Ice Hockey Penalties

The Basics

Ice Hockey is in essence a vicious game. Any sport where rough tackles are not only legal but also expected, needs to be tightly regulated to stop things from getting out of hand – this may go some way to explaining why ice hockey has such a long and involved system for giving penalties. But pay attention, because understanding what’s legal and what isn’t, is vital not only to stopping your team from giving away chances but also to playing a truly tactical game. Penalties are recorded in terms of minutes, and it says a lot about the game that one of a player’s major statistics is their Penalties in Minutes figure.

Who calls penalties?

Penalties in Ice Hockey are, in most cases, awarded by the referee and can range from earning you a couple of minutes out of play right through to being kicked out of the league, depending on how serious the offence is. Linesmen can also call penalties. Although these are usually technical infractions they can also call major penalties if the referee misses them.

Serving Time

Time out of play is served in the penalty box by the player who has been deemed to have committed the offence, and while this is in effect, no substitutes can be brought on to the ice. This applies to everyone on the team except the goalie. If the goalkeeper commits an action that the referee decides is worthy of a penalty, then one of his team mates serves the time in the penalty box for him. This doesn’t mean the goalie is immune to punishment though. If the infraction is serious enough, earning him a match or game misconduct, he can be sent off the ice. In this situation, the team can sub in a replacement goaltender for another player, or a player already on the ice can take the place of the goalie (and for his safety is allowed to use the goalie’s equipment).

Timing is Key

While the penalised player is off the ice, the offending team is essentially playing short handed, this is called a powerplay when the attacking team have the advantage or a powerkill when it is the defending team playing with an extra man. This imbalance of the teams changes the structure of play. For example, it is much easier to score from a powerplay, and so there have to be tight regulations to prevent teams from deliberately taking penalties to change the flow of the game.

One example of this is that when the team not in possession of the puck is penalised, play does not stop, and the penalty is not awarded until they regain possession or a goal is scored. This stops defending teams from tactically giving away penalties if they are in a tight spot, facing an attack from the other team and thus stopping them from scoring by halting play.

There are times when the penalty may not last the fully allotted time. In the case of a minor penalty, if the short-handed team is scored against during a penalty, then the clock is re-set and the player in the penalty box is allowed to re-join the game. In the case of a double minor, a goal being scored will reset the clock to two minutes – provided there’s longer than that still to be served. Unfortunately if you’ve committed a major infraction then you’re off the ice for the full duration – no matter how many goals the other team scores.

Getting Back in the Game

When a penalty being called, results in the team playing shorthanded, then once it has expired, the player is immediately allowed to return to the flow of the game. However, this is not the case with all types of penalties. Some may require play to have stopped before the player can re-join the game on the ice. One example of this is in the case of coincidental penalties. Coincidental penalties are where one or more players from each team have had penalties called against them at the same time, and so although both teams are playing with fewer players they are both at the same strength. In this case, both players remain on the bench until the first stoppage of play following the expiration of their penalties.

Types of Penalties

There are seven main types of penalties that can be awarded in ice hockey according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (although individual leagues may have additional punishments for certain offences), and understanding the difference between them is a vitally important part of the game. Penalties can be awarded for anything from purposely delaying the game, right through to instigating a serious fight and the punishments given are relative to the seriousness of the offence. Be warned: penalties can stack up, meaning that a player may find themselves serving two consecutive penalties, and are recorded by the match officials.

In the case of any penalty resulting in a player being taken off the ice for the rest of the match, the time recorded by the match officials is the amount of time before a substitute player can be brought on to the ice by the offending team. For example, when a major penalty is called, the player is sent off the ice for the rest of the game. A substitute player is brought on after five minutes taking the team back up to full strength. The time recorded on the game sheet is therefore five minutes.

Although a goaltender may not physically serve the time awarded against him for minor penalties it is still recorded against him on the game sheet.

Minor Penalty

This is the least severe type of penalty and is called against some of the more minor infractions that you can make in the game, like cross checking or holding an opponent, and leads to the offending player being sent off the ice for two minutes. In the case of a goalie having a minor penalty called against them, another player from the team, chosen by the coach or manager, serves the penalty for them

  • Called against: Player on the ice
  • Served by: offending player
  • Duration: 2 minutes
  • Time recorded: 2 minutes
  • Notes: Penalty may expire on a goal by opposing team. A “double minor” may be called eg for drawing blood during an offence that would normally only warrant a minor penalty – in this case two minor penalties are served consecutively, lasting up to four minutes.

