Canada, US face big-rink problems at Sochi Games
Big rink. Big problems.
At least that has been the case for Canada and the U.S. when the Winter Olympics haven't been on home soil - or ice.
The Canadians and Americans have not earned a medal in hockey away from North America since the NHL began letting its players participate in the 1998 Winter Olympics.
In Vancouver and Salt Lake City, the Canadians beat the Americans in both gold-medal games.
''It's not a coincidence,'' David Poile, general manager of the U.S. team, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ''The game is different on bigger ice. The angles are different, the shooting lanes are different and you have to position yourself differently.''
Compared to the NHL-sized rinks used in 2010, the ice surface in Sochi will be 15 feet wider, the neutral zone will be 8 feet larger and there will be 2 more feet behind the goal lines.
''It changes the whole game,'' Team Canada forward Jeff Carter said Saturday before he and the Los Angeles Kings played the Detroit Red Wings. ''On the bigger ice, it'll be a big adjustment for our guys. Skill comes into it a lot and you have to think a lot more. Defensively, you have to be in the right position because if you get caught out of position, you have to go a long way to get back in position.
''European players grew up playing on the bigger ice, so they're used to it.''
That showed at the Turin and Nagano Games.
Sweden beat Finland for gold in 2006 when the Czech Republic beat Russia for bronze. In 1998, the Czechs topped the Russians in the gold-medal game after the Finns beat Canada for bronze.
Three-time Olympian Bill Guerin played for the U.S. in both of those Olympics, and recalls the larger sheet of ice posing problems for him and his teammates.
''I always felt you couldn't maintain the same energy that you can on a smaller rink, where you can get places quicker,'' Guerin said. ''There's a lot of skating on the big ice. When you're chasing a defenseman into the corner, you have to chase him an extra 5 or 10 feet. That's a long way to go. When you have defensive-zone coverage, there's a lot of real estate out there.''
The U.S. and Canada have tried to combat the challenges with some tough choices.
Joe Thornton has been among NHL scoring leaders this season - as usual - but his savvy style and soft hands couldn't overcome his slow skates when the Canadians were making their cuts for the 25-man roster.
The Americans didn't put one of their best offensive players, Bobby Ryan, on the team in part because he can't skate as well as T.J. Oshie.
James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler and Max Pacioretty were each picked to play for the U.S. because they had what Poile and other decision-makers for USA Hockey were looking for.
''All three of them have three things: size, skating and scoring,'' Poile said.
Skaters are not the only ones who will have to make adjustments.
Goaltenders will have more room behind them and much more space when they look side to side, but they're hoping to focus on the familiar distance between the faceoff dots.
''The boards are further to your left and right, but the paint's the same,'' U.S. goalie Ryan Miller said. ''You'll feel like you're drifting a bit and giving up too much on the short side.
''You just have to make the adjustment, and we'll only have one day - maybe two - on the ice before we play.''
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