Offsides in Hockey – We Explain Everything About the Rule

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Ice hockey is a thrilling yet complex sport with many intricate rules that can be hard to grasp.  At Hockey Topics, we’re here to help you become a more educated fan of the fast-paced and exciting game that is hockey by taking in-depth looks at various rules and aspects of the greatest sport on Earth.  Today’s subject?  Offsides in hockey: easily one of the most common infractions and complicated concepts.  Let us be your guide as we break down this critical rule to help you better understand and appreciate the game!

In this article, we’ll define the ice hockey offside rule, why and when it’s called and not called, and explore some of the other aspects of this crucial rule and its role in shaping hockey into the great game we know today.  In a game where fractions of an inch can be all the difference between glory and defeat, nobody has a more important or demanding job than the zebras (referees and linesmen) to get the call right.  And the offside infraction can be one of the most challenging rules in hockey to make a split-second judgment on, especially with the little black puck flying around the ice. 

A History of the Blue Line and Offside Rule in Hockey

First, a brief history lesson, offsides was made an official rule by the NHL in 1929; this came along with the two blue lines (before, there were just the two goal lines and no center red line either) and the implementation of the forward pass… that’s right, before 1929 all passes had to be backward, to a teammate who was behind the player with the puck.

Before offsides, forward passing, and the blue lines, hockey was very different from what we know today. It was more like rugby on ice than modern-day hockey. This new rule gave hockey a new look and playing style, which really opened up the game and made it more exciting and fast-paced. Offsides is the most essential rule change in hockey history!

What is Offsides in Hockey? NHL Rule 83

So, what exactly is offsides in hockey? The answer can be a long one but summed up, offsides occurs when a player from the attacking team (the team with the puck) enters the offensive zone and crosses the offensive blue line before the puck.

What is the Blue Line in Hockey?

Before we get into the rule, let’s review the hockey rink layout and the three zones. Each hockey rink has two blue lines 75 feet from the end boards and 50 feet apart. The purpose of them is to prevent players from entering the offensive zone before the puck. Therefore, consider the blue lines the borders of the three zones, and divide the rink into thirds.  

A diagram of a ice hockey rink showing the three zones, the offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone
  • The offensive or attacking zone is the third of the rink where the opponent’s goal is, the goal you’re trying to score on. This is from the end wall behind the net to the nearest blue line.  
  • The neutral zone is between the blue lines in the rink’s middle third section.
  • The defensive zone is where your goalie is, the area inside the blue line.

To clarify one point, whichever zone you’re talking about is specific to that team, not to both teams, so Team A’s offensive zone is Team B’s defensive zone.

More About The Offside Rule

There are a couple more things to go over about the offside rule; we already covered the basics, that an offensive player cannot enter the offensive zone before the puck, but what are the fine points of this rule?

  • Both of the player’s skates must be completely over the blue line and in the offensive zone to be considered offside.  Sometimes you see players stretch and drag their back skate to keep it onside.
  • The player’s skates are the only part of the player that matters. The position of the player’s stick or other body parts is irrelevant to determining if the player is in an offside position.
  • If the puck leaves the offensive zone and then the attacking team hits the puck back in the offensive zone, then all players on the attacking team must leave the zone or “touch up”; everyone must be onside at the same time before they can re-enter the zone.
  • The puck must completely cross the blue line to be considered in or out of the zone.
  • If one of the attacking players shoots the puck from the neutral zone and another attacking player enters the zone before the puck crosses the blue line, that results in the linesman calling offside.

Delayed Offside Rule

Another key point is the attacking team must touch the puck in the offensive zone while in an offside position for the play to be whistled dead. As long as their team doesn’t touch the puck in the offensive zone, players can be in an offside position, and play continues; this is called delayed offside, not to be confused with a delayed penalty. An offsides player can touch up by getting one skate in the neutral zone.

The New NHL Offside Rule

In 2021 the NHL adjusted the offside rule; they said that a player’s skate can be in the air above the plane of the blue line and still be considered onside. Previously, a player had to have at least one skate on the ice touching the blue line to be considered onside.

