Photo by Fort Drum & 10th Mountain Division licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0 Images used on this page are under creative commons license. We may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page.
It should come as no surprise that ice hockey is one of the fastest-paced games in sports. The expectation is fast and aggressive play — which is why players don’t spend much time on the ice in any one shift. They need to be able to get back to the bench for a breather to keep their level of play high.
On average, the shift time in the NHL is 47 seconds spent on the ice. Of course, this number will vary by position as well as experience level — some of the veteran players can play longer shifts without losing power. For high-level players with increased stamina, you may find that they can play 60-second shifts before they head to the bench.
Why Are Hockey Shifts So Short?
While 47 seconds may sound like nothing to the fans in the arena, it can take a significant toll on a player’s body and energy level. Players are skating hard and fast after the puck and even taking heavy hits from their opponents. A 45-second sprint would likely wear out the average person — so you can see how it would be especially taxing with all of the gear players wear.
Hockey players want to be able to play at the same level throughout the game, which means they’ll need to ensure they’re taking proper breaks to catch their breath and get a drink before returning to the ice for their next round.
How Many Shifts Are There Per Game?
For top-line players, they may see 20 or more shifts per game. This can add up to a total of around 20 minutes worth of ice time throughout the three periods of play. Out of the 60 minute total playing time, this is an impressive time for a player to put up when you consider that they’re basically sprinting for the majority of it.
The length of time each player is expected to play will depend on their team and how the coach has structured each line. The individual skill level of the player will factor in as well. A rookie may not have the overall stamina to be playing 20+ minute games yet.
Hockey Shift Lengths by Position
While the average for all players maybe around 47 seconds, this number will look a bit different when separated by playing position. Defensemen tend to stay on the ice for a couple of seconds longer on average than their forward counterparts.
Of course, goalies are the outliers as they spend the entirety of the game on ice. The goaltender position often has less constant motion as the goalie isn’t skating up and down the length of the rink throughout the game. They stay in and around their crease and this allows them to play through all three periods of a game.
Forwards are divided into different lines: first, second, third, and fourth. The first line consists of the best players and then as it goes down to the fourth line, you’ll see some rookies and some of the “weaker” players. Though, they’re still included in the lucky percentage of players who have made it to the national league.
On average, forwards may spend a little over 46 seconds on ice per shift. Some top forwards may spend up to 51 seconds on the ice before switching out. A highly-skilled veteran player such as Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals may play up to minute-long shifts and can log up to 27 minutes of ice time in one game.
When compared to their forward counterparts, defensemen often skate less so their average shift is a bit higher at 48.6 seconds. The top percentage of defensemen may play up to 52 seconds during a single shift.
Instead of having four lines, the defense has three pairings of left and right defensemen. This means that each defenseman will be expected to play more minutes per game than a forward. Though there is less skating required of defensemen, their role is more physical in nature and it can become quickly exhausting to dole out hits while taking them as well.
How Do Hockey Players Know When to Switch?
During the flow of the game, you’ll see hockey players coming on and off the ice. This is called a line change and happens while the game is still active. In most other sports, the play must be stopped before players can be subbed in or out of the game.
Most players will inherently know when their shift is coming to an end, as they’ll be feeling tired and ready for the bench. When the other member(s) of a player’s line of defense pair heads towards the bench, they should do so as well. It’s important that the groupings stay together as they’ve been strategically put with each other for a reason.
It’s also important that players switch without leaving a gap for the other team to score. Oftentimes, the players will wait for the puck to be down at the other end, far away from their goalie, so they have time to switch out.
Power Play and Penalty Kill Shift Length
When it comes to a power-play scenario, you may notice that players stay on the ice for a longer shift than usual. This is due to the fact that there tends to be less skating required during this time, as it’s mostly focused on passing and proper puck handling technique.
During a penalty kill, shift times tend to decrease from the average length. This is because players are often spending this time chasing the puck down — thus tiring themselves out quickly.
These two scenarios come up throughout hockey games and change the shift averages by a bit. Once regular play resumes, shift changes will proceed as normal again.
The Importance of Keeping Shifts Short
The intense exertion required of hockey players means that they average less than a minute on the ice per shift. 47 seconds may sound like nothing but it can be physically exhausting for a player when they’re skating at high speeds and chasing down the puck.
The ability for players to rotate out smoothly and efficiently throughout the game ensures the team is keeping a high level of energy on the ice. Everyone is able to bring their best effort to their shift knowing that they’ll get a break in under a minute. This helps to keep the pace of a hockey game so fast and furious — which is why it’s so beloved by fans around the world.