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Sochi 2014: Big ice could be a big deal for Team Canada
After winning gold on NHL-size ice in 2010, Team Canada will be at a natural disadvantage on the international-size rinks in Sochi.
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The 2006 Turin Olympics, featured, featured an all-European podium. The 2010 Games in Vancouver, on NHL-size ice, featured an all-North American gold-medal final. Coincidence?
The Canadian Press,
Published on Thu Jan 16 2014
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swiss replica watches aaa+ Fifteen feet can make all the difference in Olympic hockey, possibly between a gold medal and nothing.
top brand watches After a turn on NHL rinks in Vancouver, the tournament returns to international-sized ice in Sochi next month. The playing surface is still 200 feet long, but instead of being 85 feet wide, it’s 100.
best swiss replica watches That may not sound like much, but the big ice is a big deal. It affected how Canada, the United States and other countries constructed their rosters and will undoubtedly play a role because of how much different the game is with the blessings and curses of more room to work with.
swiss replica watches aaa+ “It’s a different set of dynamics going onto the bigger ice,” Peter Chiarelli of Canada’s management team said. “This is going to be a lot about speed and character and quickness of thinking, too. You’ve got the bigger surface, and you can get lost on that surface quickly if you don’t think quickly and accurately.”
swiss replica watches aaa+ Players have to think quickly even if they might have an extra second or two compared to life in the NHL. The fundamentals of shooting the puck and scoring goals are the same, but players, coaches and general managers with international experience know this is a slightly altered version of hockey than the one played in North America.
“You’ve got a couple more seconds to make decisions,” Swedish centre Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s going to be a challenge for all players to go over there. Everyone’s going to adjust.”
With 150 NHL players making up the vast majority of those competing, it’ll be a widespread adjustment.
“First couple games it’s going to be different for us,” Russian winger Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s not a question. Soon as the tournament (gets) going, it’s going to be much easier for us.”
But it figures to be easier on the Europeans, who grew up playing on larger ice, than on the North Americans.
At the 2006 Games in Turin, Sweden beat Finland in the gold-medal game, and the Czech Republic won bronze over Russia. Canada and the U.S. weren’t close to the podium.
International ice wasn’t the only reason for those disappointments, but the 2014 rosters have a noticeable resemblance to 2006, as GMs put an emphasis on constructing smooth-skating teams that should be better equipped this time.
“It’s a factor,” Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said. “If we’re on a smaller ice surface, we probably look at things a little bit differently. ... The game’s about skating and not so much about physical play.”
Skating acumen earned Jay Bouwmeester a spot on Canada’s blue-line, while Joe Thornton didn’t seem to be a fit up front. Max Pacioretty and Blake Wheeler made the U.S. team at forward over Bobby Ryan, whose specialties lie elsewhere.
“Certainly we wanted mobility, we wanted some skaters, we wanted a skating dimension,” Team Canada’s Ken Holland said. “If you weren’t quite the skater, we wanted high hockey IQ.”
All Yzerman, U.S. GM David Poile and their staffs can hope is that they’ve prepared for the big ice without overthinking it. When the tournament begins Feb. 12, it’ll be up to the players to figure it out.
That could be a gradual process.
“Realistically, you adjust as the team adjusts, as the team gets comfortable,” former Canadian defenceman Chris Pronger said in a phone interview. “There’ll be guys that get it a little bit later, get it a little bit earlier, but once, to a man, everybody somewhat grasps the concept, then it starts to take hold and you’re able to really function as a unit.”
Pronger, along with Martin Brodeur, is one of just two Canadians to play in all four Olympics with NHL participation: Nagano in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002, Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010. He noticed it took longer for Canada to jell than any other country, even the U.S., which he attributed to a lack of familiarity.
“When you look at the Canadian team, a lot of times these guys have never, ever played together — ever — in their life,” Pronger said. “That’s a big advantage with some of these other teams that go and play on a new ice surface, play in a new-sized rink. That’s a huge advantage for them.”
Last season’s lockout provided a small taste for some NHL players who went abroad. Ovechkin, who played for Dynamo in the Kontinental Hockey League, expects that to help ease his adjustment. He wasn’t comfortable in his first couple of games on the big ice but felt “normal” once he got accustomed to it again.
