ARLINGTON, VA – Unlike the Vancouver Olympics, the hockey tournament in Sochi will be played on an Olympic-sized international sheet of ice – 200 feet by 100 feet, rather than the 200 feet by 85 feet of an NHL-sized rink.
Vancouver was the anomaly; Winter Olympic hockey has been played on this surface every other Olympiad. Yet the change back to that surface in Sochi has become, perhaps, the most overhyped aspect of the pre-Olympics coverage.
“These guys have all played international, OK? It’s pretty simple: The rink’s 15 feet wider. If you think about it, you can’t chase the puck in any of the zone like you do in our rinks. It’s elementary,” said Brian Burke, GM of the 2010 USA Hockey team and part of the brain-trust for 2014.
“I don’t think it’s that big a deal. That being said, the underlying skating ability is something every player has to have. Maybe not the fastest guy to win a race, but if you can’t skate on that sheet, you’re in trouble."
The larger ice surface will be a factor in selecting the team, for sure. Some preference might be given to players that have experience on Olympic ice.
“I’ve played a lot on international rinks, and I’m comfortable. I can translate pretty well to that ice surface,” said forward Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens, in the running for a spot on the roster.
Are there adjustments to be made? Zach Parise said for forwards, there are.
“There are certain things you have to be smarter about. You have to stay compact in the D-zone. You can’t along the wall, because that just opens things up. As a winger, you stay in line with the dots and playing off the circles. You can’t get caught chasing outside of those dots. And they’re used to that, and we’re not. We thing we can chase on the wall like we do in the NHL,” he said.
There are adjustments to be made for goalies too.
“Your angles obviously change, and you’re going to see different kinds of opportunities,” said Ryan Miller, who excelled on the NHL-sized ice in Vancouver.
Miller said he requested film from USA Hockey to get a better sense of shooters’ tendencies on the larger ice, including where scoring opportunities originate and where shooters typically release the puck.
He also said goalies have to be wary of being disoriented on a larger ice surface.
“The boards are further to your left and your right, but the paint’s the same. 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 you’re probably giving up the whole center of the net,” said Miller.
So adjustments will be made by the players on the ice and by the managers that will put the team together.
Burke said the ice size is a factor, but not an overwhelming one – and one every team faces.
“It’s going to be a different group than we had in Vancouver, with an emphasis on foot speed. But all North American players have to adjust. And a lot of the European players who have played here for 10-15 years have to adjust, too,” he said.
“It may not be a factor in how we pick the teams, as much as people are saying, but I think you ignore it at your peril.”