Bench Minor Penalty

This is a penalty called against either a player on the bench or the coach/manager for an offence such as interfering with the game or using profanity. The coach/manager designates a player on the ice to serve the penalty, leaving the offending team short-handed.

  • Called against: Player on the bench/Coach/Manager
  • Served by: Designated player on the ice
  • Duration: 2 minutes
  • Time recorded: 2 minutes
  • Notes: Penalty may expire on a goal by opposing team.

Major Penalty

A major penalty is called against a player for offences more serious than those warranting a minor penalty. The most common form of major penalties are for fighting, although a major penalty may be called for an offence that would normally only result in a minor if the player is openly and deliberately disobeying the rules or if their play results in a serious injury.

  • Called against: Player on the ice, including goaltender
  • Served by: Offending player
  • Duration: Rest of game
  • Time recorded: 5 mins
  • Notes: Duration is served regardless of any goals scored by the opposing team. May often carry an automatic Game Misconduct penalty.

Misconduct Penalty

A misconduct penalty is one called against the player, meaning that the team is not forced to play short-handed as an immediate substitution is allowed. For the first offence the player (excluding goaltenders) is ordered off the ice for ten minutes and an immediate substitution is allowed. The player can re-join the game in the first stoppage after the ten minutes has expired. The second incidence of misconduct by any player (including the goaltender) in one game, warrants an immediate game misconduct penalty being called.

  • Called against: Player on the ice, can include goaltender if second offence.
  • Served by: Offending player/designated player if goaltender’s first offence
  • Duration: 10 mins (1st offence), rest of game (2nd offence)
  • Time recorded: 10 mins
  • Notes: If less than ten minutes of the game remains on the clock at the calling of a misconduct penalty, then the offending player is ordered to the dressing room as there is no legal way that he can re-join play.

Game Misconduct Penalty

A game misconduct penalty results in the offending player being ordered off the ice and to the dressing room for the remainder of the game. An official report must also be filed to the proper authorities. Game misconduct penalties are not only awarded for particular offences on the ice, but may also be automatically awarded following certain types of major penalties, after the second calling of a misconduct penalty against the player or after having several minor or double minor penalties called against the player.

  • Called against: Player on the ice, including goaltender
  • Served by: Offending player
  • Duration: Rest of game
  • Time recorded: 20 minutes
  • Notes: Although technically the team should not be short-handed because of a game misconduct penalty, often this is not the case as the kind of situations leading to game misconduct penalties being awarded, (most likely fighting), often lead to other members of the team being penalised also.

Match Penalty

A match penalty results in the player being immediately ordered off the ice and to the dressing room for the rest of the game. A substitution can only be made after five minutes and, like the game misconduct penalty, an official report must be filed after the game. This penalty can be called against a goaltender – leading to serious consequences for the offending team.

  • Called against: Player on the ice, including goaltender
  • Served by: Offending player
  • Duration: Rest of game
  • Time recorded: 25 mins
  • Notes: The time recorded will always be noted in full regardless of how long is left on the clock when the penalty is called.

Penalty Shot

In some situations a penalty shot, a free shot on goal without any opposition from the other team other than the goalie, can be awarded. Situations where a penalty shot is awarded can include when a player is one on one with the opposing team’s goalie and is then fouled from behind, handling of the puck by any defender other than the goalie or if a defending player throws their stick in the defending zone.

If another penalty is incurred at the same time as a penalty shot, then the shot is awarded and the secondary penalty is assessed, regardless of whether or not the penalty shot results in a goal. The time taken for a penalty shot does not count towards the total game time.

Delayed Penalties

Because there must always be at least three players from each team on the ice at any one time, some players may find that they have to delay their penalty time. This can happen if two players are off the ice for having minor penalties called against them, and one of the remaining players then commits an offence that should earn him some time on the bench. This player’s penalty time will begin once one of the others’ time has expired. Alternatively the player can proceed straight to the penalty box and be replaced on the ice by a substitute. If three or more players are in the penalty box serving penalties at the same time (due to a substitute being put in for the third player), then none of them can return to the ice until play has been stopped.

Additional Discipline

Once the game’s over you aren’t completely off the hook though. After the game, the authorities may choose to investigate certain incidents and could decide to impose additional suspensions to those given while in play. This isn’t limited to offences penalised by the referee either, so players may find offences they thought they had managed to sneak past the referee, being picked up later in the day.


