How Many Periods Are in A Hockey Game (NHL & Recreational)

Posted on February 24, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey player

Most sports play their games in quarters or halves. But in hockey, the play occurs in periods. 

This use of periods is less self-explanatory than a quarter or halves. How many of these periods do NHL games have? Are the periods all the same length of time? Is overtime a period? This article will detail hockey's periods and cover how overtime influences a game's usual rules.

How Many Periods Are in a Hockey Game?

Professional hockey games always have three periods. At the NHL level, there are 20 minutes of play in a period. Recreational and youth hockey periods are usually between 15 and 20 minutes each. 

Hockey-Period

Is there a 4th period in hockey?

No, there is not. However, what many may be referring to by the fourth period is what they call overtime. Games tied at the end of three periods go into overtime, a shorter period of extra time. If it's the regular season, that is.

Overtime is five minutes in the regular season, but it changes to a 20-minute sudden-death style in the playoffs.

Overtime does count as a period in hockey. But it isn't exactly viewed or referred to as the fourth period – it's seen more as extra time.

In other words, no one calls overtime the "fourth period." It's simply called "overtime." 

Overtime plays count toward player and goaltender statistics as they would during regulation play. Overtime is an extension of regulation play, so its outcome is reflected in the stat sheet.

Suppose a goal isn't scored in the standard single overtime period. In that case, most leagues finish the game in a shootout. The shootout does not count as a period and occurs without time on the clock. 

Unlike overtime, shootout plays (e.g. goals, saves) do not count toward the regular stats of the shooters and the goalies. Separate shootout stats are kept, but the shootout itself only determines the final winner of the game.

When did the NHL start 3-on-3 overtime?

The NHL's overtime rules changed in the 2015-2016 season, changing to a 3-on-3 format. The league did so to encourage more scoring and fewer games ending in a shootout. In the NHL playoffs, there is no 3-on-3. Instead, it is 5-on-5 sudden death overtime until one team scores.

Because the NHL ice surface is large, three-on-three overtime play creates much more offense as there is more room on the ice.

When did NHL go to 4-on-4 overtime?

The NHL swapped from a 5-on-5 format to 4-on-4 in the 1999 season. This overtime format continued until 2015-2016 when the NHL adopted the 3-on-3 system.

Why does hockey have 3 periods instead of 4 quarters?

As the players play on the ice surface, snow builds up, and ruts in the ice appear. As a result, they have a Zamboni come out and resurface the ice. This is an extensive process, typically taking around 20 minutes. If hockey was played in four quarters, it would extend the length of a game.

For newcomers to the sport of hockey, this question of "periods" can be confusing.

Sports such as basketball and football play in "quarters," which refers to four parts of a whole game. Soccer plays "halves," dividing the game into two parts.

But hockey is played in periods. Every hockey game always has three of these periods. These periods can vary in length depending on the level of hockey being played. But three periods, each of the same time, are standard regardless of duration.

Everyone involved with the game from the players to spectators and commentators refers to the periods as the "first period," "second period," and "third period." 

Has hockey always been three periods?

The rule and structure of a three-period, 20-minute game was first implemented in the National Hockey Association (NHA) in the 1910-11 season. Before 1910, games were played in two 30-minute halves.

The NHA later reorganized itself and, in 1917, launched the National Hockey League (NHL) that we know today. The NHL has always retained the three-period, 20-minute game structure. 

The only exception to the three-period structure comes if the game is tied at the end of regulation time. In that case, the game transitions to sudden-death overtime periods.

Is hockey the only sport with 3 periods?

Ice hockey and floor hockey are some of the only major sports to have three periods. Many other popular sports, such as basketball and football, play the game in quarters, not periods.

Keep in mind, there is no need to maintain the playing surface in a football or basketball game. Because the ice surface needs to be "flooded" with a Zamboni every twenty minutes, the NHL chooses to play 3 periods.

Why are periods called periods in hockey?

