Shifting Ice

IIHF Proposes Move to Reduce Ice Surface For International Play

Coming on the heels of an exciting 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., IIHF President Rene Fasel dropped a bit of a bombshell.

 

He wants to shift international hockey competitions to the smaller, NHL-sized rink similar to the ice sheet that this most recent World Juniors, as well as 2018 in Buffalo and 2017 in Montreal and Toronto featured.

 

The IIHF’s proposal would make the adjustment in time for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, as well as the 2022 IIHF World Championship hosted in Helsinki and Tampere, Finland.

 

There has been some push in North American to even increase the size of an NHL rink from 200 by 85 feet, proposing that more space would help eliminate collisions, and effectively injuries, as the players have gotten larger, stronger, and faster, with any hit packing a punch. The current Olympic-size ice sheet is approximately 200 feet by 100 feet. 

 

That’s what made Fasel’s revelation so shocking to some. The reduction would effectively change the way international hockey tournaments are played, coached, and rosters constructed.

 An exciting 2019 World Junior Championship pushed the IIHF and IIHF President Rene Fasel to really consider implementing a change to shrink the ice surface for international competition.An exciting 2019 World Junior Championship pushed the IIHF and IIHF President Rene Fasel to really consider implementing a change to shrink the ice surface for international competition.

“More and more now when we are watching the games, especially the juniors here in Canada,” Fasel said, prior to the 2019 WJC medal round. “Maybe one of the reasons the tournament here is on a very high level, maybe, is the size of the small ice.”

 

Often bantered around is the opinion that more space, on the larger surface, leads to more speed and skill. However, when the puck is dropped, that’s not always the case.

 

While a player’s speed can be evident, the game is in fact slower. With more ice surface to cover, there’s also more distance to cover passing and stickhandling. Attacks become much more pass-oriented rather than shot-oriented. In North America, if a puck carrier beats a defender out of the corner, there’s a good chance for quality scoring chance. On the international sized rink, that same move, only opens up ice to have to beat another player before registering a similar opportunity.

 

Despite the size differences, the game is played the same between the dots. In fact, the slot is even more valuable, as drifting from it dwindles scoring probabilities by an increasing margin. Defenseman can camp out in the slot, taking away the most dangerous part of the ice, content to let players skate freely in the ocean of space outside the face-off dots.

 

“On the larger Olympic size ice sheet, it is even more important to protect the middle of the ice defensively,” said Seth Appert, a U.S. National Development Coach who has experience coaching international hockey. “Not extending outside the face-off dots. The extra width is outside the dots where it is difficult to create offense and to score. It’s critical to keep opponents to those areas.”

 

The smaller, NHL-sized sheet encourages more north-south play, creating more exciting chances. The shift from players coming internationally to North American can often have an adjustment period. To play some international tournaments on the smaller sheet can help alleviate some of that learning curve and increase player development as they strive to play in the best hockey league in the world.

 

“I think the change can be beneficial to players from any country as they prepare to make the NHL,” Appert said. “The move from Olympic-size ice to NHL-size ice can be a difficult adjustment for some players.”

 

The movement, slated for Beijing, could be an enticing bargaining chip to coax the NHL to participate in the next Olympics after sitting out the last Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

 The 2010 Olympics, played on an NHL-sized sheet, had 5.80 goals per game, nearly a goal more per contest than 2018 in PyeongChang.The 2010 Olympics, played on an NHL-sized sheet, had 5.80 goals per game, nearly a goal more per contest than 2018 in PyeongChang.

“In Beijing 2022, if [the NHL] is there, we will ask the organizers to play on the small ice. And in Finland in 2022 we will play on small ice at our World Championship,” Fasel said. “The future is having the best players of the world playing on the small ice. Why should we not be playing on the small ice?”

 

The biggest takeaway might be the excitement of the game that the shift sparks, as well as offense. And more specifically, more goals.

 

Over the past five years (Jan. 1, 2014-Dec. 31, 2018), there have been 5.39 goals per game in NHL contests. On the international sheet, the floor of all European leagues, that number drops. In the Kontinental Hockey League, it’s 4.76 goals per game over that same period. In the Swedish Elite League that mark is 4.95, while in Finland it sits at 4.81 goals per game.

 

And when it comes to scoring at previous Olympics, the goals per game mark over the past three Olympics is 5.08. In PyeongChang, the scoring average was 4.84 goals per game, and 4.60 in Sochi in 2014. That’s a significant reduction from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which featured a 5.80 goals per game, played on the smaller-sized, NHL sheet.

 

With the NHL taking measures to increase scoring, such as shrinking goaltending equipment, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the IIHF may look to shake things up a bit.

 

“We decided to play on small ice in 2010 and that was an exceptional tournament,” Fasel said. “When you speak with the older guys in Europe, they are maybe not so much in favor. But maybe it’s the change we need.”

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