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Hockey 101: The offsides rule

Seattle Sin Bin contributor Doug Mellon begins a new series that covers the basics of the game of hockey.

Carolina Hurricanes v Winnipeg Jets
Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets argues an offside call during NHL action against the Carolina Hurricanes on October 22, 2016 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images

Editor’s note: Sonics Rising and Seattle Sin Bin staff welcome Doug Mellon as a hockey contributor. After playing in the Eastern Junior Hockey League in his younger years, he now coaches at youth hockey camps and consults for high school and junior league goalies. This is his second article for our community.

Having been involved with hockey for over 20 years, it's easy to forget how baffling the game can be for new viewers. In an attempt to simplify the chaos, each Friday I will be going in depth while exploring a new aspect of play. For this week’s post, I will break down a fundamental rule that, while simple in concept, may cause confusion in certain instances.

In its earliest days, hockey held some resemblance to rugby as players were not allowed to pass the puck forward. This changed after two blue lines were eventually painted on the ice, 20 feet on each side of the red centerline, which split the rink into three separate parts: the defensive zone, the neutral zone, and the attacking (offensive) zone. Players were then allowed to distribute the puck forward in all but the attacking zone.


It wasn't until the 1928-29 season that the league allowed players to move the puck in any direction. While the number of goals skyrocketed, players would stand near the opposing goalie and wait for a full-ice pass from a teammate before taking an uncontested shot on goal. Similar to schoolyard cherry picking.

On December 16, 1929, the National Hockey League initiated the modern offsides rule, which prevents players from waiting around in the offensive zone.

According to the rulebook, a player is determined to be offsides if both of their skates completely cross the blue line before the puck. This is regardless of whether the puck is passed or carried into the opposing zone by a teammate. As a player is required to have only one skate behind the blue line, it is not uncommon to see them drag their back foot to allow the puck carrier to enter the attacking zone without coming to a complete stop.

When a player is deemed offsides, the referee will blow their whistle and a faceoff will occur at the closest red faceoff dot just outside the blue line (highlighted in yellow on the ice rink diagram).

If a player accidentally enters the attacking zone before the puck crosses the blue line, the puck carrier can delay their entry. This is known as a delayed offsides. You will see the referee raise their arm without blowing the whistle and all attacking players will exit the offensive zone. The player with the puck is then free to enter the attacking zone followed by their team.

Another instance of a delayed offsides can happen when a team is controlling the puck in the attacking zone. If the puck were to pop out into the neutral zone, all players must then exit the zone and re-enter as a group with the puck carrier leading the way. If an opposing defensive player were to knock the puck back into their own zone, delayed offsides is waived and players are no longer required to exit into the neutral zone.

While not all-inclusive, the above breakdown covers the most common instances of offsides, and should help with your understanding of the flow of the game. If you have any questions or would like to see a specific topic covered, please comment below.