What Isn’t Offsides?

So now that you know what offsides is, we’ll look at what it isn’t.

  • Straddling the blue line – One very effective method to avoid going offside is to straddle the blue line with one skate on each side. That player is onside as long as one skate is over the line and out of the offensive zone.  

Pro Tip: Players skate down the blue line while waiting for their teammate to get the puck across the line. This way, they have gathered up speed and can turn into the offensive zone and make a play much faster than if they were stopped.

Offsides in hockey diagram, showing what the offsides rule is, offsides is not a penalty.
  • Suppose The Bruins are on the attack in the offensive zone, and the puck comes out into the neutral zone, and the opposing team brings the puck back into the zone while the Bruins forwards are still in the zone. In that case, anyone from the Bruins who normally would be offside is now considered onside since the defending team brought the puck back into the zone, and they are not required to touch up. 
  • If a player is skating backward into the attacking zone and has possession of the puck, that is not offsides even though the player entered the attacking zone before the puck; as long as they have control of the puck, it’s ok.  

Why is Offsides a Rule?

Having the offsides rule in the NHL is crucial to maintain the integrity of the game.  Hockey is the ultimate “team sport” where it takes 20 players working together to win!  A hockey term called “cherry picking” refers to a player who stays in the neutral zone waiting for the puck while his team is outnumbered in their defensive zone battling with the other team.  It’s looked at as a cheap and selfish style of hockey.  If there were no offsides, there would be much more cherry-picking, making games less structured, sloppy, and thus less entertaining.   

To take it one step further, if there was no offsides rule in hockey, players could just sit in front of the opponent’s goal the whole game, even while their team is working their tails off defending in their own zone, this would compromise the team aspect of hockey, and make it more about the individual than the team.  This rule encourages skillful teamwork rather than selfish hockey, which is why it’s an essential rule in hockey!

What do NHL Linesmen Do?

Now we’ll look at one of the most thankless jobs in hockey, the linesmen or lineswomen.  Linesmen, not to be confused with referees, wear black and white striped shirts like referees do (which is why they are sometimes called zebras), but referees wear an orange armband while linesmen do not. 

There are four on-ice officials (two referees and two linesmen), so it can get confusing.  But there are some differences between the two; the main one is linesmen can not call most penalties unless it’s a major penalty that the refs missed; the only penalty they can call is too many men on the ice.

Linesmen get their name because they are in charge of watching the lines in a hockey game, their biggest resposilbiltes are calling offsides and icing, but there’s a lot more to being linesmen.  From breaking up fights and scrums to dropping the puck for face-offs, the linesmen go mostly unnoticed during most games, which means they’re doing a good job. 

However, when they make a big call, whether right or wrong, many people will be upset with them.  Imagine a packed hockey arena with 20,000 fans booing and screaming at the top of their lungs at you and millions more yelling at you through their TV sets, not to mention the frequent verbal abuse they must endure from the coaches and players.

The two linesmen are positioned at the blue lines on opposite sides of the rink, so they are in the best position to make the offside call, and they skate back and forth between the two blue lines.  But how can they see what’s happening with players zipping around everywhere? 

We know hockey is an unbelievably-quick game where players skate at speeds of over 20 mph, and the puck flies around the ice, clocking in at over 100 mph.  On top of keeping up with this frenetic pace, linesmen must make split-second decisions to determine if plays are offsides or not, sometimes by a fraction of an inch.  These calls can have significant implications on the outcome of the game.

What Happens When a Player is Offsides

a shot of a NHL ice hockey game and an example of what the offsides rule is in hockey.

Now that we know who calls offside infractions and what qualifies for offsides, what happens when a player is offsides?  We explained what delayed offside was earlier and that the play does not get stopped just because a player is in an offside position.  So long as the puck doesn’t cross the blue line into the attacking zone AND a member of the attacking team has not touched the puck, the player who is offsides has a chance to get back onside by having at least one skate leave the zone and go entirely over the blue line.  Again, this is called “touching up.”

