Ice hockey is known around the world for its fast-paced action and incredible feats of strength and athleticism on the ice. It is a sport that is enjoyed in many countries across North America and Europe, and is even an official sport in the Winter Olympic Games.
So have you ever found yourself watching a game and wondering what positions for hockey each player has and what their role is? Well we’re here to help.
At even strength, each team has five skaters on the ice as well as a goaltender.
The players on the ice are divided into two main groups: forwards and defenseman. The positions are similar to other team sports like football (soccer). Positions in ice hockey each have their own responsibilities and specific role, but at the same time, the forward positions and defense positions are mostly interchangeable amongst themselves.
Let’s take a deeper look at each ice hockey position, and how they differ from each other.
Key Ice Hockey Positions
Center: The Anchor of the Forwards
The center position is likely the most important position in hockey after the goalie, as this player acts as the anchor for each forward line.
Not only is the center’s role to be integral in the offensive play, but they also have to be responsible in the defensive zone by shutting down the center on the opposing team. Center iceman often plays in special teams situations like being on the power play as well as killing penalties.
Perhaps most importantly, centers take the faceoffs after every whistle and give their team the opportunity to have puck possession in all zones on the ice. If you play center, positioning on the ice is always important. You cannot get too carried away with trying to create scoring opportunities because if you are caught too deep in the offensive zone it makes it difficult to get back and help your defense.
Centers also traditionally provide leadership in the National Hockey League and you will often see centers as the team captains. As a center, you need to possess a high hockey IQ, great passing skills, and provide leadership for your hockey team both on and off the ice.
After the goalie position, center is certainly the most difficult position to play in ice hockey.
Key skills needed for Centers
There is a long list of key skills needed to play center due to the number of responsibilities they have on the ice. Not only do they have to be the leader for the team’s forwards, but they also have to contribute in the defensive zone and offensive zone as well. But if we were to narrow the center position down to the three most important skill, they would be:
- Taking Faceoffs: When the center takes faceoffs, they are trying to gain possession of the puck for their team. It’s not an easy skill to master, but those centers with prowess in the face off circles are an invaluable part of the team.
- Stickhandling Skills: Whether you are battling for the puck in the faceoff circle or trying to set up your other teammates in the offensive zone, stickhandling is an important skill for centers to have. As a center, you will find you have the puck on your stick the most out of the three forwards, so stickhandling is a valuable skill at either side of the ice.
- Controlling the Middle of the Ice: Anything in from the boards is the area that the center needs to control. This can include taking away passing lanes to make it easier to intercept passes, finding open teammates for a scoring chance, or being available for a breakout pass from either of your two defensemen.
Famous Centers to play in the NHL
Left Wing: Offensive Dynamos
The left and right wings are positions that cover the corresponding side of the ice. A left winger plays the left side but that does not necessarily mean they shoot left-handed. In fact, in recent years coaches have deployed right-handed shooters to play left wing because they naturally get higher percentage shots playing their off wing on the left side.
In a perfect scheme, the left winger will cover the opposing team’s right defenseman in the defensive zone by positioning themselves out at the blue line between the opposing player and the home goal. On defense, left wingers have to keep an eye out for the defenseman as well as being available at the boards in case their defenseman needs an outlet pass to break out of their own zone.
Generally speaking, the left wing position is designated for the team’s best goal scorers. Both wingers therefore spend most of their time in the offensive zone trying to score goals or at the very least create scoring chances for their other teammates.
The role of left wing isn’t as difficult as a center or goalie, but you can also argue that scoring goals is the most important skill to possess in hockey!
Key Skills Needed for Left Wingers
- Scoring Abilities: Hey, we don’t mean to downplay scoring goals or anything, we were just comparing the responsibilities between a winger and a center. Putting the puck in the other team’s goal is how your team wins games. Most skilled skaters are wingers including some of the most prolific goal scorers in NHL history. Being a top left wing player means you are expected to be able to contribute offensively.
- Having an Accurate Shot: You only get so many scoring chances in the offensive zone in each game so when left wingers get an opportunity, they need to bury the goal. Having a hard and accurate shot allows this, and even better if it is a snap shot or a wrist shot.
- Finding Open Space: For wing forwards who play with a skilled center, finding an open space in offensive zones can create incredible scoring opportunities.
Famous Left Wingers to Play in the NHL
Right Wing: Goal-Scoring Snipers
Right wing has been the position of some of the most prolific scorers in NHL history. Why is this? It’s hard to say, but it could perhaps be because coaches tend to play left-handed players on the right wing and there are just more left-handed players than right-handed.
The right winger is one of the more offensive-minded positions in hockey. These players, along with left wingers, get deep into the offensive zone to engage in puck battles along the boards to try to gain possession for their team.
In the defensive zone, right wing positioning is along the boards to cut off passes back to the opposing defensemen, usually the left defensemen.
Right wingers also need to ensure that the opposing defensemen do not find any open space where they can potentially be available for a backdoor pass. Unfortunately, for both left wingers and right wingers, a part of playing defense includes blocking shots, especially slapshots from the opposing team.
Generally speaking, the two wingers do not have to worry about faceoffs as that is the role of the center. Occasionally, if the center commits an infraction like putting their stick down for the faceoff too early, they will be waved out and disqualified from taking the faceoff.
At this point, either the right winger or the left winger will step in and take the faceoff for the team. It’s not a skill that wingers need to know, but on occasion, they will need to take a faceoff if they are called upon.
