The picture above is taken in Marriuci Arena in Minneapolis, home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team. Between the amazing crowds, live band and great teams they consistently ice it’s damn near my favourite arena on earth. The only real downfall is that the ice sheet itself was roughed in to be just smaller than the actual state of Minnesota, which encompasses over 10,000 lakes, as you may have heard.
That makes for a unique brand of hockey, as we’ve seen from past Olympic hockey tournaments.
My college hockey was played in the WCHA, a division packed with Olympic-sized sheets like Marriuci. Of the 10 teams in that conference at the time, our home rink (Sullivan Arena) was Olympic, as was Wisconsin’s (Kohl Center), St. Cloud’s (National Hockey Center), Colorado College’s (World Arena), and Minnesota State @ Mankato’s (Verizon Wireless Center). That left North Dakota (Ralph Engelstad Arena), Denver (Magness Arena), Michigan Tech (MacInnes Student Arena) and Minnesota-Duluth (The DECC) as the only NHL-sized rinks.
A few of those Olympic sheets managed to combine the massive ice with square-ish corners, so again: it felt like you were chasing the puck around an entire state. And when the ice wasn’t hard and fast (the ice in Anchorage was like skating on pure diamond, so that was rare for our team), or you were playing at altitude (Colorado), it was damn near impossible to play an up-tempo hockey game.
There was an undeniable difference in the type of hockey game that was played when we were on the big ice versus the NHL-sized rinks, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a country to select their Olympic roster with this in mind. Plenty of people are okay with the concept of “take the best NHL all-star team you can” – they wouldn’t be terrible, but I think you can do better.
So what’s different on the big ice:
First off, the hockey is a lot more possession-based.
There’s a huge misconception that because there’s more ice, you need faster players. I think you need better decision-makers with the puck. On the small sheet, you need players with great instincts who get the puck to the right areas without much deliberation. On Olympic ice, it can be alarming when you get the puck and realize you have a full second or two to figure out just what you want to do. “Paralysis by analysis” can be a thing, so composed, smart players will take you further than spazzes. I like Taylor Hall a lot as a hockey player. Like, a ton. …Not sure he’d be right for an Olympic team.
It’s tougher to create, save for those times you’re playing like, Luxembourg or some other nation that hasn’t exactly made hockey a priority.
You can have the puck forever, but it seems to get to the trouble areas more infrequently because defenders play more positional hockey.
Because running at a player and missing on wider ice rarely means you run into the boards, kick off and reverse direction, a bad step-up can leave your team short-handed for a looong time. That’s kind of how it is with all open-ice misses.
That means defensemen use the dots as guidelines, and very, very rarely chase outside those, because what’s a guy going to do from out there? It’s like a seven-foot center in basketball standing unguarded with the ball beyond the three-point arc. “Go ahead and shoot it buddy, we’ll take our chances.”
And, the burden of goals is on the offense in hockey. You accomplish nothing by just “having it.” And, creating them is harder when you have those defenders sagging and waiting for you to come to them. This is why you can actually pick defenseman that aren’t the most fleet of foot, but who are great at other thing like positional play, ala Nick Lidstrom towards the end of his career. (So y’know, if you have any Nick Lidstroms lying around, be sure to include them on your Olympic roster.)
Since there’s more instances of prolonged possession, you have to be careful to avoid a lot of the ping-pong style play favored by NHL hockey teams. “Get it to the net,” “shoot from everywhere,” etc, etc. 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.
Have you ever watched one of those “Legends of Hockey” games, where retired 50-somethings like my Dad play against a bunch of 20/30-something firemen or policemen? They bring the puck up on the rush against the youngsters, see nothing, and regroup like a soccer team. They win 95% of their games doing this, because they don’t want to have to chase and get it back, and they’re far more poised and smart with the pill.
In the Olympics, you’re likely playing very talented hockey players that have a ton of composure and will be playing a game similar to the oldtimers, especially on breakouts. Forechecking is next to pointless if you’re not within a stick’s-length, because they’re going D-to-D and out the other side, and swinging it back in a regroup if there’s nothing there. Go ahead, finish your check.
…Nice, now you’re out of position.
In tournaments without a “best of blank” format, no team is unbeatable. You still require luck. But teams that prioritize “big ice players” over big names should still have plenty of success.