zones is designated by the two blue lines on the ice. The blue lines are also used to determine if players are in an offsides position.

So, what is offsides in hockey?

Offsides is when a player enters the offensive zone before the puck. When this happens, the linesman blows their whistle to stop play. A face-off then ensues in the neutral zone at the small face-off dot on the side of the rink where the infraction took place.

While the definition of offsides might seem simple on the surface, there are several intricacies worth noting. Throughout this article we will explain the official NHL offsides rule, what the purpose of offsides is, what delayed offsides is and much more. 

The Zones of a Hockey Rink (Defensive, Neutral, Attacking)

Every hockey rink is divided into three separate zones. The two end zones are the defensive zones for each team (or the offensive zone for the other team) and are marked by blue lines.

The neutral zone is the middle zone that lies between the two blue lines. There is a red line that runs through the center of the neutral zone.

Players from both teams can be in the neutral zone and their zones at any time. But players can only be in the other team’s zone if the puck is already there.

NHL Offsides Rule

©Augustas Cetkauskas via Canva.com

According to NHL Rule 83, “Players of the attacking team must not precede the puck into the attacking zone.”

The rule goes on to clarify that it is a player’s skates and not his stick that determine whether or not a player is offsides. The rule states:

“A player is off-side when both skates are completely over the leading edge of the blue line involved in the play.”

It is important to note and understand that a player’s stick and even first skate can enter the attacking zone before the puck without offsides being called. There are also additional details to mention about offsides.

For example, it is permissible for a player to enter the attacking zone ahead of the puck in two circumstances. The first is if the player entering the zone is in complete control of the puck. As the rule puts it:

“a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.”

This play is somewhat common as a player might be momentarily turning or skating backward in an attempt to corral a pass from a teammate, in which case his entering the zone does not result in an offsides call.

The other situation in which offsides is not called, even though an attacking player is in the attacking zone before the puck, is if a player on the opposing team brings the puck into his team’s defensive zone himself.

The rules also state:

“If a player legally carries, passes or plays the puck back into his own defending zone while a player of the opposing team is in such defending zone, the offsides shall be ignored and play permitted to continue.”

Why Is there an Offsides Rule in Hockey?

With this much information about one rule, you might wonder why offsides in hockey is such a big deal. What is the purpose of it anyway?

The point of the offsides rule is to make sure a player from an attacking team doesn’t stay in the attacking zone as long as he wants.

There are several unofficial names for this kind of play as anyone who has played a pickup game of hockey can testify. One such name is “cherry-picking.”

Cherry-picking is generally thought of as a fairly cheap play and unbecoming of a real hockey player.

In theory, if offsides didn’t exist in hockey a player could wait down by the opposing team’s goal for as long as he wanted, hoping that his team would pass him the puck for a clear shot at goal.

This would ruin the natural flow and pace of play of the game and be a detriment to its overall quality.

Where Does Play Resume After an Offsides Call?

If offsides is called, the linesman will blow their whistle and stop the game. He will then collect the puck and both teams will line up for a face-off.

The face-off will occur in the neutral zone (the area between the two blue lines) on the face-off dot nearest to where the infraction occurred.

What Is Delayed Offsides in Hockey?

Hockey referee officiates a game.

In some leagues, if a player crosses the blue line before the puck, the whistle is blown immediately. In the NHL and many other leagues, however, delayed offside is a possibility.

With delayed offside, a player enters the attacking zone ahead of the puck but neither he nor any of his teammates have possession of the puck.

If this is the case, instead of immediately blowing the whistle, the linesman will raise his hand in the air to indicate that the attacking player is offsides.

At that point, the attacking player must leave the zone and “touch up” (meaning he must return to the neutral zone) before he can touch the puck.

If the attacking player fails to return to the neutral zone, offsides is called as soon as he touches the puck.

What Are Offside Deflections?

Though it’s rare, it’s possible that a defensive team, in an attempt to shoot the puck out of their zone, will hit an offensive player who is in the neutral zone and the puck will deflect back into their defensive zone.

