One of the prevailing opinions of the Olympic tournament in Sochi was that, in terms of the quality of hockey and the level of competition, it was not as intense, entertaining or at as high a caliber as it was in Vancouver four years earlier. In reality, it wasn’t even close.
There were a number of reasons for that. One of them, that the atmosphere in Sochi simply couldn’t live up to Vancouver, was indeed valid. (As much as the PA announcer at the Bolshoy Ice Palace tried. One of his classics was, “Who will win? We will know in the nearest of futures.”) The abject failure of the Russians to get beyond their team dissension and play with any sort of consistency was indeed a factor. And, let’s face it, a Canada-Sweden gold medal game doesn’t exactly engender the same kind of intensity that any permutation of Canada, USA and Russia would.
But, by far, the biggest culprit in dragging the tournament down was the international-sized ice surface. After watching Sochi 2014, it would be impossible for anyone to continue to perpetuate the myth that a larger ice surface would create more offense. The Canadian team, which allowed three goals in the tournament and outchanced its opponents badly, proved beyond any doubt that the extra 3,000 square feet afforded by the big ice is largely wasted space.
“People make a big deal of the big ice,” said Canadian defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “They think it’s going to be a more offensive game and it’s kind of the opposite because all the extra room is on the outside of the rink.”
Duncan Keith remarked after Canada won the gold medal that much of the reason for its defensive success was that any time they were in trouble, they were able to put the puck into an area of the ice where it was a safe distance from the net. And only when Canada learned to adapt by basically playing within the faceoff dots did it really begin to excel in the tournament. In fact, at one point in the tournament, Corey Perry talked about “shrinking the ice…more like an NHL-size rink.”
This is a concept that time and again has failed to register with those who think there is not enough room out on the ice surface. But has it ever occurred to those who advocate for big ice that perhaps offense comes because of the smaller area in which to work? Hockey is indeed a game of skating and skill and panache, but at its core, it is a game that is played in confined spaces. That’s why puck battles in the NHL are so important. Teams that can use their size to win them are often the ones that are most successful. Watch any successful team in the Western Conference – the three California teams, three of the biggest teams in the league, come to mind – and you’ll see that having less space in which to work doesn’t prevent them from being successful.
Individual players such as Daniel Briere have made very lucrative careers with their ability to accomplish great things in confined spaces. And even in Sochi, if you look at most plays around the net, they looked like rush hour in Tokyo, meaning all that extra ice doesn’t help if everyone simply collapses around the net.
And really, if more space equated to more offense, why does soccer have the biggest playing surface and the biggest scoring areas in sports and sometimes struggles to produce one or two goals a game at the highest level?
And for those of you who think this observation is based on the anecdotal evidence of one Olympic tournament, think again. Because if the history of participation of the best players in the world is any indication, the numbers irrefutably back the theory up.
Sochi represented the fifth Olympic Games in which NHLers have participated. Four of those tournaments have been played on international ice and only one of them – Vancouver in 2010 – was played on the 200-by-85-foot surface. If you take the goals per game in games that involved traditional hockey powers only, you’ll notice an interesting trend. (For the sake of this study, only games involving Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were used and goals awarded for winning a shootout were not included.)
In 1988 in Nagano, there were 12 games involving the world’s hockey powers that produced 56 goals for an average of 4.67 per game. In 2002 in Salt Lake, there were 10 games that yielded 46 goals for an average of 4.6 per game. In 2006 in Turin, the 16 games among the seven countries produced 79 goals for a per-game average of 4.94. And the Sochi Games had 12 games and just 52 goals, for just 4.33 goals per game, the lowest the best-on-best format has ever produced.
But in Vancouver, there were 12 games involving those teams that produced 67 goals, or an average of 5.58 per game, meaning Vancouver produced more than 1 ½ goals per game among the hockey powers than Sochi did and roughly between a half and one goal per game more than any of the others.
Would making the ice surface bigger make more room, thus resulting in fewer injuries such as concussions? Undoubtedly it would. But in terms of creating scoring chances, excitement and the opportunity to display skill, it would fail on all counts.