The list of things that can get you penalised in ice hockey is a long one. Generally if something causes injury to another player, then it’s going to be punished. The majority of penalty types are called at the referee’s discretion although there are some that are inflexible. Offences can be against a player, technical, related to fighting or may fall into the category of unsportsmanlike conduct. Below is a sample of some of the offences that will result in a penalty being called.

Penalties Against a Player

Although checking is a legal move in ice hockey, and rough tackles are par for the course, there are some offences that will earn you anything from a minor penalty right up to a match penalty, depending on just how badly your opponent is injured. Some of these offences are considered to be almost always deliberate and so carry with them an automatic misconduct penalty – these include checking from behind and spearing.

  • Boarding
  • Charging
  • Checking from Behind
  • Clipping
  • Cross-Checking
  • Elbowing
  • Holding an Opponent
  • Holding the Stick
  • Hooking
  • Interference
  • Kneeing
  • Slashing
  • Spearing
  • Tripping

In addition to the time served as dictated by the referee, bear in mind that a penalty shot may be awarded if the penalised action was taken to deliberately stop the opposing team from scoring and the other conditions are met.


Butt-ending is generally called particularly harshly. This is because it is an offence that is relatively easy to conceal from the authorities and has a reputation of being used tactically by some players. Attempting to butt-end a player will earn you a double minor plus an automatic misconduct penalty, leading to a total of fourteen minutes being recorded against you. Actually managing to butt-end an opponent leads to either a major penalty plus an automatic game misconduct penalty or a match penalty.

Kicking and Head-butting

Neither of these offences can be passed off as accidental and so both will earn you an automatic match penalty.

Body Checking (Women’s Ice Hockey)

In women’s ice hockey, a direct body-check will earn a minor penalty, increasing to a major penalty and automatic game misconduct if significant damage is done to the referee.

Excessive Roughness of any kind during play results in a harsh punishment by the referee, with a match penalty being called and the situation reported to the proper authorities.

Technical Penalties

Penalties can also be called for aspects of the game not related to offences against an individual player. These can include:

  • Delaying the Game
  • Late Line-Up
  • Falling on the Puck
  • Handling the Puck
  • Too Many Players on the Ice
  • Refusal to Start Play
  • Injured Player Refusing to Leave the Ice
  • Equipment Malfunctions

The types of penalties awarded for these offences depend on their effect on the game, the specific circumstances and whether or not they were intended to be deliberate.


There is an entire sub-set of rules relating to fighting during a game. Minor penalties can be called in this situation but only in very rare occasions – usually for retaliating when struck by another player. If a player is deemed to have started the altercation then a match penalty is called. Joining in from elsewhere in the pitch earns a player a game misconduct penalty and resisting a linesman or refusing to stop when instructed by the referee, usually results in a match penalty. In most cases, the mere act of being involved in a fight on the ice will result in a misconduct penalty being called. If a player leaves the penalty bench to join in a fight then the punishment is a double minor with automatic game misconduct penalty – to be served after the completion of the current penalty.

Goalkeeper Specific Penalties

Although goaltenders are immune to being sent off the ice for minor penalties, there are some penalties that apply to goalies only. Minor penalties are called if the goalkeeper ventures over the central red line, moves to the players’ bench during stoppage of play, leaves the crease during an altercation or drops the puck onto the goal netting. These penalties must be served by a player designated by the coach/manager.

Other Offences

There are other offences that can result in a penalty being called, besides the ones above. Arguing with the referee by either captain over the calling of a penalty can result in a misconduct penalty being called, likewise for any obstruction of the linesmen in performing their duties.

Any form of physical or verbal abuse against an official by any member of the team, whether on or off the ice is not tolerated within the sport and can carry a very harsh penalty.

Penalties as Tactical Manoeuvres

In some situations a team may decide that the result of conceding a penalty is worth the punishment they may have to take as a result. The reasons for this vary. It could be to prevent the other team from scoring, to sap their morale or to try and draw another player into a coincidental penalty. What does have to be considered is the relative benefits of this kind of action, when compared to the resultant consequences – most often having to play short-handed for a set duration.

In the case of preventing an opponent from scoring, a player may decide to hook or hold his opponent, leading to a trade off in place of conceding a goal. The situation may be such that playing a powerkill would be better than the current situation – one example of this is in a two man breakaway. There are several safeguards in place to prevent this tactic from being overused, for example, the awarding of penalty shots.

More Info

The International Ice Hockey Federation rules as relating to penalties can be found here.