(Ice) size is overrated

COLUMN: Big ice, small ice -- good players simply don’t care

Ottawa Ontario Canada

The '09 World Juniors are on the smaller North American rink. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Phil MacCallum

OTTAWA – The seemingly inevitable issue has been raised here at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship; who benefits from the narrow, NHL-sized rinks? The logical and highly predictable answer is Canada and the USA. The truth is, rink size is irrelevant as to who wins.

For a hockey fan, being in Canada at the time of year when the World Juniors and the NHL season intertwine is the best of times. The jet-lagged European visitor wakes up early, switches on The Sports Network (TSN) and gets all of last night’s NHL highlights, plus TSN’s impressive coverage of the ongoing IIHF event in the nation’s capital.

On Sunday morning I woke up to a discussion where my two good friends, Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire, agreed that the NHL-sized rink at Scotiabank Place (the home arena of the Ottawa Senators) works to the home team’s advantage.

The reasoning sounds logical. Canadian (and American) teams feel most at home on North American rinks, which are four metres narrower (60 x 26), while the European entries prefer to execute their game plans on the (for them) familiar 60 x 30 surfaces.

Unfortunately, the TSN panel didn’t provide any evidence or historical data that would back up that analysis. The reason for that is simple: there is none.

The whole mantra about “Canadians-have-an-advantage-on-small-rinks-and-Europeans-are-better-on-big-rinks” does not reflect reality. On the contrary, one could argue that Canadian teams very often play their best hockey on large IIHF-sized rinks in Europe, while the traditionally skillful Russian (and previously Soviet) teams have scored some of their most splendid victories in Canadian rinks.

Modern hockey history (from 1972) shows that the deciding factor behind virtually all wins is what it should be: the players’ individual skill and the teams’ overall quality.

Examples that support this theory are numerous.

You can go right back to the historic 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union. The Soviets, who had virtually no experience of playing on NHL rinks, won two and tied one out of the four games in Canada, while Team Canada won three times on the larger ice at Luzhniki Arena in Moscow, even though this was the first time most of the Canadians had ever seen a big rink.

Two of the USSR’s most memorable wins were accomplished on small rinks: the 8-1 victory over the host country in the 1981 Canada Cup final in Montreal and the 6-0 thrashing of the NHL All Stars at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 1979.

Fast forward to modern times. Canada has been international hockey’s most consistent performer in the last six-year period, with all its IIHF wins coming on international sized rinks. The 2002 Olympic gold medal was won in Salt Lake City, USA, but the rink was enlarged to meet IIHF standards. The 2003, 2004 and 2007 men’s World titles were won on big ice sheets in Helsinki, Prague and Moscow.

Conversely, Canada was not able to capitalize on the “advantage” of hosting the 2008 World Championship in Quebec City’s ancient and small Le Colisée. The 72nd World Championship--the first ever in Canada --was won by Russia, with all its players having learned their hockey fundamentals on big-ice rinks.

Furthermore, the Russian roster had 14 players who were not NHLers and who skated on the big rinks of the Russian league on a regular basis. Out of those 14 players, 10 (half the team) appeared in the gold medal game against Canada, which had a team comprised exclusively of NHLers.

On the other hand again, the biggest defeat that the Soviet Union’s “Big Red Machine” ever suffered was at the 1980 Olympics, on the international-sized rink in Lake Placid.

All of the above is also reflected in the history of the IIHF World Junior Championship. Eight out of Canada’s 14 World Junior gold medals have been won on Europe’s big rinks. And some of the most memorable Russian and Soviet U20 wins took place in Canada; Montreal 1978, Hamilton 1986, Winnipeg 1999, and Halifax 2003.

We can also dismiss the general view, mostly nurtured in Europe, that attractive hockey can't be played on a small rink. One of the best games ever, the 1975 New Year's Eve classic between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow, was played on the Montreal Forum's small ice. And if you are tired of historical references, just go back to the May 18, 2008 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 announced that the tournament in Vancouver would be played on an NHL-sized rink (in order to save money that would have to be spent on the enlarging of the arenas), there was a minor outcry from certain hockey people who somehow came to the following conclusions:

1) We can forget about matching the entertainment level we saw in Salt Lake City 2002 and in Turin 2006.

2) The decision also provides Canada and the United States with an immediate advantage as they are the ones most used to small rinks.

Those conclusions are incorrect. If the best teams play up to their capabilities in 2010, we may very well see the best hockey tournament ever. And the only advantage Canada and the United States may have will depend on whether they bring sufficiently skillful teams who perform up to par.

The same goes for the 2009 IIHF World Juniors. It’s the only thing that matters.




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