How Do Shifts Work in Hockey? (Explained for Beginners)

Most people work shifts in their job.

Hockey players have jobs too, which involve working shifts.

However, their shift-work involves attaching razor-sharp metal to their feet so they can zoom across slippery ice while whacking small rubber discs at a goalie at a speed of 90 miles an hour.

This means hockey shifts have to be much shorter than typical jobs. Hockey shifts are simply short sessions in which a player does his work on the ice—at a high intensity.

In this article, you’ll learn what a hockey shift is, how it works, why they’re so short, and how to know exactly when a player should change shifts. Plus, you’ll learn the single situation when you should NEVER change shifts.

Let’s begin.

Here’s How Shifts Work in Hockey:

Hockey is an anaerobic sport involving short bursts of fast-paced play. In order to keep up the high-intensity of the game for 60 minutes, players need to take breaks throughout the game. They’re put into different “lines” which take turns playing short sessions—rotating every 45 seconds or so.

What Is a Hockey Shift?

A hockey shift is when a “line” takes their turn to play while the other lines take a break on the bench to rest. Teams are typically broken into 4 lines of 3 forwards and 3 pairs of 2 defensemen. Each line rotates about every 45 seconds to keep the game intensity up and give players time to rest.

What Are Hockey Lines?

Each forward shares their shift with their linemates assigned by the coach. And each defenseman shares their shift with their defensive partner. 

This is the general breakdown of a team’s lines:


Line 1Left WingCenterRight Wing
Line 2Left WingCenterRight Wing
Line 3Left WingCenterRight Wing
Line 4Left WingCenterRight Wing


Defensive Pair 1Left DefensemanRight Defenseman
Defensive Pair 2Left DefensemanRight Defenseman
Defensive Pair 3Left DefensemanRight Defenseman

In the game, the top 1 and 2 lines and defensive pairings will typically have the most shifts in a game—and play the longest overall time. 

On the other hand, the bottom lines (3 and 4) and lowest defensive pairing (3) usually play the least amount of time.

The only player on a team that doesn’t follow the standard shift-work in hockey is the goalie, who will stay out on the ice the entire game. 

They’re able to do this as their position isn’t as demanding in terms of continuous output compared to players on the ice. They can typically go a few minutes without even having to touch the puck, let alone move. 

Why Do Hockey Teams Have Shifts?

Hockey teams have shifts because ice hockey is such a physically demanding sport. Due to the extreme nature of the sport, players need to change continuously to avoid getting fatigued quickly. 

Another reason hockey teams have shifts is part of the hockey strategy. A “shift” is also known as the time that a specific line plays on the ice.

As a coach, you strategize to get certain players (on specific lines) to match up against lines on your opponent’s team. 

For instance, when the opposing team puts out their most offensive players who know how to generate the most points, a coach would likely want to put out his most defensive forwards to shut them down.

By separating your team into lines, and allowing specific timing between those lines to match up shifts with opposing lines, you’re able to outplay the other team.

How Long Should Hockey Shifts Be?

In the NHL, players typically play 45-second shifts. The reason for the short shifts is because they’re performing at such a high intensity, that they’re typically gassed in under one minute.

In other competitive leagues, shifts are usually played at around the same amount of time.

You may be wondering, what about youth hockey?

Well, that’s another story.

In youth hockey, shifts are typically much longer. While there’s no real time set in stone, typically the younger the age of the players, the longer the shifts.

The reason younger players—let’s say under 13 years old—will play longer shifts is because they simply aren’t performing at as high of an intensity as they would if they were older.

The entire game is played at a much slower pace, so the need for shorter shifts isn’t as relevant.

However, once hockey players start hitting around 12, 13, or 14 years old, their shifts should start to shorten to around one minute or less.

How Do Hockey Players Know When to Change Shifts?

Coaches will send players out on shifts with their line or defensive partner.

However, how do players know when to get off the ice?

Well, there are a few ways players know to finish their shift:

  • The length of their shift reaches about 45 seconds
  • Their linemates start to skate back to the bench to get off
  • An opposing line gets on the ice (that isn’t your match-up line)

There’s also a time when players should never get off the ice.

For instance, if you’re in your own zone, playing defense, there is absolutely no reason to get off the ice (unless you are injured). The other reason you may get off the ice in this situation is if a vital piece of equipment is broken or has been tampered with.

How Long Is an Average NHL Shift?

The average NHL shift is about 45 seconds long.

