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Learn the fundamentals of line changes

This is an excerpt from Hockey Plays and Strategies by Ryan Walter & Mike Johnston.

Line Changes

Unlike other sports, in the game of hockey, players change on the fly roughly every 40 seconds. It is the coach’s job to decide what line is up and the players’ job to be ready, but there is a lot more to this coordinated effort.

Hockey games have an ebb and flow woven within their often back and forth movement. One of the undercurrents of any game is developed by the way a team changes its players and shares its ice time. Momentum is the cornerstone of most success, and therefore momentum must be developed and sustained. Much of hockey’s momentum comes through effective line changes. Some coaches like to turnover all 4 lines as much as possible and keep tempo from the bench and try to get a contribution from everyone. Others like to flavor their games with much more ice-time for their offensively gifted players and as a result play them a lot more than the other players.

How coaches like to change players and match certain lines is often more of an art than a science. Certain coaches like to match a defensive line against the opponent’s offensive line, but the by-product of this course of action is often less ice time for their own offensive players. Some coaches like to turn over all four lines as much as possible, and others like to flavor their games with much more ice time for their offensively gifted players.

Whatever their personal preference, most coaches agree on a number of principles that set at least the ground rules for successful line changes and the momentum they can generate. Let’s look at the fundamentals of line changes in the game of hockey.

  • Make changes while attacking the opponent rather than on the retreat or on the backcheck. Making sure the puck is either in the offensive zone or moving into the offensive zone ensures there won’t be any odd man rushes against you due to a line change. Five players changing on the fly is obviously executed best when the puck is deep in the opponent’s zone (figure 12.1). Very seldom does a five-player change happen at one time, and if the whole line is to be changed, often the far-side defenseman will stay on the ice to guard the long three-quarter-ice pass that may spring a breakaway.
  • Changing on the fly (as the play continues) must happen strategically and geographically. As a shift nears its end, players closest to the bench will begin the change-on-the-fly process one at a time (figure 12.2). At the younger ages, once one player changes the other players think they also must change, even if they are on the backcheck or pursuing the puck carrier. Logic and strategy play a huge part in when players change. The more dangerous the situation with regard to the opposition generating a scoring chance, the less likely there will be an opportunity to change. For a simple example if players read that there is a high percentage chance that the puck in the neutral zone might get turned over then they should not look to change. Sometimes it means waiting a few more seconds but if the puck does get turned over during a change it will definitely result in a good scoring chance for the other team.
  • Players on the bench must stay alert at all times. On-the-fly changes are dynamic and often erratic. Once the coach has signaled which line is up next, it is then up to the players to understand completely whom they are changing with. On many NHL benches, each player calls out the name of the person he is replacing. Encourage your players to communicate (“I’ve got Johnny” or “Remember Linda is playing center now”). As players rush to make the exchange, have one group go out the gate and another over the boards if possible.

  • Players on the bench must be aware of on-ice happenings as they are prepping to change. Often players get so fixated on the person they are going to replace that they do not have a full sense of what is happening on the ice. It is not uncommon for a player to jump on the ice and step right into a puck near the bench before the other player is completely off the ice. Obviously, this results in too many men on the ice and becomes another penalty to kill if caught by an alert official. By being aware of what is happening on the ice, players will be able to react quickly offensively or defensively. Awareness for the player coming on the ice also deals with knowing what your responsibilities are as soon as you get off the bench - are you going on the offense or reacting defensively?

  • Momentum can be increased by the fluidity of the player changes. Teams get into a player-changing rhythm, and when all cylinders are firing, this rhythm will create real momentum and be an advantage. Players are allowed 10 feet to make their change at the bench so fluidity refers to executing the change smoothly in this space, at the right time (when players are not too fatigued), and in the right situation. Correct and successful changes save time and energy and when executed perfectly can catch the opponent with tired players on the ice. Can you practice this? Sure you can. Simply set up a drill where players break out and take a shot on goal. Then the line regroups with a second puck, dumps it into the corner, and changes. The new line coming on the ice goes through the same sequence.

  • Timing of changes is critical. Timing is everything in sport. The timing of how long players stay on the ice and at what point of the shift players change or don’t change tells experts a ton about that team’s character and identity. Often star players struggling to score goals will cheat in this area. They stay longer than normal and because of this upset the emotional egg carton at times. If the left winger stays on the ice after the center and right winger have changed, this can throw off the synergy of certain line combinations and also anger the next left winger.

    For a coach, distributing ice time is much like being the conductor of an orchestra. The goal is to weave each player’s talents and strengths into one large sound or force that becomes beautiful and unbeatable.


    Bench management has certain constraints and advantages depending on if the game is at home or away. The home-ice coach has last change, and this obviously allows the home coach to better play the chess match that is the game of ice allocation. Away-game coaches look to change their players more often on the fly to get certain desired matchups. NHL coach Mike Keenan suggested the following in our previous book, Simply the Best: “That’s another thing that I love: the dynamics of the game. People can be asked how many minutes are in a hockey game and the normal answer is 60. Actually there are 720. There are 360 minutes in regulation time distributed between two teams that have 20 players each, so if you give 60 minutes to your goalie (most teams will laugh when I tell them this and say you never do that, because I am always pulling my goaltender) then you’ve got 300 minutes to distribute on your side with no penalties. The other coach has the same. How you manage this time and who you give it to at what time is an art and you must be able to read the game and your players as it is unfolding.”


    At every level of play, the entry to the bench and the exit from the bench often tell how cohesive and energetic a team is. You can watch closely at how players change to see what their team spirit is like at certain times of the season. Many people say that the leadership model identifying hockey, even more than in other sports, is that of collaboration. If this is true, then it is most true in the area of bench management and line changes.


    This is an excerpt from Hockey Plays and Strategies.