Size matters. Especially when it’s 15 feet.
If an Olympic hockey coach coming from North America tried to imitate Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” and took a tape measure to the rinks in South Korea, it wouldn’t add up. International-sized ice is 15 feet wider than rinks used in the NHL, American Hockey League and NCAA —100 feet compared to 85 — and that’s more than enough to change everything.
“It’s totally different: two different sports,” said Henrik Sedin, who won the 2006 Olympic gold medal with Sweden on the larger ice. “You can have players that are good in the NHL but they can’t play on the bigger ice, and then you have guys the other way around where they really succeed on the big ice but when they come over here, they can’t play. It’s a different sport.”
Big ice makes a big difference where goals are at a premium and five-man defensive units can make the outer edges of the rink feel like a distant planet. Going to the 200-by-100 international ice is a (far-fetched) idea some have suggested might increase scoring in the NHL, but Slovak Olympic coach Craig Ramsay recalls playing for the Buffalo Sabres against the New York Rangers on the big sheet in Lake Placid, New York, and the quality of play and offense did not match everyone’s expectations.
“It was a hard game because people would be more than willing to beat you (wide) but now they’re 50 feet from the net instead of 40 and there’s a big difference,” Ramsay said. “The (defensemen) are smart and can push you a little bit wider (and) your angles are not nearly as good and the goaltender now can cut down that angle and it’s not as easy to score as people think.”
Canada scored just six goals in its three medal-round games in winning gold in Sochi in 2014, one of four Olympics featuring NHL players on international ice. Canada also won in 2002 on big ice and in 2010 when the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed for NHL-sized rinks to use the ones already in place in Vancouver.
In Sochi, Canada coach Mike Babcock employed Ralph Krueger as his big-ice consultant, and it paid off with North American NHL players tailoring their game to the style of play.
“You kind of just have to shrink the ice down a little bit,” said Jamie Benn, who won gold with Canada in Sochi. “We were changing little things on the ice to try and get an advantage with the big ice. You definitely have more time and more space, but in the end it’ll always come back to the middle of the ice.”
The fear for NHL players from the U.S. and Canada has always been getting caught on the outside on the big ice. That should be less of a concern this time around with rosters largely made up of players currently skating on international-size ice in Europe. The U.S. has 15 players and Canada has 20 who are based in European professional leagues, which was very much by design.
“That is an advantage from a standpoint that they know the angles,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said. “The big sheet, there are different styles that we’re going to play against so internationally you’re going to see a lot of teams that sit back in a 1-4 to clog the neutral zone. Lots of countries use that style of play. We’re going to have to, obviously, prepare our guys to be ready for seeing things differently than you see in North America.”
Several European-born NHL players said there is less hitting, more trapping and the overall pace is slower on the bigger ice.
European teams have the advantage of players who learned to play on the big ice, even though many excelled in the NHL. Someone like 17-year-old Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin could be a perfect fit for this style of play, along with Russian playmakers Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk who can take advantage of the extra room.
“It’s a lot more of a puck-possession game, definitely, when you play on the bigger ice,” Canada assistant general manager and gold-medal-winning goalie Martin Brodeur said. “I think the fact that you’re going to play against European guys that are used to playing on that ice surface, it was the big difference. I think now having most of our players playing in Europe, I don’t think it’s going to be that big of adjustment for these guys to play in these games.”