This time seems to be the sweet spot. 45 seconds allows players to be on the ice long enough to ensure they can maintain a maximum intensity of play without decreasing their performance.

Typically speaking, if a player is skating at 100% intensity, they should be out of energy at around the 45 second mark.

However, it does seem as though shifts are getting even shorter as of lately.

In the 2018-19 season, the Philadelphia Flyers made note of individual and team averages when it came to shift times. That year, Flyers players played an average shift of 44 seconds.

However, fast-forward one year in the 2019-20 season, and Flyers players shifts are much shorter—at 41 seconds per shift.

How Many Shifts Does a Hockey Player Have?

The average first-line NHL player will take about 30 to 40 shifts per game.

With average shift lengths of 45 seconds, this works out to 22:30 to 30 minutes per game.

While shifts are very short, this means the best players are typically playing about a third to one half of the entire game.

Average NHL players get about 23 minutes per game.

And goalies, on average get about 58-60 minutes per game. The reason they don’t get 60 minutes on average is because the losing team typically pulls the goalie with 2 minutes left if they’re down a goal or two.

Who Calls Line Changes in Hockey?

In NHL hockey, coaches are typically the ones to call line changes.

In times past, coaches used to match up forwards against other forwards. For instance, you’d want to make sure you’re sending your top line against the opponent’s top line.

However, over time, more and more matchups are changing towards matching up against defenders.

Head coaches are usually the ones dedicated to calling line changes for forwards. Assistant coaches, on the other hand, are often calling line changes for defensemen.

This is to ensure forwards are matched up against the right defensive pairings, and making sure defensive pairings are going against the right forwards.

Why Are Hockey Shifts Way Shorter Than Other Sports?

Hockey is an anaerobic sport, meaning the majority of the action is based on super short and powerful bursts of energy—making it one of the most extreme sports. 

Due to the high intensity of the game (and how fast players burn their energy), they require short shifts and long breaks to recover.

Hockey Shifts Compared to Soccer

A soccer pitch is much larger than a hockey rink, which makes the game flow at a much slower pace than hockey. Plus, each soccer team has 10 players (and a goalkeeper), which means players on the field have long periods of resting time during play.

On the other hand, hockey rinks are much smaller, and there are half as many players on at a time. This means the game flows at a much faster pace than soccer. 

Ice skating is also much more physically demanding than sprinting.

This is because more force is transferred from the leg on skates meaning a player must take more deliberate strides.

This is proven even more when you compare intermission between the sports. While soccer only has one intermission at halftime, ice hockey has three periods (for two intermissions). This allows hockey players to rest even more.

Hockey Shifts Compared to Basketball

In basketball, while it’s still fast-paced and played on a smaller area like hockey, it doesn’t require as much “maximum-intensity” striding, as hockey requires.

Usually in basketball, there are a few short strides, and much more passing and play-making than hockey, requiring less movement. 

Possession time is another big factor, as basketball players can hold onto the ball without giving it away much easier than hockey players. This means longer breaks for basketball players.

How Can You Keep Your Shift Times Down?

If you’re new to the game, or you’re simply wanting to improve your gameplay, you’ve probably heard it a few times:

“Keep your shifts down!”

“Shorter shifts!”

“Skate fast then get off!”

While your teammates could sound like a broken record, there’s probably a good reason for it.

If you’re out there taking 3-5 minute shifts, you need to start shortening them down. This is assuming you’re playing on a full team of 18+ players.

If you’re struggling to keep your shift times down, here are a few tips:

  1. Let your coach know you want to get better at this (he could set up some drills during practice to work on it. Or, he could start calling players off the ice when time’s up)
  2. Let your captain or alternate captains know you want to get better and get them to call lines off the ice if they’re getting too long.
  3. Encourage your linemates to let you know when they’re going off.
  4. Watch your linemates. Are they heading off? You should go off with them
  5. Go off when you think it’s been 30-40 seconds. It’s probably been closer to 45-60.
  6. Count in your head to 45 while you play. 
  7. If you have a smart watch like an Apple Watch, you could set a timer each time you go out for a shift. You’ll want to be careful with this as it may not be easy to do on the fly—so you should first try this during a practice

Looking for more answers to the most common hockey questions? Be sure to check out our other popular blog posts: Is There a Size Limit for Hockey Goalies, Why Is Icing in Hockey Bad, and What’s the Best Height for Ice Hockey!


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