In the early days of organized hockey, the ice hockey rink was an outdoor, natural ice surface, with rough wooden barriers that were positioned to keep the puck on the playing surface. As the game evolved into a spectator sport, ice hockey became an indoor sport played on artificial ice, with its surface and its sheen maintained by sophisticated grooming equipment. The essential aspects of the modern ice hockey rink have been unchanged since outdoor competition; the terms hockey rink and hockey arena are used interchangeably.
Ice is fundamental to the sport. A smooth ice surface permits the players to skate and maneuver more rapidly, and the puck travels with more consistency on the surface. In the games played under the jurisdiction of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the ice surface is an oval shape, 200 ft (60 m) long and 100 ft (30 m) wide. In North America generally, and in all National Hockey League arenas, the ice surface is 85 ft (25 m) wide. The outdoor rinks of early ice hockey have not entirely disappeared; in parts of northern Canada and the United States and throughout Scandinavia and Russia, where the winters are very cold, many communities enjoy outdoor hockey. However, natural ice is the most common surface for play; it is produced in modern arenas equipped with sophisticated ice-making facilities. The best known element to the maintenance of artificial ice is the Zamboni machine, the invention of Frank Zamboni (1901–1988), who had sought a more efficient means to resurface the ice in his southern California skating rinks that he built in the 1940s. Zamboni machines, or a variant, are used in almost every ice hockey rink in the world.
The wooden barriers erected around natural ice surfaces for early hockey games gave the modern feature their name, the boards. Modern rink boards are no longer made of wood, but are a composite plastic construction to ensure truer bounces of the puck when deflected or shot into their surface. The boards are constructed in sections that have a degree of flexion built in; these sections are also designed to absorb some of the forces generated when a player is checked into them; in earlier times, the fixed boards were a significant cause of injury on a body check, as all the forces of the check were absorbed by the recipient player.
The boards circle the entire ice surface, and the boards themselves are topped with a Plexiglas or a similar plastic composite surface, referred to throughout the hockey world as "the glass." The boards and the glass together form a barrier 8 ft (2.5 m) high through the straight portions of the rink oval, and the glass rises to a height of approximately 15 ft (5 m) at each end behind the goals. In many rinks, there is a further netting constructed above the glass to keep errant pucks from being sent into the spectator seating. Notwithstanding the presence of the glass and netting, most hockey rinks have signs erected warning spectators of the dangers inherent in the flying pucks.
The playing surface has a series of lines painted on it that assist in governing play. The ice is divided by a center line and a center face-off circle; each team defends a goal on their side of center, with the opposing goaltenders changing ends at the conclusion of each segment of the game, a period. Each goal has a line extending through it, the goal line, which is the reference point for the determination of a goal being scored. There are two face-off circles, one at each end. A face-off occurs when there has been a stoppage in play, usually as a result of the puck being directed out of play, a penalty being called, or the puck being held by the goaltender. The offensive area in each end is defined by the blue line, which creates a zone approximately 25 ft (22 m) long; if a player receives the puck from a teammate ahead of the blue line, the player is determined to be off-side. If a player shoots the puck from his/her side of the center ice line across the opposing goal line, the puck is returned to the offending team's area for a face-off.
The goal defended by the goalkeeper is a cage-shaped structure, measuring 4 ft (3.3 m) high and 6 ft (1.85 m) wide; the goal posts are rounded, constructed of steel. The posts are set on very short fixtures extending from the ice, which permit the goal to move from its moorings if players come into contact with it; in the early days of hockey arenas, there were many injuries caused to players who either struck the immovable steel goals, or if the structure was lifted, players were hurt by the long pins sticking from the ice. The goal is also marked by a defined crease, painted onto the ice surface. The size of the crease varies from hockey jurisdiction to jurisdiction; it is intended to protect the goaltender from being interfered with by opposing players.