What is Icing in Hockey?

Although ice hockey is gaining popularity around the world, the sport can still be confusing to a new player, coach, or spectator. This is particularly true when someone unfamiliar with the game is attempting to learn the foundational rules and strategies.

Icing in hockey is primarily used as a defensive tactic when a defending team is attempting to clear the puck out of their zone in order to break up an opposing team’s attack. However, there are a few scenarios where it can be beneficial for a team to ice the puck throughout a hockey game.

If you are new to the game and wanting to learn what is icing in hockey, no need to look any further. In this guide, we will take a deep dive into the importance of icing and breakdown the variations of icing, when the rule is applicable, and when exceptions are made. We will also take a look at how teams can effectively use the icing rule to their advantage during a hockey game.

Icing Overview: The Rule Explained

icing diagram in hockey
A puck passed from Point “A” would be no icing. A puck passed from Point “B” is icing assuming there is no exception.

Icing occurs when a player passes the puck from their own defensive half behind the centerline, through the blue line, and across the opposing team’s goal line — without being touched by a player on the rink. When an icing occurs, the referee or linesman will signal the call, blow their whistle, and stop play. The game then resets with a face off in the defending zone of the team who committed the icing infraction.

Depending on the league, hockey has three different variations of the rule including:

  • No-Touch or Automatic Icing
  • Touch Icing
  • Hybrid Icing

It is important we understand the variances because the rule can have quite a substantial impact on the flow of the game. It can be a lot to grasp at first, so we’ll be breaking down each for you.

What is No-Touch or Automatic Icing?

Perhaps the most easy to comprehend and basic version of the rule, play is automatically stopped when the puck passes the goal line from behind the centerline. Assuming the puck is not touched by a player on either side, the icing is called and play resumes on the defending team’s zone.

The majority of amateur leagues worldwide including youth and high school uses the no-touch icing variation. A few European professional leagues also use no-touch icing for safety reasons and how clearly defined this rule variation is.

What is Touch Icing?

Unlike automatic icing, in order for an icing to occur, the puck must first be touched by a player from the opposing team after crossing the goal line (note, this excludes the goalie). If after crossing the goal line, the puck is touched by either the goalie or a player on the team that committed the icing, play resumes as usual and the icing call is waived.

When the puck is sent from behind the center redline, and an icing call is potentially going to occur, the referee will raise his arm to indicate that the icing infraction is pending. Once touched by a player from the opposing team, the referee will blow the whistle and initiate the icing call.

Touch icing was used in most professional leagues, including the National Hockey League for many years. However, because of the design of this variation, many hockey leagues were witnessing dangerous chases to the puck down by the boards — a clear injury risk. As a result, many concussions occurred with touch icing.

And while this was great for the medical industry and hockey helmet manufacturers, it was not so great for the sport.

What is Hybrid Icing?

As a result of the injury risk posed with touch icing, the hybrid method was designed to be the solution to touch icing. Hybrid icing was implemented by the NHL during the 2013 – 2014 season. NCAA college hockey, American Hockey League, and several minor leagues have also adapted to hybrid icing.

The rule is similar to touch icing, but eliminates the race to the puck behind the goal line. Rather, the call is made when a player from the opposing team reaches the face-off circle before a player from the team that iced the puck.

Conversely, if a player from the team that iced the puck reaches the face-off circle first, the call is waived and play resumes as usual.

This new version has led to an increase in safety across the numerous leagues that implemented it. However, it has faced a fair share of criticism as hybrid icing has left room for interpretation from the referee.

As a result, the rule has been somewhat unclear and inconsistent depending on the lineman.

Exceptions to the Icing Rule

Just when you were starting to have a solid handle on the rule, there are a few instances we still need to run through where the icing call is not enforced during a hockey game. Scenarios such as:

  • When the team icing the puck is shorthanded after committing a penalty. This is common penalty kill strategy used by the team defending.
  • The puck is shot from any place on the rink (including behind the centerline) and goes into the net — thus resulting in a goal.
  • During a faceoff.
  • A linesmen believes the opposing team could have played the puck before it crosses the goal line. Note, this excludes a goalie from the opposing team.

History and Rationale of Icing

The icing rule dates all the way back to the early 1930s, and was formally introduced into the NHL in 1937. Before the rule was institutionalized, a common defensive tactic was to get an early lead in the first or second period, only to sit back and dump the puck out of their defending zone into the opposing zone with no infraction.

Of course, this allowed teams to “park the bus” and defend their goal rather than continuing to play on the attack. Also, some teams also would simply launch the puck down to the other side of the rink to waste time at the end of a tight game.

Not only is this boring from a spectator’s perspective, but it was also ruining the integrity of the game.

Thus, the icing rule was agreed to an implemented in leagues around the world.

When Can Icing be Smart Hockey?

By now, you may be thinking why anyone would ever want to ice the puck during a game. After all, play resets in your own defensive zone and could lead to a scoring chance off a set play from the opposing team.

However, icing isn’t all bad.

While you can’t change players after an icing, it still can break up a strong attack and allow the opportunity for players on the ice to regroup. It gives players a moment to catch their breath and setup for a potential breakout and line change opportunity.

Icing can also be useful at the end of a game. Imagine a scenario where the opposing team has the goalie pulled and an extra player is on the ice.

While this isn’t a shorthanded exception scenario, it can still be a good strategy to ice the puck if you are on the defending side.

Not only to break up an attacking effort, but also to create a potential scoring opportunity on an empty net.

An empty netter will more often than not close out a game and secure that W.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully this guide can bring spectators, players, and coaches with some clarity on the icing rule. We’ve broken down the different variations, the intricacies, and rationale for why icing exists in hockey.   

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