A face-off is the method used to begin and restart play after goals in some sports using sticks, primarily ice hockey, bandy and lacrosse. The two teams line up in opposition to each other, and the opposing players attempt to gain control of the puck or ball after it is dropped or otherwise placed between their sticks by an official.
Hockey face-offs are generally handled by centres, although some wingers handle face-offs and, very rarely, defensemen. One of the referees drops the puck at centre ice to start each period and following the scoring of a goal. The linesmen are responsible for all other face-offs.
One player from each team stands at the face-off spot (see below) to await the drop of the puck. All teammates must be lateral to or behind the player taking the face-off. Generally, the goal of the player taking the face-off is to draw the puck backward, toward teammates; however, they will, occasionally attempt to shoot the puck forward, past the other team, to kill time when shorthanded. However, where the face-off occurs at one of the five face-off spots that have circles marked around them, only the two opposing players responsible for taking the face-off may be in the circle. A common formation, especially at centre ice, is for a skater to take the face-off, with the wings lateral to the centre on either side, and the skater, usually a defenseman, behind the player handling the face-off, one toward each side. This is not mandatory, however, and other formations are seen--especially where the face-off is in one of the four corner face-off spots.
Face-offs are typically conducted at designated places marked on the ice called face-off spots or dots. There are nine such spots: two in each attacking zone, two on each end of the neutral zone, and one in the centre of the rink. Face-offs did not always take place at the marked face-off spots. If a puck left the playing surface, for example, the face-off would take place wherever the puck was last played. On June 20, 2007, the NHL Board of Governors approved a change to NHL Rule 76.2, which governs face-off locations. The rule now requires that all face-offs take place at one of the nine face-off spots on the ice, regardless of what caused the stoppage of play. Rule 76.2 also dictates that, with some exceptions, a face-off following a penalty must occur at one of the two face-off dots of the offending team's end.
An official may remove the player taking the face-off if the player or any players from the same team attempt to gain an unfair advantage during the face-off (called a face-off violation). When a player is removed, one of the teammates not originally taking the face-off is required to take the face-off. Common face-off violations include: moving the stick before the puck is dropped, not placing the stick properly when requested to do so, not placing the body square to the face-off spot, or encroachment into the face-off circle by a teammate. In the NHL, the player from the visiting team is required to place his stick on the ice for the face-off first when it takes place at the centre-line dot. For all other face-offs, the player from the defending team must place his stick first. Before the league's 2015-16 season, the visiting player was required to place his stick first on all face-offs.
In the first organized ice hockey rules (see Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, AHAC), both centres faced the centre line of the ice rink, like the winners do today. At that time, another forward position existed, the rover, who faced forward like centres did today, but a few feet away.
In bandy, the game is restarted with a face-off when the game has been temporarily interrupted. The face-off is executed on the place where the ball was situated when the game was interrupted. If the ball was inside the penalty area when the game was interrupted, the face-off is moved to the nearest free-stroke point on the penalty line.
In a face-off one player of each team place themselves opposite each other and with their backs turned to their own end-lines. The sticks are held parallel to each other and on each side of the ball. The ball must not be touched until the referee has blown his whistle. At face-off the ball may be played in any direction.
Face-offs are also used in field lacrosse to start both halves of a game, overtime periods and after a goal, unless a team is being penalized for something that occurred prior to the face-off, in which the case the ball is awarded to the other team at midfield where it otherwise would be faced off. The second and fourth quarters begin with face-offs as well, unless penalties had resulted in one team having more players on the field and the ball was in possession of either team at the end of the first and third quarters, in which case the new quarter starts with the team that had possession having possession where the ball was when the previous quarter ended. However, in that situation, if the ball was in flight, being passed between two players, it is considered to be loose and a face-off is held to begin the next quarter, unless a dead ball foul or face-off violation occurs.
In a lacrosse face-off, two players face each other at the X in the middle of the field, in a crouching position with the ball placed on the ground on the center line between the heads of their sticks, set four inches (10 cm) apart, parallel but the ends pointing in opposite directions. Two other players must wait behind wing lines, 10 yards on either side of the center line and 20 yards from the faceoff spot on either side until the whistle.
Any player except the goalkeeper, due to the much larger head on his stick, can face off; in practice these are usually midfielders, one of whom often has the fourth long stick allowed on the field during play. When a team is down a player due to a penalty, there will only be one other midfielder on the wing, or none if two or more players are serving time. When a third player, the maximum allowed by the rules before penalties are stacked, is serving time, the team thus penalized is allowed to have one of its defensemen come out and play on the wing during a faceoff. Also, the midfielder facing off from the penalized team is not considered offside when he supports himself using his stick on the line as he crouches to face off.
Once the referee has signalled he is ready for the face-off, teams have 20 seconds to get the players facing off on field and in position. Any substitutions they make must be completed in this time. If a team's players are not ready to face off by the end of that period, it is delay of game and the other team gets the ball.
