Concussions have made headlines across the National Hockey League this season, sending one star after another to the injured list. Halfway around the world, Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League seems to have avoided the same problem.
Alex Kovalev spent 18 seasons in the NHL before joining the Atlant Moscow Oblast in the KHL this season. The former Montreal Canadien and Ottawa Senator told CBC’s The National that he believes there is less risk of injury playing in Russia.
"The ice surface is a lot bigger so there is more space and more room for players that can be hurt [to] get away and skate away from getting injured," the 38-year-old Kovalev said.
The KHL plays on international-sized ice rinks, which measure four metres wider than the North American rinks the NHL plays on. While both surfaces are the same length, international rinks also have larger neutral zones because the blue-lines are closer to the goal-line.
Kovalev’s training coach Barry Brennan agreed that the larger ice is a factor in reducing injury.
Brennan was the strength and conditioning coach with the Atlanta Thrashers before heading to Russia last off-season. He said the increasing speed and size of NHL players leads to more potentially dangerous hits on a smaller ice surface.
"I think that’s a big problem because today’s athletes, you know, compared to 25 years ago, they’re getting bigger, stronger, quicker," he said. "And now, these bigger, faster, stronger guys are flying around with less room to move, so the collisions have greater impact."
Altered style of play
In addition to providing more room to manoeuvre, the difference in ice size also changes the style of the game being played, according to Andre Benoit. Benoit is a former teammate of Kovalev’s with the Ottawa Senators who’s also playing his first season in the KHL with Moscow Spartak.
"I think the bigger ice plays a role. You know, I’ve played in the American Hockey League for eight years, and every check, we’re told to finish them. And over here, if you go finish a check, you’re really far from where the play is at the moment," he said.
Other factors, such as stricter officiating, may also play a role in reducing injuries.
While more whistles and fewer hits may sound like a less entertaining brand of hockey, at least one Russian fan disagrees. "In Canada and North America, people play simpler hockey. Here the game is more intelligent. There’s more passes and strategy," Atlant Moscow supporter Denis Negliad said.
However, a switch to larger ice surfaces doesn’t appear to be in the plans for the NHL.
In a recent "Five Questions" column on CBCSports.ca, Hockey Night in Canada analyst Glenn Healy said he didn’t see the NHL moving to the international ice size.
"It would reduce revenue and hitting while spoiling sight lines in arenas," he wrote.
Changing the size of the ice would mean renovating existing NHL arenas and removing the front rows of seats, typically among the most expensive tickets that a team sells.