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November 18, 2019

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Hockey 101:

Line changes: How hockey substitutions work and why they’re so important

Hockey Line Change

Tony Avelar / AP FILE

Edmonton players celebrate after a 3-1 victory against San Jose in Game 6 of a playoff series Saturday, April 22, 2017, in San Jose, Calif.

In most sports, players on the bench wait patiently for a stoppage in play before trotting onto the field.

Hockey is quite the opposite. Players are constantly hurdling the boards as their counterparts exit the ice in a mad dash to complete substitutions as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

These chaotic-looking moments to those unfamiliar with hockey featuring multiple players coming and going are known as line changes. And one miscalculation during a line change can result in a penalty or an advantage for the opposing team.

“Fast line changes are key,” said Golden Knights Senior Vice President Murray Craven, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. “They are such a big part of the game because they happen so often.”

The average top-line player, akin to starters in other sports, will take 30 to 40 shifts a game. Craven said the amount of time a player stayed on the ice was one of fans’ biggest misconceptions about hockey.

“People really have the hardest time understanding how long a shift is, and it’s only about 45 seconds,” he said. “People say, ‘What do you mean 45 seconds? That’s all?’ I tell them, ‘It’s a 45-second sprint, so just go out your front door and run down the block as hard as you can for 45 seconds and see how tired you are.’”

By the time the sprint ends, the player desperately needs a replacement. That’s why players waiting on the bench must be constantly aware of the game situation.

“When you’re on the bench you know when your line is about to be up,” Craven said. “You know who you’re taking off the ice. You’re watching him and you get a sense when he’s getting tired. You’re ready for when the puck gets shot in and he comes over to the bench.”

But the change can only be made at certain times during a game without giving the opponent a scoring opportunity — the most common being when the puck is dumped into the offensive zone.

“There’s a point where you get too tired out there and all you do is make mistakes,” Craven said. “You can’t keep up and you start hooking, clutching and grabbing to get that edge back.”

An exiting player must be within five feet of the bench before his substitute comes onto the ice. If he’s farther than five feet from the bench when the sub’s skates touch down, referees can whistle the team for a too-many-men penalty.

Officials can levy the same infraction if either player touches the puck or participates in the play — even if they are within the five feet.

Individual changes are legal, but substitutions are almost always done in lines.

Every NHL team has four forward lines of three players (left wing, right wing and center) and three defensive lines of two players (left and right defensemen).

Defensemen stay on the ice longer because they usually do less skating. This postseason, for example, the top 25 players in average ice time were all defensemen — led by Minnesota’s Ryan Suter with 29.1 minutes per game.

The leading forward for average ice time was Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, who finished at 24.2 minutes per game.

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at

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