What is High Sticking in Hockey? When is it a Penalty?

An ice hockey player high sticking another player in the head, this a penalty.

As much as we love hockey here at Hockey Topics, we must admit it can be complicated to understand. With all the rules, penalties, and regulations, hockey can be very confusing; one example is high-sticking. It’s a pretty common minor penalty, but it can also be just a stoppage of play with no penalty; we’ll explain the difference; and go over everything about high sticking in hockey.

We’ll take a deep dive into high-sticking and explain why it’s a critical penalty to ensure player safety; we look at different examples of it and what is and isn’t considered high-sticking. Then, we’ll tell you what happens after the ref blows their whistle and the consequences of high-sticking.

NHL High-Sticking Penalty Explained – NHL Rule 60

The NHL rulebook says, “Any contact made by a stick above the opponent’s shoulders is prohibited, and a penalty shall be imposed.”  This is the ice hockey high-sticking penalty. Although there are exceptions to this rule which we’ll get to in a bit, usually, this is a pretty clear-cut rule. So if you hit an opposing player with your stick above shoulder height, you’re going to the sin bin (penalty box).  

This penalty exists to ensure player safety and prevent potential head injuries. That’s why this rule is applied regardless of intent; even accidental contact is still a penalty. The NHL rulebook clearly states that a player must be in control of their hockey stick at all times.

If a high-sticking penalty occurs, the ref signals for a delayed penalty, and as soon as the offending team touches the puck, the play is whistled dead, and the penalty is enforced.

Exceptions to the High-Sticking Penalty

While high-sticking is typically pretty obvious, unlike other penalties like interference, you know it when you see it. The refs have a hard job to make sure the player was actually hit with the stick, sometimes, players will embellish the play and pretend they were hit when they actually weren’t. There can be times when a stick hits the opposing player above shoulder height, and there is no penalty or stoppage of play.

If a player shoots the puck with their stick and, on the wind-up or follow-through, strikes the opposing player’s head, they are not called for a penalty because it is their natural shooting motion. However, if a player tries to hit the puck, misses it, and hits an opponent in the face on the follow-through, they’ll probably get a high-sticking penalty. A player cannot go wildly swinging at bouncing pucks; again, they have to be in control of their hockey stick.

Another reason why a penalty would not be called is on a stick lift; if an opposing player hits your stick which then strikes a member of the opposing team in the face, you will not get penalized. The last exception is on a face-off; if a player hits the opposing center above the shoulders while they’re crouched down, no penalty is called.

How Long are High-Sticking Penalties?

Typically, a high-sticking infraction results in a minor penalty lasting two minutes. As a result, the guilty team will be shorthanded until the penalty expires or until the opposing team scores a power-play goal. However, the duration of the penalty can vary based on the severity of the high stock and the surrounding circumstances, potentially leading to longer and more severe penalties.

High-Sticking Double-Minor Penalty

If the result of the high-stick causes an injury to an opponent, then the referee can asses a double-minor penalty which is four minutes in duration. The most obvious sign of an injury is if blood is drawn. Therefore, the offending player automatically gets four minutes in the sin bin if there is any sign of blood caused by the high stick. And again, the intent is irrelevant; with most high-sticking penalties, there is no clear-cut intent to hurt an opposing player.

An ice hockey referee signaling for a high sticking in hockey penalty by raising his hands up.

High-Sticking Major Penalty

When a player clearly shows intent to injure an opponent with a high stick, the consequences are severe. If the referee determines that the offending player deliberately tried to hurt their opponent using the player’s stick, it results in a match penalty.  A match penalty means the offending player is automatically issued a game misconduct penalty, immediately removing them from the rest of the hockey game. Furthermore, the team is given a five-minute major penalty, and the NHL league office imposes an automatic suspension until a hearing is conducted to determine the length of the suspension. All major penalties are subject to video replay so the refs can confirm intent to injure the opposing player.

A match penalty is the most severe consequence a hockey player can receive; although it’s rare in ice hockey, it does happen. For example, if a player swings their stick like a baseball bat at an opponent, see Marty McSorley, it will result in a match penalty. Even if they miss, if the swing is intentional and violent, a penalty can still be called based on the action alone. If a player makes contact with an opponent’s head using their stick, and the referee determines that it was intentional, a hefty fine and suspension are imminent.

High Sticking the Puck – NHL Rule 80

High sticking in hockey does not always mean a penalty; it also refers to when a player hits the puck out of the air with their stick while the puck is above shoulder height. In this case, the officials will raise their arm and yell, “High stick.”  The play is immediately stopped if the offending team touches the puck first. However, the play will continue if the other team touches the puck.

Where Is the Face-Off Conducted After the Whistle?

If the puck makes contact with a high stick and that team touches the puck first, the play is whistled dead, and the face-off goes down to one of the defensive zone face-off spots of the offending team.

Refusing to Play the Puck – NHL Rule 72.3

When a player knocks the puck out of the air with a high stick, and their team doesn’t touch it after, sometimes the other team doesn’t want to play the puck either (for various reasons.) The result is both teams sitting there staring at the puck on the ice, waiting for each other to touch it. If both teams refuse to play the puck, the referee will blow their whistle, stopping play, and the face-off will go to one of the face-off spots nearest to where the play was stopped.

Why Does Hockey Have the High-Sticking the Puck Rule?

This is simply a common sense issue; it’s another measure to protect the players on the ice and limit head injuries. The NHL doesn’t want its players swinging their sticks in the air around other players’ heads; that just sounds like a serious injury waiting to happen.

Scoring a Goal with a High Stick

Hockey players cannot score a goal with a high stick. If the referee determines that the puck was hit with the stick of an attacking player above the crossbar, and goes directly into the opponent’s net, then the ref will waive off the goal, and the face-off goes into the neutral zone.   However, the goal will count if the defending team bats the puck into their own net with a high stick.

It’s important to note that when a goal is scored with a high stick, the level that the stick cannot be above is the height of the crossbar; compared to a minor penalty, the height of the stick cannot be higher than the offending player’s shoulder height.


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Can Coaches Challenge a High-Sticking Call?

Every goal is automatically reviewed by the NHL’s video replay room in Toronto, so no coach’s challenge is necessary for a puck hit into the net with a high stick. However, if the puck was played with a high stick before the goal occurred, and the offending team touched the puck first, the coach can use a challenge to say that the play should have been whistled dead before the goal.

Final Thoughts on High Sticking in Hockey

Now that you know everything about high sticking in hockey, we hope you understand hockey’s rules and regulations better. First, we went over what high sticking is and reviewed the severity levels of the high-sticking penalties, from a minor to a game misconduct. Then, we explained the difference between the high-sticking rule and the penalty and when the ref stops the play. And you know what happens when a player makes contact with the puck above the crossbar and scores a goal, so that about covers it.  

Understanding the intricacies of hockey rules will hopefully increase your appreciation for the game, so we here at Hockey Topics strive to share our knowledge with you. Check out our Hockey Rules Page to learn more about hockey.

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