Players facing off must have rest their stick in their gloved hands on the ground and position themselves entirely to the left of their sticks' heads; they may also kneel if they prefer but it is not required that they do so. Their sticks must have a 6-inch (15 cm) strip of tape or other material beginning just below the head in a contrasting color to both the stick's shaft and head as well as the player's own gloves, so the referee can see that their hands are not on the heads of their stick. If a player comes to face off and does not have a stick so prepared, a delay of game penalty is assessed against his team and the other team is awarded the ball; however the player may still play with the stick as long as it is otherwise in compliance with the rules.
Between the time they go down into position and the referee's whistle, the players facing off must remain still. A premature movement by any player will be called as a technical foul, and the other team will be awarded the ball. To ensure that they remain still referees are instructed to time their whistle differently on every face-off.
At the whistle, each tries to gain possession of the ball, aided by the wing players. Only those six players can attempt to pick up the ball at first. The three attackmen and defensemen from either team must remain in their respective goal areas behind the restraining lines 20 yards from the center line. Once possession is established, the officials signal it both verbally and by spinning one arm around in a circle. If the loose ball crosses either restraining line without possession being established, the faceoff is considered to have ended and all players are released.
If the loose ball goes out of bounds on a face-off before either team can pick it up, it is awarded to the team that last touched it and all other players are released when play is restarted. If the officials cannot determine who last touched it and the ball remained in midfield without crossing either restraining line, the ball is refaced; if it has crossed a restraining line before going out, it is awarded via alternate possession. A reface is also required if an injury or time-out stops play before possession is established and the ball has not crossed the restraining line; if it has it is awarded by alternate possession.
The players facing off may not step on or hold each others' sticks to prevent the other from getting the ball. Nor may they trap the ball beneath their sticks without attempting a "tennis pickup" to prevent anyone from establishing possession, an action normally penalized as withholding the ball from play, another technical foul. If they pick the ball up on the back of their stick but do not immediately flip it into the pocket, it is also considered withholding. In all these cases the face-off will be ended with the ball awarded to the opposing team at the spot of the infraction. Players facing off who deliberately handle or touch the ball in an attempt to gain possession, or use their open hand to hold the opposing face-off player's stick, receive a three-minute unreleasable penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in addition to possession being awarded to the other team.
Under NCAA rules, in college lacrosse, if a team violates rules specific to face-offs, either by false starts before them by any player at midfield or illegal actions by the players facing off, more than twice in a half, each additional violation results in a 30-second penalty assessed against the team, to be served by the designated "in-home" player. Fouls that occur after the ball has become free from the two face-off players, whether technical fouls such as pushing or holding or personal fouls like an illegal body check, do not count toward this limit. In those cases the team fouled is awarded possession and any players penalized are sent to the penalty area for the mandated time (usually a minute). The defensemen and attackmen behind the restraining line must remain there until the referee restarts play at the spot of the foul, ending the face-off.
However, if players on both teams are called for fouls before possession and the ball has remained between the restraining lines, a reface is held after any penalties have been assessed. If the ball has crossed a restraining line when the second foul stops play, it is awarded through alternate possession.
In women's lacrosse, a procedure very similar to a face-off is also used, although it is called a draw. The two players taking the draw stand at the center of the field, usually over the same X used for faceoffs in the men's game, and hold their sticks together at waist level while the referee places the ball between the heads, which face each other. Four other players from each team stand on the outside of a 30-foot (9.1 m) center circle. At the whistle, the two center players both lift their sticks, tossing the ball in the air, while the players on the outside attempt to gain possession when it comes down.
A similar technique, known as a bully-off, is used in field hockey. The two opposing players alternately touch their sticks on the ground and against each other before attempting to strike the ball. Its use as the method of starting play was discontinued in 1981.
A face-off is also similar to a jump ball in basketball, a ball-up in Australian rules football, and a dropped-ball (if contested) in association football. All of these also involve two opposing players attempting to gain control of the ball after it is released by an official.
An event similar to a face-off has been attempted in at least two leagues of American football: the XFL, a short-lived professional football league that played its lone season in 2001, instituted an "opening scramble," replacing the coin toss, in which one player from each team attempted to recover a loose football after a twenty-yard dash. The team whose player recovered the ball got first choice of kicking, receiving, or defending one side of the field. Because of an extremely high rate of injury in these events (in the league's first game, one XFL player was lost for the season after separating his shoulder in a scramble), the event has not gained mainstream popularity in most other football leagues. X-League Indoor Football nonetheless adopted a modified version opening scramble (using the name "X-Dash") when it began play in 2014, but tweaked to avoid the injuries so that each player chased after their own ball.
The coin toss remains the method of choice for determining possession at the beginning of an American football game.