Why Is Hockey a Contact Sport? Here’s Why

Why Is Hockey a Contact Sport? Here's Why

Contact In Hockey

Anyone who has ever played or even watched a hockey game on television will likely be well aware that hockey is a brutally physical contact sport and may not be for the faint of heart. It is not uncommon to see pushing, shoving, and even full-out fistfights occur. This may confuse some spectators and lead them to wonder, why is hockey a contact sport?

The reason why hockey is a contact sport is that traditionally it has always been founded on the principles of toughness and win at all cost mentality. While a certain amount of contact is permitted, extreme maliciousness and fighting will result in penalties or game ejections.

This article will explore the long history of contact in hockey and how it became a part of the game. Next, we will go over the different types of contact involved in hockey, the extent to which it is permissible, and the penalties that are enforced for violations of the rules regarding contact. Finally, we will look at the long term health effects of excessive contact and how the degree of contact differs in international games.

The History of Contact in Hockey

Hockey is a game that dates back well over 100 years in its origin and is defined as a full-contact sport, meaning that physical contact is permitted within the framework of the rules.

Since its inception, hockey has always been a very rough and chauvinistic contest, which showcases brutal displays of roughhousing at times. However, our other article looks in more detail to see if youth ice hockey is dangerous.

The most important points to drive home here are:

  • Contact in hockey is generally used solely as a means to an end, with that end being to score goals on the opposing team and win the game.
  • Certain positions on the ice are geared towards fighting and hitting, such as defenders and designated enforcers. Other players, for example, leading goal scorers and star forwards, will seldom if ever engage in fighting or excessive contact.
  • Teams with historic rivalries will be much more likely to get physical with each other, for example, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.

A large part of the reason why hockey is a contact sport is that it is hard to fend off an attacking team without utilizing at least some degree of physical contact.

The book The Code by Ross Burnstein provides an in-depth look at politics, history, and unwritten rules behind contact in hockey.

The Different Types of Physical Contact in Hockey

When we refer to contact relative to hockey, this can take on many different meanings, as hockey features many different forms of contact.

The most common form of contact in hockey is known as the “body check”. This is when one player will use their own shoulder, hip, and upper arm to bluntly hit an opponent, either into the boards or in open ice. We go over this in more detail in our article about checking at the bantam level.

This is legal in men’s hockey, but not women’s or youth. A body check becomes illegal when done blindsided, when more than three strides are taken, or when the attacker’s skates leave the ice and go airborne before checking.

A cross-check is when players hold their stick in both hands and use it to hit or shove their opponent. This is explicitly illegal.

Tripping is the act of using one’s own stick to trip the legs of an opponent. This is also illegal.

Slashing is a term used to refer to a player who uses their stick to hack at or slash at another player’s arms and legs. While this is common and not generally called by the referee, too much of it will warrant a penalty.

Any contact purposely inflicted against a player who is not in possession of the puck during active gameplay is taken as a very serious violation.

Fighting in Hockey

Hockey is also unique in that it sometimes devolves into full-out fist fighting between two players. Fights are somewhat rare and are usually partaken in by the two team’s opposing enforcers. Enforces are hyper-aggressive players with the job of protecting their team’s star player from being hurt or bullied.

Fights must be agreed upon mutually by both combatants and usually begin when the respective fighters have removed their helmets and gloves.

The fight can be stopped at any time at the referee’s discretion. Still, it will typically end either when both fighters become locked together and cannot strike or when the fight goes to the ground and is no longer being contested on the feet.

Fights in hockey can drastically alter the momentum of a game by riling up the audience for the team of the successful fighter.

Thought, many fighters will go their entire career without ever getting into a fight during a game.

Bench Brawls

An exceptionally rare occurrence in hockey is what is known as a “bench brawl”. This is where multiple fights break out on the ice concurrently and result in the entire roster of both teams becoming involved. They have even featured the opposing goalies of each time squaring off with one another!

Official Rules of Contact in the National Hockey League

The NHL has very comprehensive rules and regulations that are strictly enforced to maximize player safety.

Due to this article’s brevity, it would be virtually impossible to cover all of the rules pertaining to contact violations, so we have provided the official up-to-date rules list of the National Hockey league, which can be viewed here for free.

The Health Repercussions From Prolonged Contact

Modern hockey has made conscious efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of contact in the sport in response to an increased understanding of the detrimental health effects that it can lead to.

In past eras of the sport, there was much more tolerance for maliciousness and excessive contact in the name of excitement and affirming legacies. Prior to the 1979 NHL season, helmets were not even required to be worn on the ice. An appalling idea by today’s standards.

It is not uncommon to see hockey players with missing teeth, black eyes, broken noses, etc. While this is cause for concern, the more important question we should be asking is, what is it doing to their brain long term?

Sidney Crosby—captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and widely regarded as the single greatest player of the past decade—has received multiple concussions that have severely altered his career. The victim of close to a half dozen reported concussions, Sidney Crosby has at times been forced to miss entire seasons, during his prime years, due to post-concussion syndrome.

Concussions have been shown to lead to mental illness, suicidal tendencies, hormonal imbalances, migraines, memory loss, and balance problems. We have another article which goes over youth ice hockey concussion statistics and how to prevent them.

The Prevalence of Contact in International Hockey

Hockey contested at the international level, such as at the Olympic Winter Games, features very little, if any, contact. It is contested in a more puristic way, meaning the game itself is the sole focus, and roughhousing is very sparse.


In this article, we set out to understand why it is that hockey is a contact sport.

We conclude that hockey has been a contact sport since day one, and because of the open-chain, high-speed, and free-flowing nature of the game, it would be virtually impossible to remove all contact from the sport.

Certain players exist to engage in physical contact on the ice. At the same time, other players focus their energy on the game itself and avoid contact and fighting altogether.

Contact has been in the sport from the start, and it is not going away.