When someone is offside, the linesman yells “Off, Off” very loudly and puts their arm straight up in the air letting everyone know someone is offside.  The play continues, and if that player touches up, the linesman will then yell “Good” or “No” and wave his hands across the front of his body, similar to an umpire in baseball signaling the “safe” call.  The linesman will also make this gesture and yell “Good” every time the puck crosses the blue line and everyone is onside.

If the puck completely crosses the blue line and an attacking player is offside, and their team touches the puck, then the linesman will blow their whistle and yell “Offside” and point his arm at the line, the play is stopped, and there is a face-off.  Offsides is an infraction, so no penalty is called like there is on a hooking or interference penalty.


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Where is the Face-off After an Offsides Call?

When a play is whistled dead by a linesman for being offsides, the face-off goes to the nearest face-off dot to where the offsides infraction occurred from.  In most cases, it’s the face-off dot in the neutral zone right outside the blue line of the offensive zone.  But sometimes there is a long pass from way back in a team’s defensive zone that goes all the way to the far blue line; if the receiving player crosses the offensive zone blue line before the puck, and touches the puck, then the face-off goes all the way back to where the pass originated from in the defensive zone.

What is Intentional Offsides?

If a player knowingly causes an offsides play, this is intentional offside.  So, for example, if the linesman is signaling for a delayed offside, and a player on the attacking team touches the puck in the offensive zone, the linesman blows his whistle to stop play, and they can call intentional offsides if he thought the player who touched the puck knew that their team was in an offside position.  If this occurs, the face-off goes all the way down to the face-off dot in that team’s defensive zone.

Coach’s Challenge

What if they make a mistake?  We all make mistakes, even NHL linesmen.  Can you blame them?  They must make split-second judgment calls on a small puck, with skates and sticks everywhere, and at intense speeds! 

If the linesman says the play is onside and that team later scores, the coach can use a coach’s challenge if he thinks the linesman is wrong, and they can look at the replay.  If the video replay shows conclusive evidence that the play was offside, then the call on the ice is reversed, and the goal is not allowed.  The time on the clock is set back to when the offsides occurred, and a face-off takes place outside the zone.

If the coach challenges the play and the officials are correct, and the goal is legit and should count, their team is assessed a two-minute minor penalty.  The coach’s challenge rule was introduced in 2015.

What’s the Difference Between Offsides and Icing?

The two most common infractions (not penalties) in hockey are offsides and icing; while often confused for each other, they are very different rules.  So that leads us to the question, what’s the difference between offsides and icing?  I think you know when offside occurs by now, so let’s explain what icing is.

When a team with the puck is behind the center red line and shoots the puck all the way down into their offensive zone past the goal line, and the defensive team gets to the puck first, then a whistle is blown immediately for an icing call.  Here are some reasons why icing wouldn’t be called:

  • There is no icing if the team that shoots the puck is short-handed.
  • If the attacking team beats the defensemen to the puck, then icing is waved off.
  • If the puck touches a member of the defensive team (including the goalie) or the attacking team behind the center red line, then there is no icing.
  • If the linesman determines that the defending team could have gotten to the puck before it crossed the goal line, they can wave off the icing call.

There’s a lot more to the icing rule that we’ll get into in another article, but that about covers the basics of icing. Again, it is apparent that the two rules differ, yet they share similarities regarding the puck crossing lines and the player’s positioning concerning the lines.

An ice hockey rink diagram showing what icing is, icing is a hockey rule, but not a penalty.

Final Thoughts on Offsides in Hockey

The offside rule is one of the crucial rules that help make hockey the great game we all know and love!  From its inception, it’s played a pivotal role in how our favorite game evolved and continues to be an essential part of hockey today. So we broke down every detail about this rule – explaining when it applies or doesn’t and how difficult enforcing it can be with the high-speed nature of play on the ice! 

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