The Finer Points: Line changes

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

Unlike other sports, hockey doesn’t require a stoppage in play or a timeout in order to change personnel. Shifts are quick, usually around 45 seconds long and since there can be long stretches without a whistle, it’s important to get a new line on the ice in a timely manner.

The coach calls for the next line up, usually by calling the centre’s name and they change when the other line comes off. If the change is being made during a stoppage in play, the away team has to put their line out first, then the home team gets the opportunity to counter, which is a major part of home-ice advantage.

How often a particular line is on the ice is up to the coach. Some like to roll all four lines equally while others give more time to their most offensively gifted players. Since matching lines is key – your defensive players against their offensive ones – creating a balance within each line is also key.

An improper line change can lead to problems, whether it is a too many men on the ice call or an odd-man rush against, making good, clean changes essential. There are many tips to executing a proper line change on the fly.

Change on the forecheck:
Changing lines while coming back to the defensive zone can be disastrous, likely leading to a 2- or a 3-on-1. The best thing to do is dump the puck into the attacking zone and then change. In order to keep momentum, the player closest to the bench should change first while the player on the far side dumps the puck, ensuring fresh legs to continue the forecheck.

Don’t all change at once: If every player decided to go to the bench at the same time, it leaves plenty of room for the opposition to make a long stretch pass down the ice for a quick strike. At the very least, the far defenseman needs to remain on the ice until others are in position to guard against any plays that may lead to a breakaway.

Change together: This may seem like a contradiction to the previous tip, but this just means one player on the line should not stay out significantly longer than the others. This can be a problem at times, especially for players who usually score but are in a slump or those who don’t get much ice time, but if both wings have changed, the centre needs to get off as well, provided the timing is right. Staying out and messing up the line combinations can mess up team chemistry and besides, shorter shifts means players get back on the ice faster and more refreshed.

Think ahead:
A shift that is too short is better than a shift that is too long. If a player has been out for 30 seconds and see an opportunity to change, he or she should take that opening. Odds are they will have to backcheck pretty soon, even if they have control of the puck, and they may not get back in time if the shift has been too long.

Show some hustle: This applies to both the player that is coming off and the player replacing them. The skater coming off needs to use the last of his or her energy in order to get to the bench so there is no lull in the play and the team can keep momentum. The replacement needs to be on the ice, already skating hard by the time the first skater is by the boards. There is usually a five-foot buffer zone by the bench where officials allow both players to be on the ice at the same time, provided the puck isn’t there with them. The skater coming off should use the door, while the replacement hops over the boards.

Communicate: The players coming off needs to make sure their replacements know they are headed off. Banging your stick on the ice or shouting change or your position are all good ways to draw attention to the upcoming change. The players on the bench need to know which line is up and who is taking which specific player. Changing positions is not an uncommon occurrence, so teams need to make sure two players aren’t changing for the same teammate who just switched from centre to wing.

Sit on the right side of the bench:
This one is very simple. The forwards should sit on the side of the bench closest to the attacking zone and the defense closest to the defensive zone. As the sides switch after each period, the players should switch sides on the bench. This way, players always know where to go and there is no confusion or unnecessary traffic at the bench.

*Editor’s Note: Hockey is a very fast-paced game and the large number of sometimes-complicated rules can make it hard to follow for a casual/new viewer. The Finer Points is a weekly column that will explain the subtleties and complexities of hockey in an easy-to-understand manner so fans can spend more time enjoying the game and less time trying to figure out what is going on.  

Is there a facet of the game that has you scratching your head? Send an email to to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ice.


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