Ice Hockey is a fast-paced, exhilarating sport that captivates fans with its blend of speed, skill, and strategy. One of the fundamental aspects of hockey that shapes the game’s flow is the division into periods. Understanding the structure of these periods is essential for both new fans and seasoned enthusiasts. In this article, we’ll delve into the specifics of hockey periods, their duration, and their impact on the game.

The Basics of Hockey Periods

How Many Periods Are There in a Hockey Game?

In standard professional ice hockey, such as the NHL, a game is divided into three periods. Each period lasts 20 minutes, making for a total of 60 minutes of regulation play. This structure is designed to keep the game dynamic and engaging, with breaks allowing for rest and strategy adjustments.

The Purpose of Intermissions

Between each period, there is a 15- to 18-minute intermission. These breaks serve multiple purposes: they give players time to rest, allow coaches to adjust strategies, and provide an opportunity for the ice to be resurfaced. The intermission is also a time for fans to grab refreshments, discuss the game, and enjoy additional entertainment provided by the venue.

The Flow of the Game

First Period: Setting the Stage

The first period of a hockey game is crucial for setting the tone. Teams come out with fresh energy, and the opening minutes often feature intense action as players try to establish control. Strategies are tested, and the pace can be frenetic as each side seeks to gain an early advantage. The first period is about feeling out the opponent and adjusting to their style of play.

Second Period: The Long Change

The second period presents a unique challenge known as the “long change.” In this period, the benches are farther from the defensive zones, making player substitutions more difficult and increasing the chance for mistakes and scoring opportunities. Teams must be strategic about their line changes to avoid getting caught out of position. This period often sees an increase in scoring as the game settles into a rhythm and players find their stride.

Third Period: The Final Push

The third period is where the intensity peaks. With fatigue setting in, teams must dig deep to maintain their performance. This period often features the most dramatic moments, as trailing teams press harder to equalize or take the lead, while the leading team focuses on defending their advantage. If the game is tied at the end of the third period, it proceeds to overtime, adding another layer of excitement.

Overtime and Shootouts

Overtime: Sudden Death

If a game is tied after three periods, it moves into overtime. In the NHL, regular-season overtime is a 5-minute, sudden-death period played with three skaters and a goalie per team, leading to more open ice and increased scoring chances. If a goal is scored during this time, the game ends immediately with that team declared the winner.

Shootouts: Individual Showdowns

If overtime does not resolve the tie, the game proceeds to a shootout. This is a best-of-three series where players take turns attempting to score on the opposing goalie in a one-on-one situation. The team with the most goals after three rounds wins. If still tied, the shootout continues to a sudden-death format. Shootouts add a thrilling, high-stakes conclusion to the game, emphasizing individual skill.

Periods in Other Leagues and Levels

International and College Hockey

While the three-period format is standard in the NHL, other leagues and levels of play may have variations. For instance, international hockey, governed by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), also follows the three-period, 20-minute structure. College hockey in the United States typically adheres to the same format but may have different overtime rules.

Youth and Recreational Hockey

In youth and recreational hockey, game lengths and period structures can vary. Some leagues may have shorter periods, such as 15 or 12 minutes, to accommodate younger players and ensure the games remain manageable in duration. The fundamental principles of the game, however, remain consistent, teaching young players the rhythm and strategies of hockey.


Understanding the structure of periods in hockey enhances the appreciation of the sport. Each period brings its own set of challenges and dynamics, contributing to the overall excitement of the game. Whether you’re a casual viewer or a dedicated fan, recognizing the nuances of how periods shape the flow of hockey can deepen your engagement and enjoyment of this thrilling sport. So, the next time you watch a game, pay close attention to how each period unfolds and the strategies teams employ to secure victory.