When the ice hockey tournament gets started at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the games will be played on a sheet of ice that is slightly larger than what exists at NHL rinks.
The differences between an NHL rink and Olympic rink are small, but they can be a factor. Both rinks are 200 feet in length, but the rink in Sochi will be 15 feet wider. Essentially, the faceoff circles are in the exact same place, but there's more room along the outside of each zone.
The neutral zone in Sochi is 58 feet, which is eight feet larger than what exists in the NHL. That results in each attacking zone being six feet smaller, although there is an additional foot of space behind the goal line on Olympic ice.
There have been mixed results in tournaments played on the larger ice since the NHL began to send its players in 1998. The first three tournaments were played on the bigger sheet, with the 2010 Games taking place on an NHL-sized sheet.
Here are the results of those tournaments, with countries listed in order of gold, silver and bronze.
- 1998 (Nagano, Japan): Czech Republic, Russia, Finland
- 2002 (Salt Lake City, Utah): Canada, United States, Russia
- 2006 (Turin, Italy): Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic
- 2010 (Vancouver, BC): Canada, United States, Finland
On North American soil, the Canadians and Americans have been the dominant countries. Outside North America, it's been the European countries sweeping the medals.
So who has the edge in Sochi this year? I talked to a handful of players and St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock about the larger-ice effect. The one common theme among everyone was time and space—there's more of it on Olympic-sized ice, and how each player adjusts to it will matter.
Here's what those players had to say about the larger ice in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Henrik Lundqvist, Goaltender, New York Rangers, Team Sweden
Lundqvist will be participating in his third Olympics and second on the larger sheet. He played his junior-level hockey in Sweden and has represented his country at international tournaments. He also spends his offseason training on the bigger ice when he returns home to Sweden.
The first couple practices, you try to get used to it. It’s like every summer, you skate back home and get used to the big ice, then you come back here, the first couple practices it feels very tight and narrow. But a couple days in, you don’t think about it.
You have to expect players to have more time. Here, if a guy gets a pass in the slot, usually there’s a guy there right away. The big ice, you have a little more room and a little more time. I think that’s the biggest difference.
Mats Zuccarello, Left Wing, New York Rangers, Team Norway
Before joining the Rangers, Zuccarello played overseas in the Swedish Elite League and won an MVP there in 2010. He also spent time in the KHL. He has represented his home country at a World Championship and World Junior Championships.
It’s a little bit different, but not that much. You take the U.S. and Canada, and it’s going to take them a couple games to really get into the structure. But I’m sure it’s not going to be a problem. Even Sweden and Russia, everyone plays over here so it’s not going to benefit anyone…except Norway. Everyone plays on the big ice except me.
I like the small ice. On the big ice, you can just defend. Here, you can shoot from anywhere and it’s a scoring chance. There, you can put five guys in there and nothing really happens.
Nicklas Backstrom, Center, Washington Capitals, Team Sweden
The Swede has plenty of big-ice experience. He's played in multiple international events for his home country as a junior player and for the men's national team. He also played 19 games in the KHL during last season's lockout.
It’s going to be a different game than what we’re used to here. Hopefully we can use it to our advantage. I think you have to skate more, but you have more time to make plays too. We all grew up playing the bigger ice, so hopefully we still know how to play.
Alex Ovechkin, Right Wing, Washington Capitals, Team Russia
The Russian superstar grew up on the big ice in his home country and has appeared in a slew of World Championships. During last year's lockout, he appeared in 31 games for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.
I’m sure after a couple days, it’s going to be for us tough because the size of the ice is different. But other than that, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Time and the shooting positions (are the biggest differences). Sometimes you get into the zone and you’re in a position to shoot but you’re too far from the net so you have to take a couple more steps.
Jay Bouwmeester, Defenseman, St. Louis Blues, Team Canada
This will be Bouwmeester's second Olympics on big ice. He was a member of the 2004 Canadian team that won gold at the World Championships held on big ice in the Czech Republic.
There’s a little bit of an adjustment. The thing you have to remember is all the extra space is on the outside. All the dots and everything else is the same dimensions so as a defenseman, you don’t want to get running around caught on the outside. There’s times when guys go to those quiet areas and you have to let them go. You can’t chase them. That’s when you get caught running out of position. Maybe you have to play a bit more of a patient game defensively.
All the extra space is in the corners, behind the net, on the outside of the rink. You still can’t stand in the middle of the ice. Nothing changes. When you’re playing, you have to remind yourself the boards are further from the net. You have to have more awareness, because you can get yourself drawn out to guys. They’ll try to bait you out there and that opens up the space in the middle.
It’s almost like killing penalties. There’s times to go and pressure and there’s times where you have to be patient and realize that the real dangerous areas are still the same. In front of the net, dots to the net, that sort of thing. But there’s good players who are going to use that to try to spread you out, get you running around and find that open space.
Ken Hitchcock, Head Coach, St. Louis Blues, Team Canada Associate Coach
Few coaches have as much international experience as Hitchcock. He was head coach of Team Canada for the 2008 World Championships and won a silver medal. He was an associate coach for Team Canada at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics. He was an assistant for Team Canada at the 2002 World Championships and the 1987 World Junior Championships.
It’s more comfortable for the Euros because they grew up on it. They understand how to play that game. But I coached in it in ’06 and the game’s changed. Some of the countries play like we do now. I think some of the countries that maybe have limited NHL players play the old way, which is basically five back. But I think a lot of the countries like Finland, the Slovaks, the Russians, they come at you. So I think it’s not going to be a game like we saw in ’06 where there was basically no forechecking throughout the tournament. I think you’re still going to see a lot of forechecking.
I know one thing—when you play on that big ice surface, your sense of timing of when to forecheck and when to pull back gets automatic quite a bit. And that’s probably the adjustment we have to make, knowing when to go and when to pull up. They’ve taken advantage of us being overly aggressive. Our natural instincts are to play on our toes and they have a balance in their game. I think that’s the balance that we have to learn quickly.
The difference between the big-ice game and the small-ice game is the small-ice game is played north and south and the big-ice game is played east and west. It’s always finding the weak side of the ice, the big-ice game. You’ve got to feel really comfortable finding the weak side of the ice. That’s where all the plays get made.
If you try to play north on the big ice, you’re going to run right into numbers all the time. You have to be really comfortable going east-west before you go north. That’s how they play. They play east-west to go north, whereas we play north to go north. So that’s the biggest adjustment. Chipping it on the boards and chasing it down doesn’t’ work in Europe. It doesn’t work on big ice. So we’ll have to make those adjustments right away in practice.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.