From all the major league sports in North America and worldwide, hockey uniquely divides up its play time.
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For basketball and football, leagues are split into 4 quarters, while soccer is divided into 2 halves and baseball into 9 innings. In addition, each of these sports has their own way of settling tie games, and hockey is no exception.
How many periods are in a hockey game?
There are 3 periods in a hockey game made up of 20 minutes each (or 60 minutes total). If the score is tied after sixty minutes, the game will extend to a 5-minute overtime period followed by a shootout. During the playoffs, teams will play sudden-death overtime to settle a tie which is also made up of 20-minute periods.
Were NHL hockey games always 3 periods long?
NHL games were not always 3 periods long. Prior to the 1910-11 season, NHL games were made up of 2 x 30-minute periods (source).
The main reason why games were divided into 3 periods had to do with the quality of the ice for the players. The NHL decided it would be more beneficial to resurface the ice with the Zamboni every 20 minutes rather than 30 minutes. The more you play on an ice surface, there will be build-up of snow and higher potential for grooves and ice chips to develop as it softens.
Actually, the build-up of snow causes the game to slow down as the puck cannot travel as smoothly due to the higher amount of friction. Furthermore, the grooves can cause players to slow down along with the overall speed of the game.
Ice chips have the unfortunate potential of causing serious injuries to players. At minimum, the ice chips can cause players to unexpectedly trip to the ice. And more seriously, a player’s skate can get caught in the groove or chip causing severe leg injuries (sprains or torn ACLs/MCLs, etc.).
Keep in mind that although periods are each 20 minutes long, the actual time players spend on the ice each period is about 40-45 minutes in real-time. This includes all the stoppages between plays such as from penalties, goals, injuries, time-outs and more.
The NHL introduced intermissions between periods to resurface the ice, starting at 10 minutes long. Eventually, the intermissions reached 17-minutes long killing several birds with one stone:
Resurfacing of the ice
As mentioned earlier, the intermission time is used to resurface the ice for optimal playing conditions.
Player Breaks and Team Regroup
Players and coaches are returned to their respective dressing rooms so they can basically rest up between periods. In addition, the team coaches discuss strategies to change the course of the game and regroup their players.
Spectator Breaks: Food, Beverages and Bathroom
Audience members can use the time to restock up on food and beverages as the game length in real-time is 2.5+ hours long. Since many spectators enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages, the need for the bathroom break is essential. If you’ve ever attended any sporting event, especially a hockey game, the bathrooms get extremely packed during the breaks.
For viewers watching the game at home, the league uses the intermissions to advertise their sponsors through commercials. This is in addition to the scheduled TV timeouts during each period.
Audience members are also subject to advertisements on the main scoreboard during the intermission pauses. Depending on the venue, the league will use the intermission time to launch free t-shirts to spectators or give out freebies from the rafters (or remote-controlled blimps) from in-house sponsors.
Can a hockey game last longer than 3 periods?
NHL and other professional league games can certainly last longer than 3 periods (also known as regulation time). As mentioned earlier, if the game is tied after 60 minutes (3 periods) of play, the game will head to overtime.
In the regular season, there is a 5-minute overtime during which teams play 3-on-3. If the game is still tied after overtime, the game is settled through a shootout session. It should be noted that the ice is not resurfaced any time after the 3rd period.
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In the playoffs, the rules are slightly different as games are decided by sudden death overtime. That is, the game can only be settled once either team scores the next and deciding goal. Therefore, the teams are returned to their dressing rooms following the 3rd and every subsequent period for a 15 and a half minutes intermission. The overtime periods are also 20 minutes long and are played 5-on-5.