Since the first NHL player stepped foot onto Olympic ice in 1998, competitions held outside of North America have not been kind to teams from North America.
In Nagano, Japan, both the Americans and Canadians finished out of the money in the first Olympic ice hockey tournament to feature professional players. Neither country fared much better in Torino, Italy in 2006, as both bowed out in the quarterfinals.
Conversely, in both Salt Lake in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010, the two countries met in the gold-medal game, with the Americans bringing home a silver medal on both occasions.
This time around, the competition will be back outside of that North American comfort zone, this time in Sochi, Russia.
Why Team USA hasn’t had success outside of North America is a question with no definitive answer. David Poile, general manager of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, tried to tackle that question during a teleconference to formally introduce the U.S. preliminary roster.
“The obvious answer is North American players grew up playing a different style of game than the European players; they grew up on a different sized ice surface,” said Poile, the GM of the Nashville Predators. “What we need to do to change, I don’t have those answers right now.“
The size of the ice surface seems to be the simplest answer. After all, both the 1998 and 2006 Olympics were played on the larger, IIHF-sanctioned ice sheet, which is 15 feet wider (200 feet long by 100 feet wide) than the NHL-sized rink that was used in Vancouver.
European players grew up playing on the larger ice, leading them to form more skilled, less physical styles of play than North American players. Playing on the larger surface in international tournaments allows them to return to a familiar setting.
Even with the results of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, which, despite being played on North American soil, was played on the larger ice surface, the United States has generally struggled on the larger ice in international competition.
In the past 18 IIHF-sanctioned tournaments, since 1998, that were played on the large ice — 15 World Championships, three Olympics — the United States has won only three medals — silver in the 2002 Olympics, bronze in the 2004 and 2013 IIHF World Championships.
With the 2014 Olympic Winter Games heading back to the larger ice sheet, the final U.S. roster could end up looking a little different than in did in 2010.
“You’ll probably have to look for a little more foot speed, overall,” said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of Hockey Operations. “But I still think the north-south way we play is still going to be very prevalent, pressuring pucks all over the ice and guys who play up-tempo hockey … but on the larger ice you, ideally, need to be faster and quicker.”
The U.S. National Team Advisory Group has already had discussions regarding a potential shift in philosophy. Following a successful run in Vancouver that featured a more physical team, adjectives like “truculent” and “grit” could be swapped out for “fast” and “skilled.”
“Our philosophy and our strategy is going to change a little bit and I think it’s pretty obvious why. It’s not in a North American arena; it’s in Europe with a bigger ice surface,” Poile said.
“Whether it’s a skating component versus a physical component, whether it’s just a different type of player that we’ve overlooked before, those are the types of decisions that we’re going to have to make.”
On the American’s side, however, is momentum. Not just momentum from the silver medal at the most recent Olympics, but also from the most recent international competition.
The Men’s National Team won bronze at the 2013 IIHF World Championship. It was just the third time since 1963 that the Americans brought home a medal at the World Championships. The games were also played on the larger ice in Finland and Sweden.
The success at that competition earned some players a spot in Olympic orientation camp. With expectations sky-high following an improbable run to the gold medal game in 2010, the U.S. staff will not only be looking for players who can excel on the larger ice, but also for players who have excelled in international competition.
“You’re looking for people who have had success, that’s number one,” Poile said. “We’ve got guys who have played a lot internationally. You look at guys who have won, where they won, who they’ve played with. There’s going to be some turnover here.
“So when we make these final decisions and we choose player A over player B, it’s because we think he can be successful in Sochi, in Europe. It might be different from a choice we made in Vancouver.”