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Average Length of an NHL Player Career

A typical career of an NHL player can be summarized with one word. Its short! Over half of all NHL players play less that 100 games during their career and for approximately 5 percent of players, their first NHL game is also their last. If we look at this from a different angle, long careers are extremely rare. Only 4 percent of players (that's 1 out of 25) dress up for more than 1000 games.

Data includes all forwards, defensemen and goaltenders who played their last regular season NHL game before or during the 2009‑10 season.


Number of Seasons during an NHL Player Career

Chris Chelios and Gordie Howe share the record for the most NHL seasons with 26 season appearences. What's perhaps even more impressive is that during his career Chris Chelios only missed the playoffs twice giving him 24 playoff appearences that led to three Stanley Cup wins - one with the Montreal Canadiens and two with Detroit Red Wings.

All Players Forwards Defensemen Goalies

Regular Season Playoffs

Over 20 percent of retired players appeared during one season only, and over 40 percent never made the playoffs. Playoff appearences are even more rare for goaltenders, who have a less than a 50 percent chance of playing in the playoffs during their careers

On average, NHL players play between 5‑6 seasons in the league. Differences between forwards, defencemen and goalies are small - goaltenders have slightly shorter careers than forwards and defencemen. The table below pulls together summary statics across player positions.

All Players Forwards Defensemen Goalies

Statistic Regular Season Playoffs
Number of Players 5 636 5 636
Minimum Seasons 1 0
Maximum Seasons 26 (Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios) 24 (Chris Chelios)
Average Seasons 5.65 2.72
Median Seasons 4 1

Number of Games Played during an NHL Player Career

If we a look at the number of career games instead of season appearences, we get a more accurate view of the usual career span. Earlier, we saw that just over 20 percent of players appear during one season only. A look at the number of games played shows that it is usually a very short season that includes less than 10 games.

All Players Forwards Defensemen Goalies

Regular Season Playoffs

GP Interval: 1 (slow) 5 10 20 50 100

The playoff distributions above have an interesting anomaly, where the number of players that played 2 games during their careers is considerably higher than the number that played only one game. This spike at two games is explained by the playoff system during 1920s and 1930s, where the series winner was commonly decided by an aggregate result of two games. In other words, a typical playoff series in those days consisted of only two games.

All Players Forwards Defensemen Goalies

Statistic Regular Season Playoffs
Number of Players 5 636 5 636
Minimum Games Played 1 0
Maximum Games Played 1 767 (Gordie Howe) 266 (Chris Chelios)
Average Games Played 248.02 20.49
Median Games Played 92 3

Summary statistics show that forwards and defencemen have almost equal average career lengths - difference is less than 10 games. Goaltenders, on the other hand, have considerably shorter average careers, which is in contrast with the career length measured in number of seasons, where the differences were very small.