May 17, 2010

Big Ice, Big Problem for Sochi?

Canada lost 3-1 to Sweden in the qualification round of the 2010 World Hockey Championships on Sunday. They're not out of medal contention yet, but suffice to say the loss doesn't help.

While these World Championships have been full of surprises, Canada has not had a great tournament. Disinterest from some absent big name players hasn't helped. What I wonder about is how big of an effect the big ice has had on Canada's performance, and how Canada can learn from this for the future, specifically for future Olympics.

International hockey uses an ice surface that is 15 feet wider than the standard NHL surface. While that does create for more room out there, the general result is a slower paced, less physical, possession game. The standard sized ice used in North America and the NHL was also used at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, one of the most entertaining tournaments in hockey history. Standard ice tends to encourage more physicality, which leads to more turnovers and therefore more scoring chances. Which is better is a matter of choice, though it is telling that most European players in the NHL prefer the smaller ice.

Canada (and USA) has traditionally had trouble adjusting to big ice tournaments. European players grow up playing the game on the bigger ice. Their readjustment back to big ice is generally seamless and therefore a decided advantage for those teams.

Canada's top players generally will get their first exposure to big ice at the World Junior level, with many later getting some more experience at the Worlds. While European players grow up playing the game this way, Canadians often have only a handful of game experience come Olympic time.This is a big reason why I believe the U20 World Junior tournament needs to return to Europe. Canada's future performances in international hockey and especially at the Olympics depends on it.

Yes, Canadians love the WJCs, and with sold out crowds and favorable television time slots, the revenues and profits are unmatchable anywhere in Europe. Canada has benefited beyond financially. For 2010 Olympic gold Canada leaned heavily on players from this era of WJC. And why not? Top young players with established chemistry who persevered under the immense pressure of sold out crowds and home town fans and media.

Including the next two WJCs, 7 out of 10 tournaments will have been held in Canada or in a US border city. That has developed a whole generation of Canadian success which culminated with the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Make no mistake, this was no accident. It was a brilliant long term plan envisioned by Bob Nicholson and the people at Hockey Canada.

Going forward, Canada needs to develop players who are able to perform in hostile environments and, perhaps more importantly, big ice. The Olympics won't be held in North America again for the immediate generation of players. When Canada selects the 2014 Olympic team in Sochi, how many players will have played meaningful games on big ice? Especially together, with proven chemistry? Going with an older generation of players, Canada's failure to adapt to big ice was a story in the 2006 Torino games. Will it be a concerning headline for the next generation of Olympic heroes?

Hockey Canada might be better off to not hog the WJCs every other year or even more often. Future Olympic success may depend on it.

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