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What does Offside Mean in Hockey?

hockey offsides

Hockey rinks are all made up of 3 distinct zones: defensive, neutral and offensive zones. In both the defensive and neutral zones, players are able to freely move the puck back and forth to one another. When it comes to the offensive zone, there are rules that govern zone entry and re-entry for the attacking team. These rules are collectively known by professional hockey leagues as Offside. 

Offside make up part of the set of infractions deemed illegal in hockey during game play. Another common illegal play is Icing, which I've written about in the following blog post here

So, let's get back to our topic in question - Offside.

hockey zones

What does offside mean in hockey?

In hockey, a play is considered offside when a player enters the offensive zone prior to the puck fully crossing the blue line. An offside play is blown dead if the team violating the infraction is in possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Otherwise, you’ll notice the referee with their arm up, indicating a delayed offside call.

hockey offsides

If the referee whistles the play dead, the subsequent face-off will take place at the neutral zone dot, on the side of the infraction – which is just outside of the offensive zone, at either of the blue lines. There is an exception to this rule if the offside was intentional – explained just below.

A play is deemed offside if both of the leading player’s skates precede the puck on offensive zone entry (source). 

Moreover, a play is also considered offside if the player’s leading skate is across the blue line, while their trailing skate is not touching the ice. This rule still applies even if the rear skate appears to be fully behind the blue line but is elevated off the ice surface.

One way to cancel an offside play is if all players in the offensive end exit the zone, meaning that they’ve all tagged up. In short, if one player is offside, all players on the team are considered offside while in the offensive zone – regardless if the original player tags up.

Furthermore, offside is waved off if the defensive team clears the puck out of their own zone.

Exception to the Offside Rule in Hockey

There are 2 major exceptions to the offside rule in the NHL.

The puck carrier can enter the zone skates first if they are in full control of the puck, and none of their teammates enter beforehand.

Also, offside is called off if the puck is brought back into the zone by the defensive team while their opponents are still caught up inside. The rule applies whether or not the defensive player shows intent on returning the puck in the zone. Meaning that they could have passed the puck intentionally back in their own zone, or if it accidently deflected back in off their skate.

What is Intentional Offside?

Intentional offside is called if the offensive player purposely chooses to play the puck rather than leave the zone to tag up. Typically, you’ll hear the referee scream “offside” when the offensive team is in violation for the purpose of having all players leave the zone. 

When the infraction is deemed by the referee to be intentional offside, the subsequent face-off will take place in the defensive zone dot of the violating team.

History of the Offside Rule

Originally, the NHL disallowed forward passing, similar to the sport of rugby. Thus, only lateral or passes to teammates behind the puck were permitted. As a result, all forward passes were deemed as offside and the play would be blown dead.

The modern-day offside rule was first introduced during the 1929-30 season, after allowing forward passing within the neutral and offensive zones just a few years prior. 

The NHL has flirted back and forth with both delayed and immediate offside throughout the years. As described earlier, delayed offside allowed teams to tag up and correct the violation as long as they didn’t touch the puck in the offensive zone.

Immediate offside resulted in the play being blown dead regardless if the violating team was in possession of the puck or not.  

Since the 2005-06, the delayed offside rule was reinstated in part to increase the overall flow of the game. The other contributing factor was that of the removal of the two-line pass rule, which was in-itself another form of offside. The function of the now-defunct two-line pass rule is explained below.

Two-line pass: Former Offside Rule

Prior to the 2005-06 season, the NHL employed the two-line pass rule – an infraction also considered to be offside. Basically, the puck cannot be passed from the defensive zone to a player beyond the center line on an offensive breakout (source).

In this instance, the center line was regarded in the same way as the offensive blue line. The puck must cross center ice prior to the offensive player.

The reason why the NHL eliminated the two-line pass rule was to increase the flow of the game and eliminate stoppages in the game. In addition, it was also to counter the defensive Neutral Zone Trap which contributed to lower scoring throughout the 90s and early 2000s.

Offside in Recreational Ice Hockey Leagues

For the most part, recreational hockey leagues employ the same rules as the NHL and most other professional leagues – delayed offside. Furthermore, these leagues did away with two-line passing at the same time it was removed at the NHL level.

There is an exception to the offside rule for 3x3 hockey surfaces, which are a fraction of the size of the standard 200x85 size rinks. The rule is that the puck must precede any of the players on offensive zone entry; however, the play is now considered onside up to the center line.

The reason to this modified offside rule is to give more space to the offensive to make plays considering the smaller rink dimensions.

hockey two-line pass

Final Thoughts

For all new audience members to ice hockey or those learning to understand the sport better, keep in mind that offside can only be called by the linesmen. That is, the referees without the orange patch on their sleaves. You may notice that the linesmen raise their arm, to indicate an infraction on the play, including offside.

Do not confuse this with the other two referees (with orange patches) which raise their arms to call penalties. In fact, they may also keep their arms up in the air for awhile, indicating a delayed penalty.