QUEBEC CITY – Russian hero Ilya Kovalchuk said it best when he summed up his team’s ability to come back from a two-goal deficit to win the gold medal game of the World Championship against Canada in overtime Sunday afternoon.
“When you’re playing on the big rinks and you’re trailing by two goals, it’s always tough to come back,” Kovalchuk said.
There is a certain contingent of hockey snobs that look down their noses at the NHL product, all the while claiming the international game to be far superior, in large part because the players have so much room to display their creativity.
They are wrong, so wrong.
What the gold medal final of the World Championship – one of the best hockey games witnessed by these eyes in years – proved beyond a doubt is that the game is played at its highest level when the best of the North American pro game and the European game are married to one other.
Of course, any game that boasts the kind of talent the gold medal game had is bound to be exciting, but it’s even more so when the game is played at a frenetic pace instead of the choreographed and predictable set plays we see so often at the NHL level. This certainly wasn’t Columbus in the middle of February.
And most of what made that possible was that the game was played on an NHL-sized ice surface of 200-by-85 feet, rather than the 200-by-100 expanse used in the international game. If anything, the World Championship this year proved the smaller ice surface is not to blame for dull hockey. In fact, if the International Ice Hockey Federation is serious about improving the quality of the global game, it will take its game to the smaller ice surface.
It would force hundreds of rinks around the world to retrofit – to be sure at something of a significant cost – but it’s certainly a lot easier to make a rink smaller than it is to take out seats and make it bigger.
The international ice surface seems more like an ocean than a hockey rink sometimes. Shots from the faceoff dot on the big ice usually require a boarding pass because the distance is so much further and they often land harmlessly in the goalie’s glove. Quick shots off the sticks of the best players from the same spot on the North American-sized ice are dangerous and often result in goals.
Beating a defenseman to the outside on the international ice is almost impossible because even the slowest-footed blueliner has all kinds of time and space to angle off his attacker. But on smaller ice, that same defenseman will simply run out of room and if the skater is quick enough and slippery enough to get by him, he’s bound to create an outstanding scoring chance for himself.
The bigger, wider ice provides a neutral zone that needs its own area code, which makes it easy for coaches to dumb the game down by getting an early lead, then simply dumping the puck into the opponents’ zone and lining five players up along the blueline. The Czechs were absolute masters of doing that during their days of world dominance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There were times watching games involving the Czechs and Swedes at the World Junior Championship that I was yearning for a set of knitting needles to insert into my eye sockets rather than be subject to a second more of that kind of torture.
What you saw in Sunday’s gold medal game – at least until Canada imposed an NHL mentality on the proceedings and decided to sit back and defend rather than continue with their puck possession game – was an exhibition of hockey that was wonderful to behold. The small rink allowed the fastest players to dart around without wasting energy skating through useless ice. It permitted the big power players to assert themselves on the game because they commanded so much valuable ice and it allowed skill players to make plays that actually meant something because they were being made in areas of the ice where they would be rewarded with a scoring chance.
There are so many ways to change the game for the better, but making NHL rinks bigger to fit the dimensions of the international game is not one of them. And if there were ever any way the NHL could convince the rest of the world that downsizing would be a good thing, the game at all levels would be the better for it.
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