There is a simple answer to the question in the headline. Yes, European teams will have an advantage playing on the ice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
But because readers may not want to take my word for it, let us go into some detail.
The most obvious (and perhaps least consequential) of the various items working in favour of the European teams is fan support. Obviously, the Russians will get the most love, but any team from the far side of the Atlantic can expect to have the crowd on its side when facing off against a North American opponent.
Canada has been Russia’s most challenging rival over the last 40 years of hockey history and won’t ever be the underdog, while Team USA is guaranteed to attract enmity regardless of the sport being played.
There is also bound to be some adjustment to cultural factors, in particular the language barrier. This is going to presumably impact everybody but the Russians to some degree, but the players on Team Sweden, for instance, already had to adapt to a new culture and language when they came to North America.
For the American and Canadians teams, many players will have had limited experience of playing outside a familiar setting. Doubtless, the handlers for those teams and the Olympic setting will negate much of the difficulty, but it may still be a factor at times.
Of far more import than the off-ice considerations are the differences in the game on the ice.
To a large degree, hockey is still hockey, whether it is played in an NHL rink or on the Olympic ice surface. However, the extra space overseas creates important changes in how the game is played, and at the elite level where a small edge can matter a lot, that’s important.
The vast majority of players on European teams will have been raised on the big ice and will default back to that style of play quickly. Many of them (particularly on the Russian team) even play on the big ice currently. For Canadians and Americans, the adjustments aren’t likely to be nearly as natural.
The easiest way to explain the differences in the game is to look at stereotypically European traits that translate badly to the NHL. Think back to those negative stereotypes and imagine a player who is prone to playing an east-west rather than north-south game—someone who focuses too much on making a perfect play rather than just getting the puck to the net and who thrives more on the perimeter than in traffic.
He’s a bad fit for an NHL team, but he’s a fantastic player at the Olympics.
Let’s look at those generalizations individually. When the rink is 15 feet wider, there is not only a lot more space to play an east-west game, but somebody playing a hard-charging north-south contest is likely to miss options available on his wings.
Making the perfect play rather than taking the simple shot in the NHL is a big no-no, but in Europe it makes sense because teams trade possession less—to quote from Justin Bourne’s fantastic write-up at Backhand Shelf: “A shot from nowhere valuable is closer to a turnover than a scoring attempt, so you have to be cautious with the puck, because getting it back is hell.”
All that extra space means that the offense spends a lot of time on the perimeter; players still need to get into traffic eventually, but there is more time and space to set up in the offensive zone.
There’s a reason so many NHL players struggled overseas during labour disputes, and it wasn’t all cultural. The fate of Kazan Ak-Bars during the 2004-05 lockout tells much of the story.
That team hoped to make a big splash and signed North American stars Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Dany Heatley. Per HockeyDB.com, in 48 combined games the trio managed just 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points. This was at a time when every member of that trio would have at least one 90-point season at the NHL level in the next two years.
So as tempting as it is to look at Canada’s roster and say they’re unbeatable or be impressed by the collection of pros on Team USA, it is worth remembering that every other team at this tournament is playing a game that comes naturally to them. It is the game they grew up with.
The Americans and Canadians grew up with a different game, and their fates may be determined by how well they adjust to a different style of play in a short period of time. Because as Heatley showed in 2005, sometimes a 50-goal scorer in the NHL is a three-goal scorer in Russia.
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