Lydia Cruz’s 2 Minute Minor: The ins and outs of hockey shift changes
At first glance, hockey looks like an onslaught of chaos unfolding on ice.
Your eyes simply try to keep pace with the frenzy, set to a cacophony of gliding skates, stick clashes and bodies bashing into boards.
But I assure you my friends, there is an artful orchestration beneath all that movement and madness. Stick with me and you’ll be hearing a 60-minute symphony in no time.
The conductors behind all the bedlam are the serious-looking suits you see standing behind the bench, the coaches that signal line changes and manage in-game strategy. They are typically masters at plastering poker face and well-versed in the art of pacing with their arms crossed.
Seated on the bench in front of the maestros are the team’s 18 skaters, each with a designated role and assignment. If they are the musical notes waiting to be put to paper, then line shifts are the rhythmic backbone of the entire piece.
A shift is just what it sounds like – a changing of the guard. We’ve all had a job where we had to clock in and out, right? Well hockey players punch a time card too, they just do it 12-30 times per evening (without mandated lunch breaks).
In essence, a shift involves some combination of players leaving the ice and replacement players entering.
These personnel changes can happen when time is stopped – in the case of an icing penalty or faceoff – or when the puck is in play. Players must be within five feet of the bench and disengaged from play in order to make a clean exchange. If bench players jump the gun, they flirt with the danger of a penalty for too many men on the ice.
It’s like playing musical chairs to techno pulsating at 1,000 BPM. Fun, right?
Shifts on the ice last anywhere from 40-60 seconds, with forwards trending towards the former and defencemen leaning towards the latter. Keeping players on the ice for much longer is detrimental to their stamina and can threaten their efficacy throughout the game. Who would you rather have barreling down the ice on a rush in a key moment, or standing as the last line of defense between your goaltender and a prolific top line: a player who is gassed anaerobically or one who is fresh off the bench, hungry to contribute?
When making in-game shifts, you want your team in control of the puck. Ideally, they are deep in the offensive zone. Other times you might see a defenceman gain control, circle behind his own goal and linger for a moment while a line change occurs before using those fresh skates to spark a rush.
The goal is to make the necessary personnel changes without being caught short-handed or surrendering unnecessary scoring opportunities to the other team. Possession is a powerful thing. You can even use it to prevent opponents from subbing in their own fresh-faced relief.
Every team has its own unique line deployment strategy. Some coaches stick to strict line orders, while others are obsessive about line matching with an opponent. If your coach believes in countering every shift the opposition makes &ndash say subbing in a bruising fourth line against top-liners – this can lead to uneven ice times and some players riding pine significantly more than others. As teams continue to integrate hockey analytics into decision-making, we could see these strategies change.
If you’re looking for an extra credit assignment, start researching time on ice. One website I love is ShiftChart, which allows you to see a full breakdown of every NHL game by the second, including which players were on the ice for both teams. It tells you how many shifts each player logged for a given game, their average shift time, total time on ice, and even breaks down their shifts by period. Nerds unite!
So there you have it friends, the basic beat behind hockey’s (still occasionally) chaotic composition. If you turn on a game and still see more pandemonium than synchronicity, do not be deterred. Keep consuming, observing and learning. Symphonies aren’t learned in a day.