ZURICH – Few things in hockey generate so much mythology as the eternal discussion about the differences between NHL-sized rinks and European rinks. The 2008 IIHF World Championship showed once again that size doesn’t matter. The best team wins, regardless of big rink or small rink.
Much ado was made prior to the recently concluded World Championship in Quebec City and Halifax. Not only was it the first time that the IIHF’s premier event was held in Canada, but it was also the first time in the modern era that the Worlds were played on an NHL-sized rink, 60 x 26 meters as opposed to 60 x 30, the standard international size.
Most pundits – media, coaches and various hockey connoisseurs – supported the standard cliché that the small ice surfaces in Halifax and Quebec City would favour the North American teams and possibly other nations whose rosters were stocked with NHLers.
This is an archaic theory that started to circulate prior to the historic 1972 Summit Series, the first-ever clash between the Soviet Union “amateurs” and Canada’s best NHLers. Although there is no empiric evidence that supports this presumption, it has nevertheless become an “indisputable truth” and something that most hockey observers routinely repeat.
Ironically, the ’72 Series was the first event to refute this notion. The Soviets won twice and tied another of the four games in Canada on smaller ice, while Canada won three times on the larger ice of Luzhniki arena in Moscow. Go figure.
Some 36 years later, Canada didn’t win the small-rink World Championship in 2008, and neither did the United States. The 72nd World Championship was won by Russia, with all of its players having learned their hockey fundamentals on big-ice rinks.
Furthermore, the Russian roster had 14 players who were not NHLers and who played on the big rinks of the Russian league on a regular basis. Out of the 14 players, ten skaters (half the team) appeared in the gold medal game against Canada, a squad where all 20 skaters were NHLers born and bred, as it were, on small rinks.
Did anyone see the superb Alexei Morozov (Ak Bars Kazan) suffer from claustrophobia on the small ice surface in Le Colisée Pepsi? Did it look like the wonderfully fluent skater Maxim Sushinsky (SKA St. Petersburg) was missing the two metres on each side of the rink? How much in dire straits was the prolific scorer Danis Zaripov (Ak Bars Kazan) or the excellent utility player Alexei Tereshchenko (Salavat Yulayev)?
They couldn’t have cared less about rink size. If you are good, you can play anywhere. Give them a frozen bathtub and they’ll excel.
It's hard to blame those who repeat the big-small mantra at every international event because superficially it makes sense. Europeans are, after all, used to the big rinks, while North Americans start their careers on small rinks.
Historically (including the above mentioned 1972 Series), the Soviets have won some of their greatest games on small rinks – 8-1 against Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup final in Montreal and 6-0 against the NHL All-Stars in 1979 in New York. Russian/Soviet junior teams have won four World U20 titles on small rinks, while Canada's junior teams have won eight gold medals on big rinks in Europe.
Conversely, the biggest defeat that the Soviet Union “Big Red Machine” suffered was on the international sized rink in Lake Placid, at the 1980 Olympics. Canada has the best record of all men’s national teams during the last six-year period, having won one Olympic gold medal and three World titles on big ice.
We can also dismiss the general view nurtured in Europe that attractive hockey can't be played on a small rink. One of the best games ever played, the 1975 New Year's Eve classic between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow, was played on Montreal Forum's small ice. And if you are tired of historical references, you can just go back to the May 18th gold medal game in Quebec City. When was the last time hockey fans were treated to a better and more spectacular show of speed, skill, and excitement?
One of the underlying myths in this never-ending discussion is that skilled players (as opposed to the grinders and role players) can excel better on a large ice surface. This is simply not true. A skilled player (and that goes for any team sport) has the ability to maneuver in minimal space. It is the less-skilled performer who needs more room for his awkward movements.
The shattering of the big rink vs. small rink myth is also very good news leading up to the 2010 Olympics. When the IIHF last year announced that the tournament in Vancouver would be played on an NHL-sized rink (in order to save money to convert the arenas) there was a minor outcry from hockey people who somehow came to the following conclusions:
- We can forget the entertainment level we saw in Salt Lake City 2002 and in Turin 2006.
- It provides Canada and also the United States with an immediate advantage as they are the ones most used to small rinks.
Neither of the theories is correct. If the best teams play like they should in two years time, we may very well see the best hockey tournament ever. And the only advantage Canada and the United States may have will come from whether they have the best teams and perform accordingly.
Nothing else matters.