Ice Hockey Essentials - Men's
Once again, the NHL's regular season will be interrupted for two weeks in order to allow more than 100 of the NHL's best players to represent their countries at the Vancouver Games.
Twelve teams will compete in the tournament, which consists of a preliminary round-robin format followed by a playoff round.
This year when players from around the world step on the ice, they are going to notice something very different. The tournament's games will be played on rinks sized according to NHL dimensions instead of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) as in years past.
NHL rinks are 4 metres thinner than international rinks and the smaller ice size has already benefited organizers. It means more space for spectators, about 350-800 extra to be exact. Those numbers accumulate to an astounding 35 000 additional tickets available for the tournament and $10 million in cost savings.
The change has also eliminated extra work for organizers. There won't be a need to blast away excess concrete during construction, or remove any seats to make room for a larger rink. It also removed the need to adjust internal ice mechanisms and reconfigure the glass and boards.
Organizers agreed on the change because it followed Vancouver's environmental sustainability initiatives, saving construction costs and minimizing renovations on the hockey facilities.
Aside from the ice, the Vancouver Games will also see officiating familiar to North American fans. Rene Fasel, president of the (IIHF), said recently that he was amazed with the way referees in the NHL are calling the obstruction penalties, which allows more flow to the game and an increase in scoring.
For the Turin Games in 2006, the IOC enlisted referees in a two-day tutorial training to re-familiarize them with International rules. The officiating made such an impression on Fasel that the IIHF will instruct officials to apply the same crackdown on the hooking and grabbing common in years past.
"With the new rules and their strict enforcement by the referees, we know that the players will be given adequate space and an environment where they can excel," said Fasel. "With the majority of the players now playing in North America, the transition to the Olympic Games will be seamless and should result in excellent hockey."
Brains, not brawn
European players are more accustomed to the flow of the international game, which speeds along without lengthy delays for TV timeouts and extensive line changes.
That's not to say, though, that the international game is uniformly freewheeling and high-scoring. As the Czechs proved at the 1998 Nagano Games, a methodical, tactical approach can pay dividends, especially when a team is extremely disciplined with a brilliant goalie to back it up.
Challenges for International and American players
According to Hockey Night in Canada game analyst Harry Neale, the Olympic tournament format, not the ice, could prove challenging for Canadian and American players.
"You don't have to win any of your first three games in the opening round," says Neale, "then you have to win three in a row in sudden death to get the gold. It's a strange situation. Every player has played sudden death games, but it's one - maybe two per playoff - not three in four days."
In the past, North American Olympians have had to accustom themselves to an international ice sheet wider than NHL rinks.
Traditionally, the broader international ice surface has favoured fast, skilful teams that can best utilize the extra space. However the tables have turned. For those used to playing on rinks that are 300 square metres larger, organization, toughness, and clean stick handling will be essential for matching the skills of fellow NHLers used to playing in a smaller space.
"The different rules, the size of the ice and the skill level of players will result in a great pace to games," says Neale. "If you're not above-average speed you're going to be in trouble."
While the smaller ice surface forces all European players to make adjustments to their game, the transition is most difficult for defencemen unaccustomed to NHL sized play.
With less room behind the net, in the corners and in the neutral and offensive zones, defencemen might find the area crowded. They also have a responsibility to get on attacking forwards quickly as they move through the neutral zone.