What Is a Breakout in Hockey?

Hockey breakout

A breakout occurs when a team gains possession of the puck in its own defensive end and works to move out of its own zone to start an attack. There are two basic kinds of breakouts—a team will execute the first type when the opponent is forechecking deep, putting pressure on the puck, and the second when the opponent has decided to fall back to the neutral zone or make a line change—and there are several different plays for each. Each member of the team with the puck must know what their teammates are going to do, so they can move the puck quickly up the ice.

Basics of the Breakout in Hockey

The breakout usually begins when a defender gains control of the puck and skates to a place where there are no defenders, often to the spot right behind the goal or to an empty corner. This gives the other players on the team a chance to get into position, and offers the puck-handler a good view of what’s going on in front of them, so they can decide what to do next.

The other defender takes up a position near the front of the net, to offer cover should there be a turnover. The last thing you want is to give the other team a straight one-on-one with your goaltender. Depending on the play, the defender may set up to one side or the other, always ready to dart in front to stop a counterattack.

The wings are usually divided into “strong side” and “weak side.” The strong-side wing usually sets up along the boards to receive a pass from the defender. In that case, the weak-side wing skates back toward their net and turns to head up ice to receive a pass. If the pass to the strong side looks like it isn’t going to happen, the weak-side wing must be prepared to dash to the corner or the side boards to accept a pass “rimmed” along the boards.

The center’s job is to get in position to receive a pass, perhaps from the defender but more likely from the wing. This usually involves skating toward the player’s own net and turning, so they can receive the puck with forward momentum.

The Quick Breakout: An Example Play

We’ll address specific breakout plays in future posts, but an ideal quick breakout might look like this. A defender gets the puck and skates around the net to the right side, behind the goal line. They pass out to the right wing, who has set up along the boards about midway to the blue line. The center, having cycled through the center of the zone, is now ready to receive the pass from the winger. In just two quick passes, the puck has gone from behind the goal line to the neutral zone, and defense has transitioned into offense.

Three Hockey Breakout Rules

There are a few absolute rules of breakouts, no matter the particular play you’re executing:

  1. Never pass the puck across the face of the goal. Bad things can happen when the puck gets in front of goal. An opponent can intercept it and get off a shot, or even a bad deflection could end up in the back of the net.
  2. Forwards should not skate away from the puck. Although your impulse may be to get down the ice, your first move should be toward your own goal, so you can get into position for a pass. 
  3. Be ready to change on the fly. The play that has been called can be blown up in an instant by pressure from the other team, and you need to be aware and make on-the-fly changes to help your teammates. Just because a specific play was called or has started doesn’t mean all will go according to plan.

Although hockey is based on the individual skills of the players—skating, stickhandling, checking, and the like—the breakout is an example of a situation when the players on the ice must work together as a unit. A well-executed breakout is a thing of beauty, as one player pings the puck to the next to get it forward and put the opposing team back on its heels. When everything works like clockwork, the time from holding the puck behind your own goal to one of the forwards getting a shot can be under ten seconds. But this happens only after hours of practice and when every player is doing their part.