How many ice hockey periods are there?

If you are new to hockey one of the first things you will want to know is how the actual structure of the game works. Hockey is different from football, basketball and soccer in how it is timed and structured.

People will often ask how many quarters in hockey or how many halves does a hockey game have? The answer to those are none, because hockey has periods not quarters or halves.

How many periods are there in hockey? In a game of ice hockey there are three periods of twenty minutes each and two fifteen minute intermissions. If the game is tied at the end of three periods in the regular season, it is followed by a 5 minute overtime and then (possibly) a shootout.

Whereas, in the playoffs if the game is tied at the end of regulation additional periods of 20 minutes each with intermissions in between will be added until someone scores, which immediately ends the game.

Let’s take a look at why hockey has periods and not halves or quarters, and the typical flow (with times) of how a game go in real time.

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Why three periods and not two halves?

Hockey has not always been played in three 20-minute periods. Originally, the game started with two 30-minute halves with an intermission in-between. It is hard to know when the switch from two halves to three periods was made, but likely in the early 1900s.

The concept of three periods was an innovation that was part of the NHA, a competitor and predecessor to the NHL.

The reason the change was made from two halves to three periods, and why it still is kept today, has everything to do with the quality of the ice.

During the intermission (the 15 minutes of time between the periods),  the ice is resurfaced by a machine called a zamboni. The resurfacing of the ice allows any small holes, skate marks, or snow that has been piled up to be fixed. After the resurfacing of the ice, the ice quality is greatly improved and, ideally, the ice is fresh and new.

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When hockey was played in two 30-minute halves, there was too much wear and tear on the ice. It was determined that the hockey players skating on the ice were just too hard on the ice and the quality of the ice by the end of the half was becoming too poor to play.

If you are watching on tv or are at a game, you can spot poor quality ice by watching to see if the puck is ‘bouncing’. The puck will have a harder time staying flat on the ice and as the players pass and shoot the puck you can see that the puck does not stay still. This creates difficulty for the players and a poorer quality of game.

After each period: Intermission and ice resurfacing.

So, playing hockey in three periods makes perfect sense from an ice quality viewpoint. Instead of only having one opportunity to resurface the ice, having three periods allows the ice to be resurfaced twice: once between the 1st and 2nd period and the other time between the 2nd and 3rd period.

Once the ice is resurfaced by the zamboni machine, the quality of the ice significantly increases.  The middle of the ice will also be resurfaced before a shootout takes place.

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The intermission length of 15 minutes does correspond with the ability of the ice to be cleaned and resurfaced. It does not take the whole 15 minutes as many NHL teams will have on ice entertainment between periods.

Even with the additional ice resurfacing that having three periods allows, the quality of the ice still deteriorates as the game goes on. This is mostly due to the effect of the temperature in the building being raised — having 15,000 – 20,000 people in the building creates some heat!

Ice does not do as well when the temperature rises 🙂

How long does it take to play a period in real time?

In real time a period will take approximately 40 minutes to play. This accounts for stoppages in play and tv timeouts so the network televising the game can show their commercials (there are two of these each period).

If each period takes about 40 minutes then the total game play will be 120 minutes with 30 minutes total for the intermissions gives a total of 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours. So from the time the puck is dropped to the final horn sounds it is 2.5 hours.

Sometimes the game will be a bit longer, but it is often not shorter than this.

Here is a real time flow of how the periods of hockey will flow at a professional game:

7:00 pmNational Anthem
7:05 Puck Drop for Start of First Period
7:45First Intermission
8:00 Puck Drop for Start of Second Period
8:40Second Intermission
8:55Puck Drop for Start of Third Period
9:35 End of Game

When I am watching a hockey game at home this is the general guideline that I go by. If I don’t want to watch the pre-game show or the intermissions I know that I roughly need to be in my chair at 7:05, 8:00 and 9:00 to make sure that I catch most of the action.

Of course, with streaming tv that you can pause and pick up when you want it makes it easier than ever. But I am a little old school and like to watch it live as much as possible.

Additional periods: Overtime

In a regular season game, if the game is tied at the end of regulation (end of the three periods), then an overtime period with 5 additional minutes will be added onto the game.

There is no intermission between the 3rd period and overtime and play starts within a few minutes from the end of regulation.  If no team scores during this 5 additional minutes, then a game will be decided by a shootout.

When the game goes to a shootout they will do a quick resurface of the middle of the ice. Each arena has two zambonis which will take a lap up and down the centre of the ice to smooth out the shooting areas for the players – this allows for the players to do more highly skilled moves on their shootout attempts and not simply be forced to shoot it because of poor ice conditions.

In the playoffs, if the game is tied at the end of regulation, then there will be a full intermission followed by another full period of twenty minutes.

This pattern will continue until somebody scores to end the game (sudden death). It has been common for multiple overtime periods to be played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To give you an idea, here is a list of the longest games in NHL Playoffs history:

Most Periods ever in an NHL game

Total Periods
March 24, 1936Detroit 1, Montreal Maroons 0116 minutes
30 seconds
April 3, 1933Toronto 1, Boston 0104 minutes
46 seconds
May 4, 2000Philadelphia 2, Pittsburgh 192 minutes
1 second
April 24, 2003Anaheim 4, Dallas 380 minutes
48 seconds
April 24, 1996Pittsburgh 3, Washington 279 minutes
15 seconds
April 11, 2007Vancouver 5, Dallas 478 minutes
6 seconds
March 23, 1943Toronto 3, Detroit 270 minutes
18 seconds
May 4, 2008Dallas 2, San Jose 169 minutes
3 seconds
March 28, 1930Montreal Canadiens 2, NY Rangers 168 minutes
52 seconds
April 18, 1987NY Islanders 3, Washington 268 minutes
47 seconds

Wow, those are long games!

Related Question

Do they clean the ice during periods in recreational hockey?

It depends on the level, but usually not. The game will still be divided into three periods, but the end of the period will be simply a break for the team. A period in recreational hockey is usually played 20 minutes runtime, which means that during stoppages of play the clock will keep on running.

Therefore, the maximum actual time length of a game will be 60 minutes. This is usually fine given the nature of the players (they are not as hard on the ice as professionals).

The ice is then resurfaced at the end of the game, before the next game takes place.

In higher end leagues, it is common for the teams to play 20 minutes stop time per period – just like the pros. However, the ice will only be cleaned between the 2nd and 3rd period. These buildings are usually kept cooler than NHL rinks, so the ice stands up better during the course of a game.

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