Unlike many sports, a hockey line change typically happens on the fly. Coaches don’t have to wait until a stop in the action.
Have you ever been watching a hockey game when a commentator mentioned how much ice time a player has had? How much time does a player get on the ice? And how do they decide who goes on and who goes off? Well, my friends, this is today’s topic, how the substitution in hockey works.
Substitution and Hockey Line Change Definition
In the game of hockey, players are substituted during gameplay or on the fly. This means that they do not have to wait for permission from the referees, such as with soccer, and can substitute as needed. Each substituting player must wait until the substituted player is off the ice before taking their place. Typically an entire line – three offensive players – come off the ice at the same time and are replaced by the next lineup.
- Line substitution can happen either on the fly or after a whistle call (the play has been stopped).
- The team is divided up into lines. The forwards into 3 groups of 4 and the defense into 3 groups of 2.
- Each group is paired up based on who the coach thinks will have the strongest plays on the ice.
- A poor line change can result in too many men on the ice or a goal for the opposing team if not done at the right time.
The Composition of a Team
Before we can talk about substitutions, otherwise called line changes, we must first recognize the composition of a team. Each team has 12 forwards and 6 defensemen, including a starter goalie and a backup goalie, the latter who dresses to play but stays on the bench.
Each line or shift consists of three forwards and two defensemen. The 12 forwards are divided into four lines; a Left Wing, a Center, and a Right Wing (LW, C, and RW), where each has a spot in a single shift. The defensemen are also broken up into 3 pairs and are divided up into left and right positions.
See the Connor McDavid Profile.
How Are the Players Organized on the Bench?
The players are segregated on the bench based on their position, that is, forwards on one side and defense on the other. The goalie sits next to the defensemen. They are already set up in their lines or pairings.
The coach is the one who decides each line and each of the pairings. He is also the one to indicate their order and when they are up next. You may even hear while watching the game which line is playing, the first, second, third, or fourth. The first consists of the strongest players, while the fourth line is less so.
Special Line Nicknames
You may have also heard a line given a special nickname. Over the years, these unique nicknames are simply fun title that helps define the line’s presence on the ice. These names range from referring to the players’ initials to what the line represents.
Allow me to draw attention to a special few. When a hockey line change happened, and these threesomes entered the ice, folks noticed.
Legend of Doom
This name was given to the Philadelphia Flyers line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. This line was a powerhouse back in the 90s, and when they played together, they were very productive offensively.
The French Connection
The Buffalo Sabres gave the following players this name since Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert were all impressive French-Canadian players.
The Century Line
This nickname was given to the line of Jean Pronovost, Syl Apps Jr., and Lowell MacDonald. This was because even when the Pittsburg Penguins were losing, this line together combined more than 100 goals during the season.
Honestly, I could go on. But I know you want to learn more about the substitutions so, let’s get back to that. However, if you want to know a few more, check the video below for a great speed run of the 9 best line nicknames.
Nine Best Hockey Line Nicknames YouTube Video
Changing on the Fly
As mentioned above, for the most part, changes will happen on the fly. You may have noticed hockey is a fast-paced game. So, if they didn’t constantly change on the fly, the game would have too many interruptions.
Also, as it is so fast, the players are working hard and can’t handle shifts longer than about 45 seconds. That isn’t to say longer shifts don’t happen, they do, but to keep up the players’ stamina, they are usually shorter.
Now, let’s imagine if they had to wait until a stoppage in play. A game I watched a couple of nights ago went 12 minutes before a whistle was blown. No player could last that long without a change. Changing on the fly is what allows hockey to keep its momentum.
And although the coach dictates which line is up next, it is up to the players to watch when they are to sub in. For example, an RW who is up next on the bench will watch and see when the RW on the ice is ready to come off. He must also make sure that he doesn’t touch the ice until his counterpart is mostly off.
But what happens when a player can’t make the change? While it is preferable to change an entire line at a time, sometimes this isn’t possible due to the play and, therefore, there is some overlap. A coach also reserves the right to change a line if he feels the team needs a good shakeup. A team being down a few goals is a good reason to do this.
Do All Changes Happen on the Fly?
No, they don’t. There are multiple reasons why a line change may happen when the play has been whistled to a stop. A coach may do this if he wants to get his full line on the ice, for example. He may also want to stack his team during a power play or a face-off.
When a whistle has blown, and both teams want to change, it is the away team that gets to change its line first. It also requires the linesman to signal that a change is happening by skating to the center ice and holding his arm up in the air for 5 seconds.
After that time, he will lower his arm, indicating that the time is up and the home team may now substitute. You may be wondering why does the home team substitute second? This is an advantage because now the home team can match their players to the away team’s players.
No Substitutions Allowed
There is one particular time when a team is not allowed to substitute. In another post, we discussed icing the puck and a resulting face-off after the whistle has been blown. Because the NHL wants to discourage icing the puck, the penalized team is not allowed to substitute any of their players.
This means they have to use the same line as they were already using. Their players are likely tired and will now have to go up against a fresh line from the other team. Check out this video below to see some great dos and don’ts about substitutions in hockey.
Rules of a Hockey Line Change: Do’s and Don’ts Video
Bad Line Changes
Sometimes, players get confused, and while one player goes on, another player may forget to come off. Or two players may go on for one player. In these situations, too many men on the ice will be called, and a penalty will ensure.
At other times, a change comes at a critical time, and chaos follows, often in the way of a goal. Check out the video below of some poorly-timed substitutions that have resulted in some big plays.
Bad Line Changes in the NHL Video
Knowing the pace of the game, and changing on the fly is necessary to keep its flow and excitement high. The coaches are there to make sure it stays organized, and the players have been doing it for years, despite a few bad changes now and then. It’s just another part of the game we all love!
By Danielle L’Ami
Danielle is a Canadian writer who loves her Habs. She also practices yoga as a way to de-stress and distract from the bad in the world. At the time of her writing this post, the Leafs are leading 3-1 versus the Habs in the first round of playoffs. It looks like she is going to need to do a lot more yoga soon.
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