Why do they switch sides in hockey?

If you are watching hockey you will notice that at the start of the second period the teams will switch sides. And then, at the start of the third period they will switch sides back to the original side they were on. One team ends up playing twice on one end and only once on the other. What is up with this? Are there any advantages?

Being indoors away from the elements and having a uniform ice does not require them to change sides, so why do they do it? Why make a team play on the other side of the ice for only one period? 

Embed from Getty Images

So, why do teams switch sides in hockey? There is a historical aspect of teams switching sides when it was played outdoors.  However, presently, changing sides creates a long change for the teams in the second period that leads to increased scoring and gives the fans at the game a better experience so all fans will see the home team shoot at the opponent’s net. 

Historical switching at half time and the evolution to periods 

Changing sides likely came about through the historical roots of hockey. When hockey started (late 1800s to early 1900s) it was not played indoors in arenas but outside on ponds and canals. 

The original game of hockey was played with two halves and not three periods (I’ll get to that down below). Since the game was being played outside it makes sense that they would switch sides. If you have ever played outside it is very difficult to skate into a headwind, this is very much an advantage for the other side. This is no different from football (american or international), where the outdoor elements – sun or wind – can easily be an advantage for one side.

When hockey moved inside they simply kept up the tradition of switching sides even though the elements were no longer a factor. 

When hockey moved inside the game eventually moved to being played in three periods because the ice needed to be cleaned more often to keep up a certain standard of conditions. It was simply not enough to have two halves to a game and the ice being cleaned only once during a single intermission. However, it was not necessary to clean the ice three times and have three intermissions. So this came up with the three period concept with two intermissions, and the uneven side distribution of the teams. 

The NHL in recent years has started to play 1-2 outdoor games per year as a throwback to the roots of hockey. Fans have loved the experience. However, in this case, the elements will factor into play.

With this potential variable the NHL does have the teams switch sides half way through the third period if the elements like wind play a factor. Most recently the Flames-Jets had the whistle blow at the 10 minute mark of their outdoor game, where the players switched sides. This gave each side 30 minutes with the wind, which was measure at 30 mph/50kmh. That is a hard headwind to skate into!

Embed from Getty Images

Switching sides to increase scoring

Switching sides for the second period and overtime, if it occurs, also increases scoring by forcing teams to have a long change. 

During the first and third period a team’s bench will be on the same side of the ice as its defensive side or goaltender. Whereas, during the second period their bench will be on the opposite side of the ice from the goalie. 

Being so far from your goalie on the ice is called a long change. It is simply what it is described as a long change for the forwards and defensemen to get off the ice for new players to come on the ice. 

What this causes is tired players to be on the ice longer than they want to be because they cannot get a chance to get to the bench. Often a defensive pairing will be trapped on the ice for over a minute, and this leads to tiredness and tiredness leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to goals.

It has been proven that goal scoring increases when teams have the long change. This is one reason that it is here to stay because the NHL will do anything to increase scoring. 

I have written a longer article on this that you can read by clicking the link below. 

Related: what is the long change in hockey? 

Switching sides for fan experience in the stadium

When you pay for tickets at a hockey game there are certain places that are better than others. If you can sit between the blue lines at center ice that is always best, however those tickets are the most expensive.

Embed from Getty Images

The cheaper tickets are at the ends of the rink.

I shared season tickets to an NHL team for ten years, and I, along with all of the other average non-corporate fans sat at the ends of the rink. So when we picked out tickets what side of the rink did we want to sit at?

Well, the side where the home team attacks twice. 

There are three periods to a game (if it doesn’t go to overtime) and for two of those periods the home team will shoot on one of those nets and only once on another.

It would not be fair to the paying customers if you never get see the home team shoot at the net that you are sitting close too. It does make a difference in the enjoyment of the game when you get to watch your home team shoot on the net close to you. Everyone likes to see scoring chances and goals the most, and when the puck is down at the other end of the ice it is more difficult to see.  


So even though there are historical roots to teams switching sides, the biggest reason they do so is for the in-game experience of the fans and to keep up the slight increase in scoring that switching sides creates.

Leave a Reply

Related Articles
Hockey Answered Secondary Logo

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!

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

How can we help?