Not since the Polar Vortex swooped down from Canada and plunged much of the nation into a deep freeze has so much ice been such a hot topic of conversation.
The expanded playing surface at the Olympic Winter Games has not always been kind when U.S. squads leave behind the creature comforts of North America.
Bolshoy Ice Dome
The Bolshoy Ice Dome is the largest of three facilities that will host hockey games in Sochi.
The complex, which is part of the Coastal Cluster, also includes the Shayba Arena and a training rink. All the ice hockey venues are located within walking distance of each other.
The Bolshoy Ice Dome, which is based on the image of a frozen drop of water, was first used during the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championships.
During the Olympics, the 12,000-seat, Bolshoy, which means “major,” will play host to most of the men's games, including the semifinals, bronze- and gold-medal games. The U.S. will play Russia at the Bolshoy on Feb. 15. The women’s bronze- and gold-medal games will also be held here.
After the Games, it will be used as a multi-purpose sports and entertainment center.
The last time the U.S. won a medal on foreign ice was in 1972 when they struck silver in Sapporo, Japan. Since NHL players were added in 1998, the U.S. hasn’t finished higher than sixth in the two Olympic tournaments held overseas.
“Every Olympics is different,” said U.S. General Manager David Poile.
“Because these Olympics are in Europe and not North America, the ice surface is different. The game will be a little bit different. Thus, we’ve chosen a few different players that we think are fitting for the team, being respectful to the changes especially to the ice surface.”
The difference between an Olympic and NHL-sized ice sheet is 13.5 feet in width. To hear some people talk, it’s the difference between Fenway Park and Yellowstone Park.
But to NHL players, especially those who grew up playing on an NHL sheet, which is 200 by 85, that extra real estate can be a big difference.
“I think that’s huge and an emphasis for the whole team, especially on the big ice is you have to be able to skate,” said Kevin Shattenkirk, a slick-skating defenseman with the St. Louis Blues.
“On the back end you’re going to have to get back to pucks quickly and make quick plays, especially at this level.
“I think with this coaching staff they’re going to preach to our defensemen to make some plays offensively and to jump in the rush, and in order to do that you have to be pretty mobile.”
That’s why Poile and the rest of the U.S. Advisory Group opted to go with more fleet-footed D-corps this time around with youngsters like Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler and John Carlson. But the addition of solid defenders like Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik means that opposing forwards won’t be setting up camp in front of the U.S. net.
“We have some guys who have been there before, but we also are adding some younger players,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, who is making his international debut as a coach. “It goes back to being a team we think is going to be real sound defensively. With the young guys and old guys we think we have that with that group.”
No one will be affected by the differences of playing on the big ice more than the goaltenders who could suffer whiplash from all the cross-ice passes in front of them.
“It’s going to be quite the adjustment to go over there and have maybe one or two practices and have to execute,” said Ryan Miller, whose heroics in 2010 were on an NHL sheet.
“I’ll have to mentally prepare and do the work in my mind first. I’ll try and squeeze some time in if I can get on the Olympic sheet [in Buffalo]. Maybe I’ll get the keys to the building, sneak in, see what I can do.”
The difference between an Olympic and NHL-sized ice sheet is 13.5 feet in width.
As they did in 2010, the U.S. Advisory Group has assembled a mix of forwards who can navigate the big ice in Sochi, along with players who bring a physical edge to their game.
Thanks in large part to the experience many of these players have gained through their time with the NTDP, in college and with various U.S. National Teams, competing on the larger ice surface is no longer that big of a deal.
“I grew up playing on big ice in college and I’ve played in a lot of international tournaments,” said Phil Kessel, one of nine National Team Development Program alumni. “I like the bigger ice. There’s a lot more room out there.”
Whether the larger ice surface will help or hinder the U.S. team remains to be seen. Poile and his staff have assembled a team with a lot of international experience and speed to burn. And the belief is, it will all come down to the tried and true formula for success. The team that works the hardest will end up with the hardware.
“I really think, given big ice, how we want to play, we picked a great team,” Bylsma said.
“We’re really excited about this group of players, about our prospects going over to Sochi. We were one goal from winning gold in 2010, and that’s our goal this time around.”