What Is the Average NHL Career Length in 2024?

Posted on June 16, 2024 by Dan Kent
NHL Player

With ice hockey being as physical as it is, you may wonder how long the average NHL player can play at this high level. 

There is a significant amount of wear and tear that the game takes on even the healthiest body, as the NHL season is very long. 

What is the average career length of an NHL player?

The average NHL career is around five years. This is about 410 games a player plays. While this may seem incredibly short when compared to some of the longer careers of NHL veterans, there are a variety of reasons that playing careers are cut short. 

Unfortunately, injuries are a fact of the game and can sometimes cut a career tragically short. Other players can play for over a decade in the league if they stay healthy.

For example, the top 25% of players, on average, have played in the league for about 12 years. A significant number of players may only make it a year or two in the big leagues.

While it may sound relatively short, five seasons can significantly affect someone. With ice hockey being as physically demanding as it is, combined with the factor of players taking big hits while they're on the ice, it's impressive that any player can make it through an 82-game season.

Most players won't make it to 1000+ games played throughout their NHL career. However, hundreds of players have achieved this feat over the years. While the average age of an NHL player is 27, the league has seen players putting up a high level of play into their late 30s and even 40s.

If they can keep their body healthy, National Hockey League players may keep going well past the 5-season average mark.

What is the average age to retire from the NHL?

The average age for an NHL player to retire is around 28-30. This may seem young, but this makes sense, with the average career length of NHL players being only five years long.

Not every professional hockey player announces their retirement and publicly exits the game. When you see these situations, it is often from a notable player who is older and has played a decade or more in the league. But many fringe and middle-level talent players stop playing without much media attention.

This is why the average age for a player to call it quits in the NHL seems a lot earlier than expected.

What is the longest career in the NHL?

Former San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau holds the longest career in the NHL in terms of games played. Marleau passed Gordie Howe in the 2020-21 season in terms of games played and finished his career with 1779. If we go by seasons, it is a tie between Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios, with 26. 

Marleau, on the other hand, only played 23 seasons. A combination of injuries and the NHL having shorter seasons in Howe's era caused him to play more seasons but fewer games.

Who is the oldest active NHL player?

Among active NHL players as of the end of the 2022-23 NHL season, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks have the longest active NHL careers at 19 years.

Sidney Crosby is not far behind them at eighteen years, and it is doubtful the Pittsburgh Penguins forward will be retiring anytime soon. It's unlikely he breaks records at 26+ seasons. But he should still have a minimum of 4 or 5 left in the tank.

Why do NHL players play so long?

The length of the season, combined with the sport's intense conditioning requirements, is why so many NHL players play for a long time. They are arguably the best-conditioned athletes on the planet. In addition to this, NHL players avoid running, which is prominent in almost all professional sports. Running is hard on the body, much harder on it than skating.

When we consider the average career lengths of the NBA (4.5 years), NFL (just three years), and Major League Baseball (4.3 years), it seems puzzling as to why hockey is more prolonged, despite it being more physical than the NBA, and a much more gruelling schedule than the NFL. But conditioning keeps players playing into their mid to late 30s.

Gary Roberts, who played until he was 42, cites thorough conditioning as one of the main reasons he could play for so long. It takes more than a love of the game to stick around for so long — grit, determination, and the proper exercise routine and diet.

Remember, hockey is a physical sport, but not all players deploy a physical strategy, which can drastically change the player's retirement age. This is why you'll often see a bruising power forward like Milan Lucic lose their touch in their late 20s or early 30s, but a playmaker like Joe Thornton was able to play into his 40s.

Who is the oldest NHL player of all time?

The oldest NHL player in league history is Gordie Howe. Howe is not only the oldest player in NHL history, coming in at 52 years of age, but he is also tied with Chris Chelios for the longest-standing NHL career in seasons played at 26.

Chelios is the longest-standing NHL defenseman, playing until he was 48. He holds the NHL record for most appearances in the NHL playoffs with 24.

