The NHL certainly doesn't have the most gruelling regular season in terms of length. However, considering how physical the game is, it can't be excessively long, or it could potentially put the players at risk.
So, how long is an NHL season? We'll dive into that topic in this article, going over the structure of the NHL season today, how the schedule has historically changed, and even the NHL schedule during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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How many games are in an entire NHL season?
There are a total of 82 games in an entire NHL season. This includes 41 home games and 41 road games for each of the 32 NHL teams.
However, this wasn't always the case. The NHL schedule has changed numerous times over the years for many reasons. Let's review the historical structures and why they were made, starting with the oldest NHL schedules.
20 to 36-game NHL season (1917-1926)
With only four National Hockey League teams during this time, it made sense to play a condensed NHL season. Seasons were relatively sporadic, depending on how many teams were in the league then.
For example, during the 1918-1919 season, only 18 regular season games were played because only three teams were in the league.
In contrast to this, from 1919-24 the NHL played a total of 24 games during the regular season because the league had expanded to four teams.
In 1925, The Montreal Maroons and Boston Bruins joined the league. It underwent a two-season stretch where the NHL played 30 and 36 games during their regular season. The New York Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates also entered the league during this time, while the Hamilton Tigers dissolved.
44-game NHL season (1926-1931)
Based on three new teams entering the fold, the NHL shifted to a 44-game regular season from 1926-30. Two of those teams were from the famous original six, the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers.
This was a relatively short period, lasting for only five seasons before the NHL shifted to a 48-game schedule.
48 game NHL season (1932-1942)
The NHL went into a decade-long period of running a 48-game regular season, despite the active teams in the league shrinking from ten in 1932 to just 7 in 1942.
The league's struggles were evident at this time, and in 1942 the New York Americans suspended their operations, finally paving the way for the original six era of the NHL.
50-70 game NHL season (1942-1966, the Original Six era)
With the NHL trimmed down to six teams, the league would go on to play four seasons at 50 games, spanning from 1942-1946. It then played three seasons at 60 games from 1947-1950 before finally adopting the longest-standing schedule of its era, 70 games.
This format would last until the first NHL expansion draft, when the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St Louis Blues entered the league.
74-78 game NHL season (1967-1974)
With the new NHL expansion teams coming into play, the NHL would continually expand the schedule over the next seven years. It did so because expansion was rapid. In 1970-71, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks entered the league, and in 1972 the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders came into the NHL.
80-game NHL season (1974-1992)
The 80-game schedule was the longest-lasting of its time, spanning nearly two decades. Over this period, there were many changes in the National Hockey League, including adding many teams. But instead of expanding the schedule, the NHL kept it much the same.
In 1974, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts entered the league, and in 1976 the California Seals moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to become the Barons, which would later merge with the Minnesota North Stars.
The most notable movement in the NHL landscape was in 1979-80, when the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets would enter the league from the World Hockey Association.
84-game NHL season (1992-1994)
With the Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, and Tampa Bay Lightning entering the league, the NHL went through a very brief period of an 84-game NHL season before a lockout that cost the league nearly half a season in 1995-96 occurred.
This lockout would set the direction for the 82-game NHL season, the longest-standing schedule in the NHL's history.
82-game NHL season (1995-Present)
Despite a few lockouts and a global pandemic that shortened the NHL seasons over the last while, the league has played nearly three decades of 82-game hockey during the regular season, despite adding numerous teams, like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators, and Seattle Kraken.
Many notable movements occurred over these years, including the Quebec Nordiques becoming the Colorado Avalanche, the Hartford Whalers becoming the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars.
When did NHL go to 82 games?
The NHL shifted to an 82-game schedule after the 1994-95 lockout, where the schedule was trimmed down from 84 to 82 games.
Why did NHL go from 84 to 82 games?
In the collective bargaining agreement in 1992, the NHL increased the schedule from 80 games to 84 and hosted what they would call "neutral site" games, meaning games in cities where there was no home team.
In the 1994 lockout, these games were eliminated. They added extra travel to the team's schedules and were relatively ineffective in garnering interest from those cities.
Why is NHL season 82 games?
The NHL runs an 82-game schedule to ensure that every team plays each other at least once at home and once on the road. With 32 teams, the NHL can accompany 62 games with this format. The other 20 games are left primarily for divisional and conference play, as playing teams within your division and conference is crucial for playoff seeding.
For example, a team like the Montreal Canadiens from the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division may play the Edmonton Oilers, who are in the Western Conference and the Pacific Division, only twice a season. At the same time, they may play the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in the same division and conference, upwards of four times a season. This creates many more opportunities for rivalry games.
82 games create the perfect amount of play to form division rivals and allow teams to play the entire league.
How long are the NHL playoffs?
The NHL players typically kick off in April and finish sometime in June with the Stanley Cup final. Although the number of games a team will play is unknown, they must win 16 games, four best-of-seven series, to become the Stanley Cup champions.
This means, in theory, a team must play a minimum of 16 games during the Stanley Cup playoffs and would play a maximum of 28. However, it is doubtful every series goes to seven games or that every series is a four-game sweep.
It is also important to note that opponents tied after sixty minutes during the regular season will go into a 5-minute 3-on-3 sudden death overtime period. They go into a shootout if no one scores in regulation or overtime.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, winners are decided via 20-minute sudden-death overtime. The play is 5-on-5, and no shootout is used to determine a winner. As a result, although the maximum number of games you could play in the Stanley Cup playoffs is 28, added time can undoubtedly wear on the players.
How many exhibition teams does each NHL team play?
Every year, every NHL team will typically play anywhere from 6-8 exhibition games or preseason games as they're generally called. These games are often played in September, with the regular season starting in October.
Many star players and regular roster players will not dress for all of these games. Players that are a lock for a roster spot on their respective NHL teams may only play in a couple of these games during the latter part of the preseason and training camp.
This is because these additional games mainly aim to help teams decide on whether or not rookies and fringe players are ready for the NHL, and how they'd fit into the current lineup.