What’s the Difference Between a Hockey Referee and a Linesman?

Ref and hockey puck

The on-ice officials who oversee a hockey game are divided into two groups—referees and linesmen. Both wear the standard black helmet, striped shirt, and black pants, but referees add an orange or red armband to denote their status.

Depending on how many officials are on the ice—which differs among the various levels of hockey—the roles of the referee and linesman change somewhat, but in general the referee is responsible for enforcing the rules of the game and calling penalties, while the linesman is in charge of line violations, such as offside and icing. There are several officiating systems:

Hockey Levels With Four-Official Systems

In the NHL and NCAA men’s hockey, each game features two referees and two linesmen. The referees call all penalties, although a linesman can advise a referee about an infraction—especially “too many men on the ice” or a major penalty—leading to the referee assessing a penalty. The referees are the only officials who talk to the scorers and coaches, and only referees can stop and start play. They also conduct the opening face-off for each period, as well as the center-ice face-offs after goals are scored.

As the name implies, the linesmen are focused on infractions involving the red line and blue lines. They are also responsible for breaking up fights or other kinds of on-ice dustups. Linesmen also drop the puck for all face-offs that don’t take place at center ice.

In this system, each referee and linesman takes responsibility for one end of the ice. When the puck is in the offensive zone, one referee positions himself on the goal line, while the other stays outside the blue line, diagonally across the ice. Thus, if the referee on the goal line skates to the other side of the goal—to stay out of the action or get a better view—the other referee changes sides of the ice, as well, to maintain the diagonal orientation. When the puck goes to the opposite end of the ice, the officials swap positions.

Hockey Levels With Three-Official Systems

In professional levels below the AHL, in NCAA women’s hockey, and in many amateur leagues, a three-official system is often used. In this case, the roles of referee and linesman are the same as above, but the single referee must cover the ice from goal line to goal line. When there is a fast break in which the referee is caught well behind the play, a linesman may cover for the referee by skating to the goal line. Once the referee arrives, the linesman returns to his position.

Hockey Levels With Two-Official Systems

In a two-official system, used in most youth and school hockey leagues, each official takes on the responsibilities of both referee and linesman. Again, they maintain the diagonal orientation, and each official is responsible for skating to the goal line at one end of the ice, while the other mans the blue line.

The next time you watch a hockey game, pay attention to how the officials work the ice; you’ll be impressed by how they manage to keep track of the action without interfering. By proper positioning and relying on each other to see the whole ice, good hockey officials make a game run smoothly and fairly.