To steal a line from a popular slasher flick, I know what you did last week.
I know that you watched the Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, and you thought to yourself — more than once — “Why can’t the NHL be like this?” You asked your roommate why the NHL couldn’t be this intense. You looked into your dog’s eyes and asked him why you couldn’t have this much skill in an NHL game. And after the room emptied and you continued seeing all that open white space on your television screen, you yelled to nobody in particular, ‘I want more of this!’
But the fact of the matter is, no, you don’t want more of ‘this.’ Unless you were one of those cavemen who thought the traffic jam NHL of the pre-2004-2005 lockout was a wonderfully “intense” game, and that the people who devised and implemented game plans were “geniuses.”
It wasn’t, and they weren’t.
It was bad hockey, plain and simple, and it gave us all the wonderful four-letter hockey words we try to longer utter in the presence of our mothers: “Clutch,” “grab,” “brawl,” “lock,” and — the F-word of the group — “trap.”
Worse than watching the Kessel siblings wilt (again!) under pressure or seeing Team USA decide that medaling in a competition featuring the world’s best collection of talent wasn’t worth the effort, was sitting through a 10-day reminder of how bad hockey used to be. It was like reliving the nightmare of the early-1990s NHL day after day after day.
And it wasn’t fun. And, more to the point, at no time during that stretch — particularly during the elimination rounds — did I do what you did. At no time did I say, ‘Boy, this is really good hockey on the Olympic ice sheet.’
Here’s the great misconception about hockey played on the Olympic-sized 200-by-100 surface: With all that extra space, there’s more space for the best players in the world to utilize and display their all-star talents. The fact is, there’s not.
You could play NHL or Olympic hockey in a rink measuring 300 feet long and 1,200 feet wide and there’s still only one small patch of ice that matters — the slot area between the face-off circles in either zone. If players can’t get to that area, if they’re not willing to go there and pay the extremely physical price for getting there, then nothing at all is going to happen. A 70-foot shot from a blue line or half-wall 70 feet away from the middle of the offensive zone is no more of a threat to a credible professional goaltender than a rink-long Ron Hextall shot at an empty net.
How else do you explain Latvia hanging within a goal of Canada in the quarterfinals?
There are some numbers to consider here. The four medal-round games from the 2014 tournament in Sochi (the two semifinal match ups, plus the two medal games) accounted for a total of 12 goals scored. Throw out the lopsided win by Finland over the United States in the Bronze Medal game and the total drops to just seven goals in three games.
By contrast, in 2010 in Vancouver, the Olympic tournament was contested on an NHL-sized rink at 200-by-85 feet. The four medal-round games in that tournament saw more than twice as many goals scored as this year’s final two rounds — with 25 total goals scored. There were 17 goals scored in the two semifinals plus the Gold Medal game alone.
There, they clogged things up for the opposition’s transition game. Defenseman weren’t willing to pinch in along the points to aid as forechecking support — because there’s simply too much ice to cover should the team trying to break the puck out of their own zone spring one forward up the middle of the ice — and suddenly the games started looking eerily similar to something we’d all seen before.
Something from a decade ago.
Something that featured — cover your ears, Mom — the trap.
The smaller NHL-sized rinks force teams to make decisions in a way the Olympic sheet does not. It forces you decide whether to defend Sidney Crosby in the right wing corner or whether you can beat Zach Parise to a loose puck at the point in your attacking zone. Take away the ability to make those decisions, and you’ve taken away all the promise of a showcase of skill you originally tried to sell your fans on.
You get a stagnant game like the one we had to see in Sochi, where one-goal games were the proverbial makeup on a pig. Yes, the games were close on the scoreboard — but a one-goal lead was as daunting as a four-goal one in a traditional rink.
See, Olympic hockey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The players, the skill level, the intensity of the moment — sure, all that stuff’s still there. But give me the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs version of hockey over the Olympics on an over sized ice sheet any day of the year.
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