Inside the NHL
EDMONTON, Alberta — Among the questions I’ve gotten most from new hockey fans as the Kraken’s second game of the preseason approached is what to make of all those red and blue lines on the ice.
Newbies tuning in to ROOT Sports on Sunday night when the Kraken beat Vancouver 5-3 in Spokane saw two blue lines and one center-ice red line and knew they had to mean something. Perhaps they were helpful season-ticket designators, letting teams know where to start charging a premium for center-ice seats between the two blue lines?
Um, no. Teams have figured that out on their own. But a very good guess, nonetheless.
With the Kraken facing the Oilers on Tuesday and the Flames on Wednesday, I felt this would be a good time to explain how those blue lines and red lines are used. There’s a lot of talk about just how good Oilers stars Connor McDavid — the reigning Hart Trophy winner as league MVP — and Leon Draisaitl are. They’re the best thing going 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 and then in 1990 again after The Great One got traded.
It’s been slim pickings for the Oilers since, but McDavid and Draisaitl have hopes raised anew. Some even dare liken McDavid to Gretzky on occasion, at which time I immediately slam the brakes.
There are many reasons it’s unwise to compare any current player to Gretzky, which has happened every decade or so since Mario Lemieux entered the league in 1984. But chief among them now is it’s a very different, offensively geared NHL, and the lines have plenty to do with it.
The blue lines sit 50 feet apart with the red line slicing down the middle between them. Everything after the blue lines and toward a team’s net is considered their defensive zone. The space between the blue lines is the “neutral” zone.
Where fans watching will see the lines most come into play are on “offside” and “icing” calls. These aren’t penalties, but if they occur the whistle will be blown dead and the puck dropped for a faceoff so play can resume.
A team is offside if a player from an attacking team crosses the other team’s blue line before the puck. You can dump the puck into the other team’s defensive zone and have your teammates chase it down, or make a pass where the puck crosses the line slightly ahead of a player that later receives it. And a player can carry the puck across the line himself as long as it’s ahead of his body, or he’s in full control of it when part of him goes over first.
There used to be a second offside call in the NHL before the 2005-06 season that impacts our current Gretzky-McDavid discussion.
Back then, any “two-line pass” from one team’s zone to a player already across the center-ice red line was also blown dead as offside. The rule existed all the way back to 1943, in fact. But by the 1990s teams were stacking five players on an opponent’s side of the neutral zone as a defensive tactic.
They knew that any player sneaking behind them and across the red line to take a long pass would be ruled offside. Stacking the middle of the ice like that become a highly popular “neutral-zone trap” tactic, especially if you played for the New Jersey Devils. Scoring plummeted leaguewide, and calls to eliminate the two-line pass offside finally succeeded with the 2005-06 collective-bargaining agreement.
Goals didn’t go up as a result — there are a flurry of reasons for that, including defensive schemes and bigger goalie equipment — but the offensive game opened up like never before. Now in every game you’ll see a player sneak up to the other team’s blue line and hope for a long stretch pass from a teammate deep inside his own zone.
When I was growing up in the 1980s in Canada, our hockey coaches frowned upon such “cherry picking” tactics. They called players who waited up top like that “selfish” and uninterested in playing defense. Nowadays it’s a key part of NHL strategy.
I can only wonder how many points Gretzky would have if allowed to make passes two-thirds the length of a rink. Or if he could forgo defense and cheat up high hoping for a breakaway pass.
So for that reason and many others, I avoid comparing modern players to him. As an aside, many now want to bring back the two-line offside — largely because players are getting clobbered dangerously at higher speeds in the neutral zone as they look for long stretch passes and forget about defenders.
Anyway, enough of that.
With “icing” calls, the red line comes into play.
Icing has been around since 1937 and occurs when a team forwards the puck from anywhere on its side of the red line and it slides untouched the length of the ice across the opposing goal line (also red) 11 feet from the end boards. The result is then a faceoff all the way back deep in the offending team’s zone.
Also, the team that iced the puck can’t make a line change before the ensuing faceoff. This rule was implemented to keep a tiring team from simply dumping the puck the length of the ice to buy fatigued players time to get back to the bench.
The only time a team can “ice” the puck without a whistle is when killing off a penalty. Also, if the puck crosses the goal line and actually enters the net — which you see when goalies are pulled for an extra attacker late — then it’s a goal.
Not long ago, a player from the non-icing team would have to touch the puck after it crossed the goal line for the play to be blown dead. This resulted in some high-speed, end-to-end races for the puck in which icing would be nullified if an offensive player got to it before a defender.
As you might imagine, this led to some severe collisions between players and the end boards. For safety reasons, starting in 2013-14, a hybrid system was introduced where the play is automatically blown dead if the linesman determines the puck will cross the goal line and the first defending player will arrive ahead of any attacking one.
So that’s the inside info on lines in the NHL. Which isn’t to be confused with forward “lines” of centers and wingers, which the Kraken is now experimenting with various combinations of these preseason games. Now as you watch the team do that, you’ll know what the blue and red lines are for.