Because of the simple division of a basketball, football, or soccer game, they're called quarters or halves. But because hockey is split into 3, it's called a "period" of play. 

Technically, to keep the same pattern as basketball, football, or soccer, we could refer to them as "thirds." After all, the game is divided into 3 equal periods of play. 

But something like "the first third" doesn't have the same ring to it as the "first quarter," "first half," or "first period."

How long is each hockey period?

A standard period of hockey lasts for 20 minutes. Professional hockey leagues like the NHL, minor pro leagues, major junior leagues, and European leagues always play in 20-minute periods.

These three 20-minute periods combine for what is a 60-minute game. In professional leagues, an intermission separates the end of the first period from the start of the second period and the second period from the beginning of the third period. 

These intermissions and stoppages in play add up to make the game last longer than the actual 60 minutes of game action. But intermissions, of course, don't count as periods in the game.

In recreational and youth leagues, periods can be shorter than 20 minutes. Usually, though, they don't run for less than 15 minutes per period. 15-minute periods are often used because arena ice bookings may only last between 60 and 90 minutes. 

These games won't have intermissions as professional leagues do, so the game needs to fit into the briefer timeslot. Short periods are arranged beforehand to account for stoppages in play and a momentary pause for the between-period reset.

Because ice timeslots run close together, most recreational leagues won't play overtime if a game ends its regulation time in a tie. Some leagues will arrange a quick shootout, but others still allow games to end in a tie. 

When did the NHL get rid of tie games?

The NHL eliminated tie games in the 2005-06 season when the league had just returned from the lost lockout season of 2004-05. Professional leagues no longer end with tie games.

Before 2005, in NHL regular-season games, teams would play a single five-minute overtime period if the game's regulation time ended in a tie.

If neither team scored in the five minutes, the game would end in a tie, and both teams would receive one point in the standings for the tie – whereas a winner would receive two points.

How Do Playoff Overtime Periods Work?

In the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, there is a full 20-minute overtime.

These playoff overtime periods are "sudden death" over time, meaning they keep running until one team scores a goal. 

It's called "sudden death" because the game ends as soon as one team scores – unlike the extra time in soccer, for example, which can have multiple goals scored across add-on time.

Are playoff overtime periods the same length?

The playoff overtime periods run for 20 minutes. They will feature a shorter intermission if subsequent periods are required beyond the first one. 

The intermission lasts as long as it takes for the Zamboni to resurface the ice, rather than waiting 17 minutes for the standard intermission break.

Once again, these overtime periods aren't referred to as the game's "fourth period" (and so on if the playoff game requires further overtime periods). 

Instead, additional overtime periods are called "double overtime" (and so on). The overtime periods are abbreviated as 1OT, 2OT, 3OT, etc.

So, although every other hockey game will limit you to a maximum of 65 minutes (60 minutes of regulation plus five minutes of overtime), playoff overtime can extend well beyond the duration of a typical three-period hockey game.

Especially long playoff overtime games aren't all that common. Still, the NHL playoffs will usually feature at least a few games that reach double and, occasionally, triple-overtime every year.

What was the longest NHL game?

In the modern era of the NHL, the longest overtime game ended 12 minutes into the fifth overtime period. That means the game played the equivalent of seven-and-a-half standard periods. 

This record-breaking overtime game was won by the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2000.

But this type of extended playoff overtime represents the end of the hockey period scale. Most professional league games will only play the standard 20-minute, three-period format. 

Recreational and youth leagues commonly play shorter periods as well. Overtime counts as a period in a reduced extra time form. The only time hockey goes beyond the overtime period's fourth frame is in sudden-death playoff hockey, played until one team scores.

FAQ

How Many Quarters Are in a Hockey Game?

None. Ice Hockey games are divided into three periods, not four quarters.

How Many Periods in Women's Hockey

Women's hockey games are divided into three periods just like the men's games. There is no difference.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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