Hockey 101: NHL vs. Olympic game changers

Hockey 101: NHL vs. Olympic game changers
Posted at 8:10 AM, Sep 29, 2021

Is bigger actually better?

Olympic ice hockey is played on a rink roughly 200 feet long by 98 feet wide. That's a just about ten more feet laterally on the ice than in the 85 feet wide rinks used in the NHL. Although ten feet may sound minor, it ends up making a difference when you also consider the blue lines are actually six feet further from the net, increasing the size of the offensive zone.

During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, hockey games were played on NHL-size rinks, saving organizers a reported $10 million in renovation costs. It was the first, and only, time in Olympic hockey history that games were played on the smaller rink.

There's no trap!

One on-the-ice marking familiar to NHL fans, but absent at the Olympics, is the trapezoid behind the net. Goalies are free to play pucks as they please when an offense dumps it into the offensive zone. In an attempt to generate more scoring chances, the NHL introduced the trapezoid in the 2005-06 season – limiting a skillfully-stickhandling goalie’s effectiveness to kill an attack by intercepting the puck on the boards. In the NHL, the area inside the trapezoid is the only place behind the net a goalie may field the puck.

Formalities of the Face-off

In the NHL there's a formality in which the visiting team is required to put their stick on the ice first for any face-off. In the Olympics, per IIHF rules, it is the attacking team – the team nearest their opponent's goal during the face-off – who must put blade to ice first.

Mind your cover

In the NHL, when a helmet pops off a skater after a vicious hit, you'd expect that player to dust himself off and begin looking for retribution. At the Olympics, a minor penalty can be handed out for a player who continues play after losing their helmet. A player must also secure their chin strap prior to jumping back into the action. As a footnote, visors are required for any player born after December 31, 1974 in the men's games, and a full cage is required for all athletes in the women's tournament.

Straightening the curves

Hockey stick blades come in a variety of curves, but during the Olympic Games, players are required to use blades with less severe curves than what is allowed in the NHL. A legal blade in the NHL can curve up to 3/4". In the Olympics, that curve has to come in under 5/8".

Can I kick it?

Did you know in hockey you could kick a puck toward the goal in an attempt to score? Totally legal in the NHL and Olympics, but the one caveat is in the Olympics the puck must come in contact with an attacking player's stick before going into the goal. In the NHL, any 'ol stick will do, unless it's the goalie's.

Free-for-all penalty shots

At the Olympics, when a penalty shot is awarded to a team, any skater for the fouled team can take the shot. NHL rules state the penalty shot must be taken by the fouled player.

No escaping the shootout

Come playoff time, the NHL ditches the shootout format for determining a winner in a game still tied after a five minute overtime period. Arguably the most-detested mechanism in the game of hockey, the shootout is often cited by critics as a skills competition, void of any of the strategies used to win a 5-on-5 hockey game. In this area, the Olympics won't be able to appease shootout critics. If necessary, you could see the shootout used to award the Olympic gold medal in hockey. The shootout was first added to medal games at the Olympics in 1992. In 1994, it was Sweden, on the stick of Peter Forsberg, who would win the first Olympic gold medal in hockey decided by a shootout.

The true spirit of sportsmanship

Unlike the NHL where fights on the ice frequently occur, the Olympics tend to be more docile. Players will jaw back-and-fourth, but it is rare to see gloves dropped. According to the New York Times, only eight fights have occurred in more than 500 Olympic hockey games since 1960. The last Olympic hockey fight was a rather brutal one at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games. Despite referees’ attempts to break it up, Slovakia’s Peter Bondra and Germany’s Erich Goldmann dropped the gloves and had a go on Olympic ice. Bondra was the aggressor, taking three swings at Goldmann, while slamming him onto the ice – along with the refs. The Slovak even used the German’s own helmet as a weapon, which came off in the brawl, repeatedly hitting Goldmann with it.

If one must, it's better to be the one who strikes second at the Olympics, as a player retaliating could get off with only a minor (two minutes in the box), depending on how they decide to participate in the extracurriculars. Instigators are immediately assessed a match penalty resulting in expulsion and a one game suspension, plus a teammate has to sit in the box for five minutes before their team can return to full strength.