If you’re new to hockey, the concept of periods might seem weird to you but they help the game run smoothly and at a fast pace. Most importantly, the end of each period signifies the perfect time to run to the snack bar and restroom!
So, how many periods are there in hockey?
There are generally three 20-minute periods in hockey. At the end of each period in the pros, the Zamboni resurfaces the ice. In the younger age divisions, it’s not uncommon to see fewer periods or periods that are shorter in length. Games that end in a tie may use extra periods (overtime).
As you begin to watch more hockey, you’ll notice that players tend to play with more pace at the beginning of each period. There are multiple reasons for this that we’ll cover in the rest of this article.
How Long Are Hockey Periods?
Every sport has its unique quirks and rules and hockey is no different, especially when it comes to the structure and timekeeping of the game.
When hockey started to gain more popularity in the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for games to played in two 30 minute halves.
However, the problem with structuring a hockey game that way was that the players’ skates dug into the ice and after 30 minutes the ice was full of ruts. When the ice was in that condition it was difficult to skate and pass on.
To solve this problem hockey shifted into three 20 minute periods. The ice is cleaner and more conducive to high-quality hockey if it is resurfaced after 20 minutes instead of 30.
Sixty minutes is still a good length for a game, but to keep the pace of play up, it has been broken up into three 20 minute periods as opposed to two 30 minute halves.
Hockey is unique in this way because many other sports like football, soccer, and basketball are played in quarters or halves. However, since time is kept, hockey is more similar to those sports than others like golf, tennis, or baseball.
It should be noted at this point that while not all hockey games at the high school and youth levels have three 20 minute periods, they’re typically marked by three periods either of fifteen, twelve, or ten minutes in length depending on the league and age group.
And in youth hockey games it is rare for the Zamboni to resurface the ice in between periods.
In some leagues, the ice is resurfaced in between one of the periods (this is common in leagues with older players—often 14 and up— as they are strong enough to start digging into the ice as the game progresses) while in leagues for younger kids there might not be any resurfacing at all during the intermissions (though there almost always will be in between games).
Along with the end of each period, the clock stops every time there is a penalty, goal, offsides or icing call, injury, or the goalie covers the puck. Play also stops if the puck leaves the rink or if a team calls a timeout.
Because of this, it’s important to keep in mind that just because a period is 20 minutes long doesn’t mean it will only take 20 minutes to play. It’s usually quite longer than that when you factor in all the stoppages in play.
While many hockey purists love that the game is broken down into three periods and take great pride in this aspect of the game, many spectators think it can be a bit cumbersome.
How Long Are Hockey Intermissions?
As we can see there is a distinct reason for breaking hockey games up into three periods—to resurface the ice to keep it clean, which in turn keeps the pace of play fast.
If you have watched a few games at the professional or collegiate level you have no doubt noticed that in between each period a large truck (or in some cases two trucks) makes its way out onto the ice and drives around in circles for about 10-15 minutes.
The driver of that truck—which is called a Zamboni—isn’t just out for a joy ride in front of thousands of strangers. What he or she is doing is cleaning and laying a fresh coat of water onto the ice surface.
This fresh coat of water fills in ruts, cracks, and other imperfections in the ice and then freezes to make the rink feel and look like new. At the start of each period, you’ll likely notice players skating faster and that their passes are crisper.
But what are the players doing during each intermission? During intermissions, each team returns to their locker room to rest and talk about their game plan going forward.
Hockey is an extremely tiring sport and the two breaks in the middle of a game help players stay fresh. Each intermission also allows coaches to tell their players what they’re seeing on the ice and help them make adjustments so they can improve their play in the upcoming period.
As for fans, each intermission is another opportunity to go to the restroom or snack bar. Unlike football which might have a halftime show or marching band on the field, during a hockey game entertainment on the ice is rare since the Zamboni is hard at work resurfacing it.
Hockey Overtime Rules
You’ve probably watched a hockey game where at the end of the third period the game was tied. When the game is tied at the end of regulation, several different things can happen.
During the regular season, many youth hockey games that end in a tie will simply be a tie. This can also happen in high school games and some college games.
But at the semi-professional and professional levels, a game that finishes in a tie doesn’t stop at the end of regulation.
During the regular season in the NHL, if the game ends in a tie there is a short break—not a full intermission, and the ice is not resurfaced. Following this, the teams play a four-on-four, five-minute overtime period.
The rules have changed many times over the last few years in the NHL and the four-on-four rule is still relatively new.
Hockey is typically played with five players on each side, but during the five minute overtime during regular-season games, each team only has four players on the ice at a time. If, after the five-minute overtime, it is still tied, the game moves to a shootout.
The rules for overtime in the NHL are different during the playoffs. Instead of playing a four-on-four, five-minute overtime, a full 20-minute overtime is played.
Because of this, a regular intermission occurs with a full resurface and all. It is also worth noting that the game will never move to a shootout in the playoffs.
If the game is still tied after overtime, it will proceed to a second overtime with a full intermission and resurface in between. This process will continue until one team scores a goal to win the game.
In the modern era, the longest NHL playoff game occurred in 2000 and went into the fifth overtime.
The game was between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins with the Flyers winning 2-1 on Keith Primeau’s goal in quintuple overtime.
In the American Hockey League (AHL)—a semi-professional developmental league that feeds into the NHL—the overtime rules are similar to the NHL with one notable distinction: instead of playing four-on-four, overtime is played three-on-three.
In the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL)—another developmental league that feeds into the AHL and eventually the NHL—overtimes are played three-on-three and last for seven minutes.
If at the end of the seven-minute overtime, the score is still level, the game goes to a shootout.
Overtime is also referred to as sudden death. This name, ominous though it may be, is used because the game ends immediately when a goal is scored in overtime.
Unlike football which gives each team a chance to score in some situations, and baseball where both teams get a turn to bat in extra innings, in hockey, if a team scores in overtime they automatically win the game.
How Do Shootouts Work in Hockey?
Shootouts involve players from each team getting the chance to skate the puck from the middle of the ice toward the opposing team’s goal, without the presence of any defenders.
During the NHL regular season, in games that proceed to a shootout, each team is given three shots. That means that the teams will alternate with one team trying to score first and then the other team next.
If after those three chances, neither team has scored or they have scored an equal number of times, the shootout will move into a sudden death phase. In the sudden death phase each team is given one more shot and whichever one scores—if either—wins the game.
If neither team scores or both teams score, the shootout proceeds until one team does score and one team doesn’t with the scoring team winning the game.
While the concept of shootouts has been around in hockey for a long time, they were only implemented into the NHL regular-season overtime format in the 2005-2006 season.
Though it can certainly be an entertaining and pressure-packed way to end a game, some hockey purists do wonder if it is a fair way to end a game.
Like all team sports, some think the outcome of a game should not be determined by one player but by how the team plays the game as a unit.
That could be the reason why the NHL doesn’t use shootouts in the playoffs where it is generally agreed that the stakes are higher.