Beijing, though, was played on the smaller ‘North American’ surface. And, for some, that was the explanation for the tactical changes that produced lower scoring hockey and robbed some teams of their cutting edge.
Alexei Zhamnov, head coach of Team ROC, spoke about the differences about the gold-medal game. His team lost 1-2 to Finland in another hard-fought battle. With space on the ice at a premium, the defending champion could not get its offence moving; the Finns applied a familiar defensive press and allowed just three shots on their net in the third period to close out a historic victory.
Back home, Zhamnov’s team was criticised for its lack of potency. Aside from a crazy 6-5 overtime goal fest against Czechia, team ROC was miserly in its scoring – 1-0 against Switzerland, 2-0 and 3-1 against Denmark, 1-1 before a shoot-out in the semi-final against Sweden and then that 1-2 reverse at the hands of the Finns. Four years earlier, Oleg Znarok’s Team OAR had 27 goals in six games as it won gold in PyeongChang.
“Hockey is changing a bit,” said Zhamnov. “This is the first [Olympic] tournament played on Canadian[-sized] rinks and that slightly alters the specifics of the game. Now there are more battles for possession of the puck, it’s tight all over the ice. The Finns have done a good job of doing that in the past few years.
“If you compare our team with Finland, it’s fair to say that we are rebuilding to take account of this kind of hockey. We’re starting to understand that we can’t results if we don’t win those battles and claim ‘neutral’ pucks.
“Of course, a big factor is game management, carrying out your tasks throughout the whole game.”
Clash of cultures
It’s an issue that goes deep into the country’s hockey culture. The Canadian game evolved from roots with more men on the ice and a ban on forward passing. Space was at a premium and moving with the puck was crucial. When the Soviets decided to take up ‘Canadian hockey’ after World War II, the sporting authorities looked to bandy players – a game similar to field hockey, but played on a soccer-sized ice pad – to swap ball for puck. Bandy rewards a pass-and-move gameplan, something that developed into the ‘tic-tac-toe’ hockey that propelled the Soviets to the global summit.
So, do Russian players simply lack the skill set to cope on smaller, NHL-sized rinks. Historically, it would be a difficult case to argue, given the number of players who have achieved big things across the Atlantic.
But the class of 2022, all of whom are based at home, found it hard to adapt. Barely six weeks ago at the Channel 1 Cup in Moscow, the team providing greater offensive power, albeit in a far lower profile event. Critics back home howled about ‘primitive’ hockey; far from purring like a ZiL limousine, the Red Machine was spluttering like a broken-down Lada.
Zhamnov acknowledged the problem. “In Beijing, there wasn’t much time to develop attacks,” he said. “I didn’t see any team thundering forward here. We tried to adjust to the hockey that was played here, a simpler, workmanlike game.
“Of course, we wanted more goals, but things turned out like they did.”
The Russian coach also felt that the smaller ice reduced the gap in competitiveness between the teams.
“Our players have the skills, but here there’s a different density to the game, more battles,” Zhamnov added. “These are the details that win games. Look how Denmark competed with everyone as an equal here, team Slovakia too – when did we see that before?”
The poor performance from North American teams, who were out of the medals for the first time since 2006, might be explained by the predominately European-based player pool that Canada and the USA called upon in the absence of their NHL stars.
However, there maybe something anomalous about Zhamnov’s concerns, given the KHL – the cross-border Russian league from which he drew his entire team (and where 14 of the Finns involved in Sunday’s final also play). Recent seasons have seen a move away from the traditional larger ice.
In the 2019/20 season, six clubs were playing on ‘Canadian’ 60x26m rinks. Four of them were in arenas not more than six years old, with Sochi’s Olympic arena being resized. A further 11 clubs used the so-called ‘Finnish’ compromise at 60x28m (ironically, Jokerit Helsinki is not one of them). A further seven teams stuck with the traditional European dimensions. The league has plans to standardize the sizes of its playing areas, and that’s likely to mean smaller ice across the board.
Is there a risk that the game might suffer as a spectacle? Ultimately, Zhamnov thinks not.
“Hockey is levelling up,” he said “There are no walkovers anymore. The game is changing, it’s getting faster and more aggressive. Given time, it will surely get more entertaining.”