In this case, offsides will not be called and play will continue with the offensive team able to attack as if they were on-side.

This can also happen with referees. If a player shoots the puck out of their defensive zone and it unintentionally deflects back into their defensive zone off the referee, offsides will be called.

What Is Intentional Offsides in Hockey?

In some situations, a team will try to be offsides on purpose. This can happen if a team is having a hard time changing lines and the players on the ice are tired.

To get called for offsides, a player will intentionally shoot the puck into the opposing team’s end even though a player from the attacking team is already in that zone.

The result is the same as any other offsides. The linesman blows his whistle to stop play and a face-off takes place at the nearest face-off dot to where the infraction occurred.

How to Teach Offsides in Hockey

One of the best ways to teach offsides to youth hockey players is to let them experience it for themselves. After crossing the blue line before the puck a few times, many players get the hang of the rule.

In practice, there are several drills where the coach tells the players to wait to enter the attacking zone until after the puck.

If a player does the drill incorrectly, the coach can yell offsides to inform the player they were offsides. Again, with repetition, players will begin to understand the importance of the puck entering the attacking zone before them.

How Do Players Prevent Getting Called for Offsides?

If you have ever watched a hockey game or played in one yourself, you know that players can get pretty creative when it comes to trying to stay on-side. One common thing you might see a player do is straddle the blue line.

In some cases, a forward will skate parallel to the blue line with one skate in the neutral zone and one skate in the attacking zone. This is perfectly legal and is not an offsides infraction because both skates have to cross the blue line for offsides to be called.

In other situations, if a player is skating fast and fears he might be offsides, he might drag his back leg in an attempt to slow down and remain on-side. Both of these scenarios work in some cases and not in others.

The Role of Defensemen in Keeping Their Team On-side

Hockey player in a green and yellow jersey skates with the puck.

Defensemen have a huge role in keeping their team on-side, especially when they have possession of the puck in the opposing team’s zone.

Defensemen stand just inside the blue line and are tasked with keeping the puck in the offensive zone at all costs because if the puck makes it to the neutral zone, all players on the team must touch up.

It is not unusual to see defensemen jump, dive, and generally throw their bodies in the way of the puck to keep it in the zone. Good defensemen keep the puck in the zone and allow their team to continue forechecking.

And because defensemen are already out at the blue line, they will in many cases try to shoot the puck on net, hoping to beat the goalie or for a deflection.

History of the Offsides Rule in Hockey

In the early years of hockey, the game resembled rugby in that players were limited in the direction they could pass the puck. In the late 1920s, these rules changed and players were permitted to pass the puck in any direction.

While this increased the pace of play and led to more goals, it also resulted in players waiting at the far end of the ice for a pass and the chance at an easy goal.

On Dec. 16, 1929, in an attempt to stop the blatant cherry-picking, the NHL initiated the modern offsides rule. Since that time it has been against the rules of the game to enter the offensive zone before the puck.

Throughout the NHL’s long history, there have been several instances where linesman failed to call offsides when they should have. One of the most controversial non-calls in NHL history was a blown offsides call in the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals.

In game six, New York Islanders forward Clark Gillies skated into the attacking zone, but when passing the puck to teammate Butch Goring, he passed it back out of the attacking zone into the neutral zone.

Because the play happened so quickly, the linesman missed the call and Goring was able to pass the puck to Duane Sutter who put it in the back of the net to break a 1-1 tie. The Islanders went on to win the game in overtime.

Offsides vs Icing

Finally, it should be noted that offsides is called differently from icing. Icing is an infraction that occurs when one team shoots the puck from one side of the red line to the other end of the rink.

The result of such a play is icing and the ensuing face-off occurs in the defensive zone of the team that committed the infraction.

Because the face-off occurs in the defensive zone on the side of the ice where the puck was shot from, icing is typically seen as a more serious infraction than offsides.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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