It’s hard to have a conversation about Olympic hockey without the issue rink size coming into play.
Will the Europeans have an advantage over the North Americans when the men’s hockey tournament begins in Sochi?
First, let’s go over the dimensions.
Most NHL rinks are 200 feet long and 85 feet wide with 11 feet between the end boards and the goal line.
The Olympic-sized rinks in Sochi are 210 feet long and 98 feet wide with the goal lines 13 feet from the end boards.
That’s 23 more feet of ice and two more feet of real estate behind the goal line.
“All teams are dealing with it,” said Team USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette. “Even the European players, most of them are playing on the smaller ice surfaces here. Some of our guys, Zach Parise is one, played in so many big games, championship games at a younger age, on a bigger ice surface and experienced success.”
Perhaps, but it is worth noting that since the NHL allowed its players to participate in the Olympics in 1998, when the Games were played on larger ice surfaces [1998 Nagano and 2006 Turin], Canada and the U.S. failed to medal.
And in the two years the Olympics were played in North America [2002 Salt Lake City and 2010Vancouver] Canada won gold and the U.S. won silver each time.
“Vancouver had smaller ice and as a result you saw two North American teams in the final playing for gold,” Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer said. “It might be a different story this time around because a lot of European players grew up playing on bigger ice. The North American teams who play more of a dump and chase are going to need to find a way to dump the puck where they can get it back.”
The wider ice presents different challenges for different players.
Team USA goaltender Ryan Miller said shooters’ angles change on a wider rink.
“The boards are further to your left or your right, but the paint [for the faceoff dots] is in the same spot,” Miller said. “You’re going to feel like you’re drifting a bit. You’re going to feel like you’re giving up too much net to the short side.
“But if you [overcompensate] you’re probably giving up the whole center of the net. It’s an awareness thing.
“The tough part is we’re only going to have one practice day, maybe two, and then we’re right into it. It’ll be an adjustment.”
Team USA winger Dustin Brown has played in three World Championships and one Olympic Games. He said the wider ice surface makes it more difficult for physical players like him to deliver big hits along the boards.
“The ice is bigger and there’s more time for players with the puck and more distance to travel for the guys trying to make the hits,” Brown said. “That gets brought up a lot, but for me personally, I’ve had enough experience on the big ice that I understand what I need to do.
“For the North American players who like to be aggressive it’s about being a little more efficient.”
For defensemen, there are a number of adjustments that need to be made on the wider ice surface. Capitals rookie Connor Carrick recently went from playing for Hershey of the AHL to playing on the wider surface at the World Junior Championships in Sweden.
“The challenge is staying inside the [faceoff] dots,” Carrick said. “That extra couple feet gives the forwards a little more time and you might feel as a defenseman he has too much time, but really you’re in a good spot and you need to hold your ground.
“The other hard part is picking the puck up in the corner and trying to wheel behind the net because it’s a long way. In my opinion, you almost have to make a lot of really short passes and I think the way [U.S.coach] Dan Bylsma coaches with all those little chips will help them.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates said he’s anxious to see the way the game is played on the wider ice, saying the North Americans can still play a grinding game if they put the puck in the right places.
“You need to dump it correctly,” he said. “If you get all five guys in the zone and get everybody stopped, then the talent takes over. If you beat a guy out of the corner then it starts breaking down. It’ll be interesting to see. I’m anxious to see it, quite honestly.”