Which NHL positions have longer careers?

Across the board, ice hockey goalies have average longer careers than forwards and defense. 

This is due to their general lack of contact when compared to skaters. However, they're more likely to suffer knee injuries because they use their pads to block the puck.

Unlike other positions, goalies may find themselves being a few years older once they finally make it into the NHL. This position tends to take longer to develop, and given that there are only two spots for any single NHL team, goalies have to fight harder to gain the opportunity to show their skills off at the national level.

It's uncommon for an 18-year-old goalie to be thrust into the net of an NHL game — and you'll often see goalies being in the age range of 25 to 35.

Why NHL careers end

There is a multitude of reasons that factor into a hockey player's retirement. Of course, it's ideal to do so on their terms instead of being forced out due to a career-ending injury. However, injuries are inevitable in a sport with such rough contact, which sadly causes many players to end their careers earlier than expected.

Some players decide to move on to the next phase of their life and open a new chapter. 

It's no secret that professional sports players can make millions from just a few years of playing. This money can take care of a player and their family for a lifetime if properly managed.

Other players are lucky enough to avoid severe injury. They can play well into their 30s, at which point they may decide that they've had a fulfilling playing career and leave the game on their terms.

NHL careers aren't always cut short by a single injury. Sometimes, it can be a combination of multiple minor and recurrent injuries. If a player's body begins to quit on him, he'll have to follow suit and leave the league because he cannot play at a high level anymore.

What Do Players Do After Leaving the NHL?

Many NHL alums decide to stay involved with the sport in some way, shape, or form. Some may even go back to their old team and take a coaching position

Often, this is a fulfilling way for ex-players to stay involved with their passion and to help the new generation of NHL players reach their potential.

Besides coaching, former NHL players may find work in the front office or management-type positions. Some may even get involved in broadcasting and use their playing experience to enhance their commentary on the game. 

After ending his Hall of Fame NHL career, Bobby Orr became a player agent.

Some players opt to leave the sport entirely and may enter into a new field altogether. They might use it in their chosen field if they had received a college degree before joining the NHL.

Former NHL goalie Ken Dryden has turned to author books and even pursued a political career in Canada. The opportunities for players are nearly endless once they retire from the NHL, and they can chase after their next goal.

Has a 17-year-old ever played in the NHL?

There have been multiple 17-year-olds to play in the NHL and even a 16-year-old. However, this would not happen today, as you must be 18 years of age or older by September 15th of your draft year to enter the NHL entry draft. Additionally, you cannot be signed by a team until your draft year has passed.

As a result, you will never see a player under the age of 18 play for an NHL team.

Here are the 17 and 16-year-olds that have played in the NHL:

  • Bep Guidolin (16)
  • Ted Kennedy (17)
  • Jackie Hamilton (17)
  • Don Gallinger (17)
  • Jackie Hamilton (17)
  • Don Raleigh (17)
  • Ross Johnstone (17)

Is 40 too old to play hockey?

In terms of recreational hockey, 40 is certainly not too old. You could carve out a decade or longer career in a recreational league at that age. In terms of the NHL, however, very few players make it to 40.

Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin number 8. Photo by All-Pro Reels licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

There are rarities, however. In the modern-day NHL, Chris Chelios played until his late 40's. Alex Ovechkin is likely to play into his 40s, and numerous goaltenders like Craig Anderson, Dominik Hasek, and Dwayne Roloson played in their 40s.

Because goaltenders tend to peak later than players and start their NHL careers later, it's not surprising that the bulk of NHL players over 40 are goalies. 

What year did Gretzky retire?

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the best hockey player of all time and undrafted, retired after the 1998-99 season after 21 years in the NHL and two years in the WHA. Despite retiring at 38 years of age, in his final season with the New York Rangers, he still managed to put up 62 points in 70 games. This was the only season in his professional career he didn't average over a point per game in a season. He would go on to win the Stanley Cup 4 times.

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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