New NHL fans, here’s what you need to know about the red and blue lines when watching a game


Inside the NHL

EDMONTON, Alta. – One of the most frequently asked questions new hockey fans approaching the Kraken’s second game of the preseason is what to do with all those red and blue lines on the ice.

Newbies tuned in to ROOT Sports on Sunday night when the Kraken beat Vancouver 5-3 at Spokane saw two blue lines and a red line down the center of the ice and knew they had to mean something. Perhaps they were helpful in denoting season tickets, letting teams know where to start charging a premium for seats in the center of the ice between the two blue lines?

Um no. The teams understood it themselves. But a very good guess, nonetheless.

With the Kraken facing the Oilers on Tuesday and the Flames on Wednesday, I thought this would be a good time to explain how these blue and red lines are being used. There’s a lot of talk about the quality of Oilers stars Connor McDavid – the reigning Hart Trophy winner as the league’s MVP – and Leon Draisaitl. They’re the best thing that’s been happening in this town since Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri dominated the 1980s and helped the Oilers win Stanley Cup titles in 1984, ’85, ’87, ’88 , then again in 1990 after The Great One was traded.

Since then, the Oilers have been few in number, but McDavid and Draisaitl have new hopes. Some even dare to compare McDavid to Gretzky on occasion, at which point I immediately slammed the brakes.

There are many reasons why it is unwise to compare a current player to Gretzky, which has happened every ten years or so since Mario Lemieux entered the league in 1984 to do with it.

The blue lines are spaced 50 feet apart and the red line intersects in the middle between them. Anything past the blue lines and towards the net of a team is considered its defensive zone. The space between the blue lines is the “neutral” area.

Where watching fans will see the lines come into play the most are the “offside” and “icing” calls. These are not penalties, but if they occur, the whistle will be cut and the puck will be abandoned for a face-off so play can resume.

A team is offside if a player of an attacking team crosses the other team’s blue line before the puck. You can throw the puck into the other team’s defensive zone and have your teammates chase it, or pass where the puck crosses the line slightly before a player who receives it later. And a player may carry the puck himself across the line as long as it is in front of his body.

But no player can cross before the puck.

There had been a second NHL offside appeal prior to the 2005-06 season which impacts our current discussion between Gretzky and McDavid.

At the time, any “two-line pass” from a team area to a player already over the center red line was also declared offside. The rule had been around since 1943, in fact. But in the 1990s, teams stacked five players on the opponent’s side of the neutral zone as a defensive tactic.

They knew any player sneaking up behind them and crossing the red line to make a long pass would be ruled offside. Stacking the middle of the ice like that is becoming a very popular “neutral zone trap” tactic, especially if you’ve played for the New Jersey Devils. The score plummeted throughout the league, and calls to eliminate the two-line offside ultimately resulted in the 2005-06 collective agreement.

Goals haven’t increased as a result – there are a plethora of reasons for this, including defensive plans and bigger goalie gear – but the attacking game has opened up like never before. Now in every match you’ll see a player sneak up to the other team’s blue line and hope for a long pass from a teammate deep in their own area.

When I was growing up in the 1980s in Canada, our hockey coaches disapproved of such “cherry picking” tactics. They called the players who waited at the top like that “selfish” and not wanting to play defense. Today, it’s a key part of NHL strategy.

I can only wonder how many points Gretzky would have if he was allowed to pass two-thirds the length of a rink. Or if he could give up the defense and cheat high hoping for a breakaway pass.

So for this reason and many others, I avoid comparing modern players to him. By the way, many now want to bring the offside back to two lines – largely because players are dangerously crushed at higher speeds in the neutral zone as they chase long passes and forget about defenders.

Anyway, enough of that.

With “chilling” calls, the red line comes into play.

Icing has been around since 1937 and occurs when a team advances the puck from anywhere on its side of the red line and it slides intact the full length of the ice across the opponent’s goal line (also red) 11 feet from the end boards. The result is then a face-off to the back of the offending team’s area.

In addition, the team that froze the puck cannot change lines until the resulting face-off. This rule was implemented to prevent a tired team from simply throwing the puck down the length of the ice to give tired players time to return to the bench.

The only time a team can “freeze” the puck without a whistle is when they kill a penalty. Also, if the puck crosses the goal line and actually enters the net – which you see when goalies are taken out late for an extra attacker – then that’s a goal.

It wasn’t that long ago that a player on the non-ice clearing team had to touch the puck after crossing the goal line for the game to be blown. This resulted in high speed end-to-end runs for the puck in which the icing would be canceled out if an offensive player got there before a defenseman.

As you can imagine, this led to some serious collisions between the players and the end panels. For safety reasons, from 2013-14 a hybrid system was introduced in which play is automatically canceled if the linesman determines that the puck will cross the goal line and the first defender will arrive before any attacker.

So that’s the inside information about the NHL lines. This is not to be confused with the advanced “lines” of crosses and winger, which the Kraken are now experimenting with with various combinations of these preseason games. Now that you watch the team do this, you will know what the blue and red lines are for.

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