What is the Average Career Length of an NHL Player?

by Alaina Johnson | Updated On: June 1st, 2022
NHL Player

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With ice hockey being as physical as it is, you may find yourself wondering how long the average NHL player is able to play at this high level. There is a significant amount of wear and tear that the game takes on even the healthiest body.

The average NHL career is around 5 years. 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. Injuries are unfortunately a fact of the game and they can sometimes cut a career tragically short. Other players are able to play for well over a decade in the league if they stay healthy.

NHL Player Career Length

While the average National Hockey League playing career is around 5 years — some players stick around for much longer. The top 25% of players play in the league for about 12 years on average. There is a significant amount of players who may only make it a year or two in the big leagues.

While it may sound relatively short, five seasons can take a significant toll on anybody. 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 82 games in a season.

Most players won’t make it to the level of 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 years old, the league has seen players still going strong in their 40s.

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Common Reasons for NHL Careers to End

Photo by Amanda licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is a multitude of reasons that an NHL player may leave the league. Of course, it’s ideal to do so on their own terms instead of being forced out due to a career-ending injury. However, injuries are inevitable in a sport with such rough contact and this sadly causes many players to end their playing career earlier than expected.

Some players simply decide that they want 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. If properly managed, this money can take care of a player and their family for a lifetime.

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

NHL careers aren’t always cut short by a single injury — sometimes it can be a combination of multiple small and recurrent injuries. If a player’s body begins to quit on him, he’ll have to follow suit and leave the league due to being unable to play at a high level anymore.

What Are Some of the Longest NHL Careers?

Both Chris Chelios and Gordie Howe played in the NHL for 26 seasons. Howe was able to play in all but 80 of his 1,767 NHL games throughout his illustrious career with the Detroit Redwings.

Currently, Zdeno Chara and Joe Thornton are the longest-playing NHL players in the 2021-2022 season. They’re both at 24 seasons and Chara has 1,644 games played versus Thornton’s 1,704. A career that spans two decades in the world of professional sports is quite an achievement.

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

Which Positions Have Longer Careers?

Across the board, ice hockey goalies have longer careers on average compared to forwards and defensemen. This is due to their general lack of contact when compared to the other players on the ice. However, they’re more likely to suffer from knee injuries due to how 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. 

What Do Players Do After Leaving the NHL?

A lot of NHL alumni 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. Oftentimes, this is a fulfilling way for an ex-player to stay involved with their passion and to help the new generation of NHL players reach their potential.

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Apart from coaching, former NHL players may find work in the front office or management-type position. Some may even get involved in broadcasting and use their playing experience to enhance their commentary on the game. Bobby Orr decided to become a player agent after ending his Hall of Fame NHL career.

Some players opt to leave the sport entirely and may enter into a new field altogether. If they had received a college degree before joining the NHL, they may put it to use in their field of choice.

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 have the ability to chase after their next goal.

Staying Healthy and Staying in the NHL

NHL Game

Alex Ovechkin has played 17 seasons for the Capitals (no.8). Photo by All-Pro Reels licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Avoiding some type of injury is nearly impossible when playing professional ice hockey — and it’s something that players will have to inevitably face during their careers. This is a deciding factor for many players who determine that they must end their time playing at such a high level.

If they can keep their body healthy, NHL players may keep going well past the 5 season average mark. There are players who have made it in the league for two decades and counting. There’s a surprisingly wide range of ages currently in the league, stretching from the brand new 18-year-old to the veteran 44-year-old.

Simon, the founder of Brave Stick Hockey, started playing hockey in 2003. He launched this website in 2018 to help new hockey players and fans learn more about the game and have more fun while learning.

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