The variety of opinions on how the international-sized ice most influences the game wouldn’t fit into a 200-by-100-foot rink. U.S. coach Dan Bylsma and his staff have spent countless hours watching international hockey to prepare for a group that includes Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“It’s different defensive systems, different aspects of the way they play, and we’ve looked at that,” Bylsma said.
“Neutral zone, transitioning from defence to offence in that area is different than the North American game. And not to be overlooked: The offensive zone is different and the defensive zone is different. The size of the rink outside of the circles is where the difference is at. It makes a big difference for the special teams, as well.”
So it’s certainly not a message to players to just keep skating, because it’s complex. Holland pointed out that “if you get lured out of position a little bit, there’s so far back to recovery.”
Pronger knows that first-hand.
“The corners obviously are a lot deeper,” he said. “Playing defence, you have to contain more so than just running and finishing and pinning a guy. Once you’re in there you can do that, but you’ve got to be on your toes and more in contain mode.”
Russian forward Nikolai Kulemin, of the Maple Leafs, figures one of the biggest areas of concern is on the penalty kill.
“It’s a lot of room on the power play. It’s hard to play active on penalty killing,” Kulemin said. “It’s hard to pressure everywhere around the ice.”
At five-on-five, players said the extra room is most evident outside the faceoff circles. Pronger called it a challenge to try to use that space rather than play dot to dot, something Canadian forward Matt Duchene figured out from three world championships.
“I’ve played a lot on the international ice and the biggest thing is trying to get inside the dots,” Duchene said. “There’s so much room outside of it, you can feel like you’re doing something out there but you’re really not close to the net and you’re not a threat. Just getting inside and playing fast. I think on the big ice, it actually slows the game down and a lot of countries like to slow it down.”
Where Canada and the U.S. face uncertainty, though, is not so much in the pace of the game, but the approach of their European opponents. Canada has had Ralph Krueger, who lives in Switzerland, watching that style of hockey, which played a role in defeats in 1998 and 2006.
Sidney Crosby, whose legendary gold-medal-winning overtime goal came on NHL ice at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, isn’t worried about the differences.
“You always make little tweaks here or there, but I don’t think it’s going to be the factor that changes or influences the way we play,” Crosby said. “It’s going to be something that you have to be aware of, but I think that we still want to play the exact same way as we would on regular-sized ice. All those things, the foundation of your game, can’t really change.”
But there is expected to be something of a steep learning curve. And as much as the onus is on individual players, part of the process is developing or at least understanding the team mentality Europeans have showcased in previous Olympics.
“If you’ve watched European teams play on the bigger ice surface, they’re a five-man unit right in that section, that quadrant of the ice, and they’re moving that five-man unit all over the ice as it goes,” Pronger said. “They’ll let you work it around the perimeter, but once they get a beat on something, then every man’s in there.”
It also presents a different dynamic for goaltenders, something potential Canadian starter Carey Price remembers from the world juniors.
“There are slight adjustments,” Price said. “Obviously with it being a little bit wider the angles are just slightly different, but the way you play it, or the way I play it, is I just start at the middle of my net and go out from there.”
“Start from scratch and go from there” will be Team Canada’s approach upon landing in Sochi. Coach Mike Babcock expects his group to be a “work in progress” early on, but it’s also his hope that natural talent will take over, including when it comes to the ice surface.
“Obviously we have a few guys that aren’t elite skaters, but we brought enough that you shouldn’t be able to notice that,” Babcock said. “(We have) speed, (an) unbelievable back end that can transport the puck and get it going in a hurry. Lots of goals up front, people with the ability to play both ways. Did I mention speed? Speed.”
Beyond the need for speed, Canada’s Doug Armstrong believes “hockey sense and skating have to be at the forefront.” He and his colleagues hope there’s enough of that to offset the natural edge the Swedes, Finns, Russians, Czechs and Slovaks have on ice that is shaped more like home.
“We had hoped that going into Vancouver that we had a little bit of an advantage (because) it was on a North American-sized ice, and probably going over to Sochi there’s a little bit of an advantage for the European teams,” Holland said.
“But at the end of the day, these might be little advantages or little disadvantages and we’re going over there to win gold. We think that we’ve got a mobile team. We think we’ve got a 25-man team that is going to bring home gold.”
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