Can hockey games end in a tie? (and what happens next)

The rules for a tie have changed in hockey.

For a long time, a tie game was quite common to see at the professional level, but the NHL wanted to make sure that there was a winner and loser each and every game so they changed the way the game was structured; the tie in now a thing of the past.

At the NHL level of hockey, a game cannot end in a tie. If the game is tied at the end of regulation time, the teams will play a 5 minute overtime, and if no goal is scored the game will be decided by a shootout. However, in the NCAA and recreational levels games can end in a tie.

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Let’s have a closer look at what happens when a game is tied at the end of the 60 minutes of regulation during a professional (NHL) game, and why they have made changes to the rules. (And I have added a video at the end of the best overtime goals from the regular season!).

What happens when an NHL game is tied at the end of regulation?

In the NHL, a game cannot end in a tie. During the regular season, if a game is tied at the end of regulation (which is 60 minutes), the game will go to what is called overtime.

Related: Here is my full article on the rules of overtime, plus there is a video with some of the best overtime goals in the NHL.

In a regular season NHL game, overtime is an additional 5 minutes added onto the clock. During overtime, each team is only allowed to put out 3 players instead of the usual 5 during regulation time. This was done to increase the chance that a team would score during this 5 minutes of play.

With the players playing 3-on-3 instead of 5-on-5, there is significantly more room and space for the players to create scoring opportunities and win the game for their team. Once a player scores, the game is automatically over and the rest of the time is not played out; in hockey terms, this is called sudden death.

If no team scores during the overtime period, the game will then proceed to a shootout. A shootout is a series of one-on-one attempts by each team on the opposing goaltender. Each team selects three players from their team to shoot on the opposing goaltender.

How does the shootout work to end a tie?

Each of the three players will have the opportunity to take the puck from centre ice and go in alone on the goaltender for a chance to score.

Whichever team scores the most cumulative goals from the three shooters will win the game. If the amount of goals are the same, then each team will continue to choose another shooter until one team scores and the other does not.

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The above photo is of Vancouver Canucks young star, Elias Petterson, taking his turn out in the shootout against Dallas Stars netminder, Anton Khudonbin

The team who wins the shootout is awarded a goal to add to the score of the game. Therefore, if the game is 2-2 after at the end of overtime, the team who wins the shootout will win the game 3-2 (SO) – with the SO standing for shootout.

The team that wins in overtime or the shootout is awarded 2 points in the standings, and the team that loses in overtime or the shootout is awarded 1 point (versus 0 points for a team that loses in regulation).

What happens if there is a tie at the end of an overtime period in the playoffs?

During the NHL playoffs, the rules are different: if a game ends in a tie, the teams continue to play full periods of 20 minutes with a full intermission in between each period until a team scores. Playoff overtime games have been known to go to multiple overtime periods with the longest games having up to 6 overtime periods!

All of the feeder leagues associated with the NHL (with the exception of the NCAA) have followed the NHLs lead in not allowing games to end in a tie. Therefore, the AHL (American Hockey League), ECHL (East Coast Hockey League), and the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) also do not let their games end in ties and follow the same format as the NHL.  

As well, the leagues in Europe have followed the NHL’s lead and adopted 3-on-3 overtime with a shootout to decide games.

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Has the NHL ever allowed ties in games?

Yes, the NHL used to allow games to end in ties. Actually, for most of its history, the NHL has allowed ties.

If a game was tied at the end of regulation, the teams would play an additional overtime of 5-on-5 and if the game was still tied at the end of overtime the game would simply end in a tie. In the 2003-2004 season — the last one before the shootout was introduced — 14% of all games ended in a tie (170 games out of 1230).

So why did the NHL remove the tie from its games?

The game during the 1990s and early 2000s had entered what was called ‘the dead puck’ era. The dead puck era produced a very defensive brand of hockey with low scoring games. Previous to this, especially in the high flying 1980s, scoring was much higher.

Games would have scores where there were 7 or 8 goals a game. Into the 1990s, this number continued to drop and a game was averaging slightly over 5 goals a game.

There were a number of incidents where a game would end in scores such as 1-1 or even the dreaded 0-0. From an entertainment standpoint, it was just not that fun for fans come to a game and watch there be so few scoring chances and no goals.

When the NHL lockout happened in 2004-05 and wiped out the entire season, there was one positive that came out of it: a committee was formed to study how to increase scoring in the NHL.

One of the recommendations was to eliminate ties in games, and to institute a shootout so that every game would at least have some scoring and a winner. So starting in the 2005-06 season, ties at the NHL level were officially over and all games would be decided with a winner and loser.

Although many hockey purists have disliked the shootout, the NHL overall likes the shootout — the tie in the NHL is not coming back anytime soon.

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NCAA, recreational leagues and ties

Not all hockey leagues have adopted the shootout. If you watch a game in the popular NCAA league during the regular season, they still follow the traditional format of 60 minutes of regulation followed by a 5 minute overtime with the game having the ability to end in a tie.

In your local recreational league, a tie is still usually the standard. The reason for this is that the ice in a league game is only booked for a finite period of time and there will be another ice time booked immediately following that time.

Therefore, there is no opportunity for the time of the game to be extended because it will throw off the schedules of all the other ice times behind it. Therefore, in most recreational league play, games still end in a tie. However, in the playoffs or tournament play, the shootout is a way that is adopted to decide a winner when there is not time to have another deciding game.

Best Overtime Goals

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

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