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How to Change on the Fly in Ice Hockey

Substitutions are one of the most unique aspects of ice hockey. Hockey is different from other sports where players must wait until a play-stoppage, or check in with an official. In ice hockey, players are allowed to enter and exit play freely in the middle of the action.

A substitution is legal as long as each team maintains the correct total number of players on the ice (six, including the goalie). Seem confusing? Don’t stress. This guide explains when to change lines on the fly, and offers some tips on how to effectively call for a substitution.

On the Attack

You should only change on the fly when your team is on the attack. Don’t skate to the bench for a line change if the puck is in your defensive zone. “On the attack” means that your team is safely in possession of the puck, or that your team just dumped the puck into the offensive zone. Regardless, never change when the opposing team has the puck. This is the most important part of any line change.

Hockey’s a funny game. You have to prove yourself every shift, every game. It’s not up to anybody else. You have to take pride in yourself.

Paul Coffey

Play it Safe

Well-timed line changes can often lead to offensive opportunities. However, poorly-timed line changes usually set up a scoring chance for the opposing team. It’s important to approach changing on the fly with a defensive mentality.

Bench organization is an easy way for teams to maximize the defensive effectiveness of their line changes. Defensemen should sit on the side of the bench nearest their team’s defensive zone. As a result, anytime a defenseman changes onto the ice, he’ll be a few feet closer to his goal. However, it also means the whole bench arrangement has to change every period when teams switch directions. Don’t forget to rearrange the bench between periods!

Tips for Changing Lines

Whether you’re finishing up your shift or just about to start one, there are a few ways to smoothly transition. Good, smooth line changes can often be the difference between winning and losing. Keep these tips in mind when changing lines on the fly:

Watch Your Man

When your line is the next to go on, you should ignore the puck completely. Your eyes should only be focused on the player you’re replacing. This is crucial even if the player you’re replacing just started his shift. If he gets injured or has a piece of equipment break, it’s your responsibility to replace him when he skates to the bench for a change.

Skate Hard to the Bench

In any given hockey game, you should skate your absolute hardest when you’re on the way back to the bench. Sure, you may be tired after a long shift, but you only hurt your team by slowly skating toward the bench for a change. Get back to the bench as fast as you can so someone with fresh legs can replace you.

Get on the Ice Quickly

Similar to skating hard to the bench, it’s vital to get on the ice quickly. If you plan on going through the gate, you should be standing near it while you wait for a change. Most leagues allow players to come on the ice when the person they’re substituting is within five feet of the bench. Try to anticipate their arrival, and get on the ice at the earliest possible moment.

Yell to the Bench

It can be hard to tell when a player is skating to the bench, and when he’s merely skating near the bench. To avoid confusion, you should yell to your teammates when you’re skating toward the bench for a change. Since you won’t always know who’s going to replace you, shout out your position. For example, yelling “Center!” makes it clear that you’re heading to the bench, and lets the next center in line know that he’s about to get on.

When to Change

It’s sometimes hard to know when to change lines on the fly. Here are some general rules to keep in mind:

  1. Change quickly and often. Changing every 30-45 seconds allows you to go all out and keep your teammates involved in the action.
  2. Make sure the puck is safe. If you’re changing after a dump, watch to make sure the puck travels all the way down to an unoccupied part of the ice.
  3. Do what your coach says. If your coach is yelling or whistling at you for a change, you’ve likely been on the ice too long.
  4. Get off the ice if you get an opportunity to make a safe change, and you don’t think you have the energy to continue back-checking for 15 seconds. When in doubt, step off the ice.

Practice Makes Perfect

Considering how important line changes are, it’s shocking that teams rarely practice substitutions. Any time your team scrimmages, you should treat line changes just like you would in a game. They require developing solid instincts and chemistry with your teammates. Take line changes seriously, and they may end up being the difference between a close loss, and a close win!

Changing lines on the fly can be one of the hardest and most confusing aspects of ice hockey. This guide explains when and how to change lines.
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