Key Skills Needed for Right Wingers
- Score Goals: Similar to left wingers, the right winger is counted on by the team for offensive output. If you have natural goal-scoring talent, you will likely be selected fairly high in the NHL draft. A goal-scoring winger in the top six positions of the forward lines is a valued commodity for any hockey team.
- Strength on the Boards: As a right winger or left winger, a big part of your responsibilities are to win puck battles along the boards. This means using your body and strength to get between the puck and the opposing players.
- Anticipation: As a winger, you want to be able to find a place on the ice where you can be available to receive a pass from your center. As well, if you can anticipate where passes from the opposing team will go, you will have a chance to intercept those passes and get a scoring chance for your team.
Famous Right Wingers to Play in the NHL
Defense: Masters of the Defensive Zone
If goalie and center are two of the most important positions in ice hockey, then defense might be the most difficult position to play. On the ice, there are usually only two defensemen for each team: a right defenseman and a left defenseman.
Appropriately they patrol their designated side of the ice, so the left defenseman plays the left side and the right defenseman plays the right side. When you play defenseman, your main objective is to stop the opposing offense from getting scoring chances and of course, scoring goals. Right defensemen defend against the opposing team’s left wingers and left defensemen to play against the opposing team’s right wing players.
Defenseman play a majority of their time in the defensive zones but they do jump into the rush and help out on offense as well. In the offensive zone, defenseman primarily stay at the opposing team’s blue line. This is so that they can support the offensive player as well as quickly turn and play defense if the opposing team gets possession of the puck.
Defenseman are highly valued by NHL teams, especially if you are an offensive defenseman and can play at both ends of the ice. Being able to make great passes to start a breakout is one of the most important skills for
As with other team sports like football (soccer) and basketaball, defense in ice hockey is an overlooked and underappreciated position. While the forward position usually gets all of the glory and highlights because they get to score goals, ice hockey defenseman are the foundation of the hockey team.
Apart from centers, you will see a lot of NHL teams with defenseman as the team captains or the alternate captain as well. The top defenseman are among the strongest and most dependable hockey players and are an important part to winning games and championships.
Key Skills Needed for Defensemen
- Skating Backwards: If you want to make it as a great defenseman, you will need to master the skill of skating backwards. As the opposing players carry the puck into your defensive zone, you will likely be facing them with your back to your goal. Being able to skate backwards as well as you can forwards, is tremendously valuable for ice hockey defenseman at any level.
- Slap Shots: As a defenseman playing the point on a power play, you will want to have a powerful and accurate slap shot to get shots on goal. On the blue line, you will often receive one-time passes to blast slap shots at the net, so this is definitely one skill defenseman should master to help on the offensive side of the ice.
- Defenseman Positioning: Whether you play as a right defenseman or left defenseman, knowing your position on the ice is crucial. If you are out of position, it only takes a second for the other team to skate past you in the defensive zone. This makes defense the most difficult position in hockey to master, and why a truly great defenseman is the most desirable player by any hockey team.
Famous Defensemen to Play in the NHL
Goalie: Shutting Out the Opposing Team
Out of all the ice hockey positions there are, goalie is easily the most unique hockey position on the team. First, there is only one goalie on the ice for each team and a backup goalie that sits on the bench in case of injury or poor performance.
The goalie’s job is simple: keep the puck out of your team’s goal. Unlike the main positions for skaters, the goalie spends the entire game on the ice unless they are strategically pulled by the coach. If a goalie is pulled, the team can put an extra skater onto the ice but the goal is left undefended.
Since the goalie defends the team’s goal from the other team, they wear a lot more padding and equipment than skaters. They even have special goalie skates too! This makes stopping pucks slightly less painful, although there are certainly some slap shots that still sting even through all of the equipment.
Goalies do have a stick and are able to handle the puck in certain areas of the ice, like direclty behind the team’s goal. The two areas in the left corner and the right corner of the defensive zone are areas where the goalie cannot handle the puck according to NHL rules.
Here’s the thing: not a lot of ice hockey players want to play goalie. This makes them extremely valuable, whether you play in the NHL or in a recreational hockey league with your friends. Goalie equipment is also expensive so of the six different positions on the ice hockey team, it is often difficult to find one for your recreational teams. In the NHL, successful goalies are in high demand and of all of the positions for hockey, a goalie is instrumental to your team’s success.
Key Skills Needed for Goalies
- Hand-Eye Coordination: Of course this skill is important to all hockey positions but it is critical for a goalie who must save the puck with the blocker and the glove. Since most shots from the other team are off the ice and in the air, it helps to have great hand-eye coordination to snatch the puck out of mid-air.
- Flexibility: If you watch successful goalies in the NHL, they are always on the ice in compromised positions. Flexibility is key to not sustaining an injury while stopping pucks!
- Be Fearless: It takes a certain type of personality to stand in front of a hockey puck, so being fearless is critical for goalies. As soon as you exhibit fear or uncertainty, your confidence in being able to make the save might fade and the other team will sense it too.
Famous Goalies to Play in the NHL
Final Thoughts on Ice Hockey Positions
So now can you answer the questions: how many players are on the ice for a hockey team? That’s correct! There are six different positions on the ice with the three main positions being forward, defense, and of course, the goalie.
Of these positions in hockey, there are three different forwards: the center, the left wing, and the right wing. On defense there is the left defenseman and the right defenseman. Each position on the ice hockey team has specific responsibilities on the ice, and they also all have designated areas of the ice that they tend to play in.
The goalie is obviously the anomaly in ice hockey as they stay on the ice and defend the goal for the entire game. Ice hockey is a wonderful game so if you like high speed, tremendous skill, and teamwork, hockey is the sport for you!