Hockey is vastly different than any other sport. It’s remarkably fast, uniquely physical and fiercely emotional. The flow to the game is graceful and captivating, and it demands fortitude. But one of the most notable aspects of hockey that differentiates the game from any other team sport — an element that often gets overlooked by fans and is a primary cause of those more tangible distinctions — is the amount of time that each player spends on the ice at a time.
In basketball, the average player will spend about seven or eight consecutive minutes on the court. Although it’s broken up into many plays, football players will usually be on the field for a full drive and soccer players will often play over 45 minutes without a break. Hockey players, on the other hand, play significantly less at a time; they’re typically on the ice for just 30 to 45-second intervals.
Of course, over the course of the game, a player will accumulate ice time and play 10, 15 or even 20-plus minutes in total. That time, however, comes in brief shifts, as each player will alternate between less than a minute on the ice and a minute or two on the bench before their next shift begins — making each shift essentially a sprint where a player goes all-out for a short period of time.
“Not many sports are like hockey,” Wisconsin freshman defenseman Josh Ess said. “Not many sports are that fast. You get tired fast and you have to go out there and do what you can in just 45 seconds.”
This short time on the ice significantly affects gameplay in many ways — including, most notably, the mental and emotional effect that it has on the players before their shifts.
Each player experiences a range of emotions before they jump from the bench onto the ice. Most Badger players, perhaps surprisingly, say that are rarely nervous. Instead, UW’s skaters are more excited to get their opportunity to influence the game. In fact, many are even antsy and jittery before their skates hit the ice, tapping their feet and gloves on the bench in anticipation.
“Oh yeah! For sure. There’s a lot of excitement,” junior forward Will Johnson said. “There’s this little build up. You get off and you just try to catch your breath and recover, and as each second goes by you’re just like, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’ And then as soon as coach says you’re up, that’s all you can think about is what you’re going to do.”
The back-and-forth nature of the game is thrilling to most fans. But the Wisconsin players are constantly excited as well, as the short shifts elicit a novelty to each opportunity that keeps them anxious to get on the ice and contribute.
With that excitement, though, can come an intense frustration. When a player has even a small stretch of poor play, they can’t always immediately rectify or even consider their mistakes. Instead, they have only have a couple minutes to think about their last shift before returning to the game — making mental toughness paramount for success
“You only have the puck on your stick, if you did the math, a minute, if you're lucky, total the entire game. Maybe 30 seconds, 20 seconds the whole time. So It’s definitely frustrating [when you screw up],” senior forward Ryan Wagner said. “But that’s where the mental side comes in. You just have to move past it and figure out how to get your next opportunity, and when it comes you have to capitalize on it.”
“I think [shift length] is a bonus and a negative. With shifts going every 45 seconds, you’re up in a minute and a half, so you don’t have much time to dwell on it,” Johnson added. “I think that’s kind of nice. In other sports you may have things weighing on you for a while while you play. With hockey, you have another shift in a minute in a half, so you kind of have to forget about it.”
Not only do hockey players have to be mentally tough following mistakes, but an uncommonly long shift, namely when a team is stuck trying to clear the puck from it’s defensive zone, also necessitates that fortitude. The main reason the shift lengths are so short is that the players get tired quickly after going nearly all-out, so it’s difficult — and even physically impossible – to execute when their legs get heavy. Still, even when they are stuck on the ice and exhausted, they have to find a way to make the right play.
“It’s physically tough [when you’re out there too long], but it’s more of a mental toughness. If you’re mentally tough when they have sustained pressure in your zone and you’re struggling to get the puck out, you will be able to battle through that,” Wagner said. “When you’re tired you start to cheat, so that’s where the mental toughness comes into play. You do whatever it takes to get the puck out of the zone.”
Moreover, shift length also forces UW’s athletes to contribute to the team without being on the ice at all. Therefore, everyone has to find a way to both maximize individual performance and bolster their teammates’ success during the 65-plus percent of the game that they’re on the bench — turning every player into a coach of sorts in their time off the ice.
“I’m kind of just watching the play,” Wagner said. “If the puck is near the bench, you want to tell the guys if you have time, if someone’s on you, stuff like that. You’re seeing what [your teammates are] doing, seeing what I can tell them to help them out if they make mistakes.”
If you sit close enough to a hockey bench to hear, the whole team is constantly talking, screaming and cheering, generating energy and encouraging each other to outperform their previous shift.
“A lot of it is support and keeping the bench positive,” freshman forward Sean Dhooghe said. “Things can go up and down so quick, whether you’re out there or not, so I think figuring out how to keep the momentum in our favor is what you think about when you’re on the bench.”
Of course, every hockey player wants to be on the ice as much as they can, but they all know the importance of taking short shifts. Legs get worn quickly, and the players become unable to execute offensively or defensively in the same way as with a rested body. But more importantly, with only 30 to 45 seconds at a time to make a play, Wisconsin’s players are desperate, hungry and relentless in pursuit of the puck.
That is what makes hockey so uniquely fast and fervent.
“Hockey’s so intense,” freshman forward Jason Dhooghe said. “You have such a limited time, so when you’re out there you just have to give 110 percent.”
Ultimately, regardless of the nerves, frustrations or jitters that are inherent to the game, one thing remains universal to hockey players: they don’t get a lot of time to make a play, so they will do whatever they can to leave their imprint on the game every time their skates hit the ice.
“I’m playing the game that I love,” Zimmer said. “Every time that I’m on the bench I’m ready to get back out on the ice. I’m going to give it my all for those 45 seconds.”