Photo source: hockeyfans.ch
At first blush, this idea made all the sense in the world to me; I felt that it had the potential to fix so many of the NHL’s current woes. Maybe the league wouldn’t have to be constantly changing rules if it could just increase the ice surface.
I know what you’re thinking: this was an unrealistic prescription from the get-go. The NHL would never expand its ice surfaces. Teams would lose important rows of expensive seats, and sight lines might be ruined in the upper bowls. The short-term cost of renovations would be steep, and the long-term loss of revenue from seats would be unpalatable to owners, many of whom are already in tight to keep their teams in the black.
But I’d like to focus on what it might actually do to the game itself, for a moment. I’ve taken to examining what European statistics I can get, and have enlisted the help of European hockey journalist Risto Pakarinen (@puckarinen).
I’ve broken down the potential benefits of expanding NHL ice surfaces into thee broad (but ultimately interconnected) categories: scoring, hitting/injuries, and game flow.
If the Competition Committee had one overarching aim, it was to alter the rules of the NHL so as to increase scoring. Things like player safety have seen half-committed efforts to affect change, but I’d rather scrap, for example, the trapezoid behind the net and just increase the size of the rink if it’d help scoring.
The simplest way to check this is to look at goal per game totals across the four largest leagues. All data is from the 2011-12 season in each league.
Average Goals Per Game
It should be noted that the Finnish league, SM-Liiga, doesn’t use a set standard for rink size. Most rinks in the league fall somewhere between the North American and European standards.
The long and the short of this? The only league to score even slightly less is one of the leagues that actually does use IIHF-size rinks – Elitserien.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the NHL’s European counterparts find the back of the net any more frequently, so there isn’t even a correlation to investigate.
The NHL has been very clear that it does not want to compromise or diminish the physical aspect of the game any more than is absolutely necessary. It’s easy to see why: there is a large contingency of fans that love big hits.
The thing is, if the NHL were really serious about reducing head injuries (or any other injuries for that matter) they’d probably be looking to cut back the level of physical play. Do the owners need incentive to do this? Well, aside from protecting multi-million dollar assets, they could theoretically extend the season and see more cash from extra games. If the game isn’t doesn’t exact such a physical toll, then why not, right?
Now, it seems logical to me that a larger ice surface might give players a little more time with the puck, and maybe we’d see a reduction in injuries and/or hitting. Perhaps players could be more judicious doling out the hits if a misstep would put them much further away from the play. If the league put less emphasis on hitting and more on skating, we might even see a drop in the number of Colton Orrs around the league.
In this case, however, the numbers say one thing, and the experts say another.
The only European league to record hits is Elitserien (a.k.a. the Swedish Elite League), and last season their players hit at approximately half the rate of their NHL counterparts. In Sweden, the average player administered 0.63 hits per game, while in North America, the figure was 1.26 hits per game.
There are some problems with this method of evaluation, of course. For starters, it’s only one season’s worth of data. Secondly, hits are a notoriously unreliable stat to record, and there’s no way of telling how consistent the records are in Sweden, and no way of telling how their recording strategies differ from those in the NHL.
Furthermore, Finnish journalist Risto Pakarinen believes that the style of hockey being played in Sweden, for example, is becoming increasingly North-Americanized, and that hitting is becoming a larger part of the game:
"Even the new national team coach is a subscriber to a straightforward style of hockey, with aggressive forechecking and pucks to the net, which means that the play in the other zones also changes. That’s one reason, another is just the fact that the NHL is the career goal to most people in Europe, and the third, what I think is the cyclical nature of hockey trends."
It’s also important to note that the Swedish league had its own concussion ‘epidemic’ last season. "I’d guess that, prorated over an 82-game schedule, there are the same amount of injuries," Pakarinen said.
At this point, it’s impossible to separate the cultural effects on hitting in the game, and the more concrete factors like rink size. In short, it’s too difficult to draw a useful connection between rink size and injuries.
Pakarinen had this to say:
"I think it’s a little bit of a question of a chicken and egg. Finnish hockey is more aggressive, and there’s more hitting, regardless of the size of the rink. Finns have smaller rinks because they want to see more hitting. Swedish Elitserien playoff hockey is as intense as any. That said, I’m sure the rink size adds to it."
Last, but I suppose not least, fans love big hits, and anything that took away from what we’ve got now would probably be unpopular.
I’m surely not the only person to be fed up with the kvetching over the shot-blocking bonanza that was the New York Rangers’ recent playoff run. There is also, as you are all of course aware, still plenty of wailing about the use of the dreaded "trap". Still others bemoan the death of run’n gun hockey, when players could actually carry the puck over the blue line. Now? Chip and chase. Chip and chase.
Wouldn’t some extra room out there help these kinds of issues? It seems like it’d be significantly harder to take away skating room if you have to take more away. It must be harder to block shots if you have to block a larger area. Right?
As I understand it, the trap continues to work exceptionally well in Europe, with no real room to breathe. Need a familiar example? Canadian fans should remember well the number that the Swiss National Team did at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
"The teams can, and do, trap in Europe just as well. Whatever trends there are, whether hockey is offensive or defensive, the same trends can be seen in Europe," said Pakarinen.
The confusing thing about all of this is that in short, yes, there is more fluid puck movement in European leagues. Teams are more loathe to relinquish possession of the puck, and so, for example, forwards are content to pass back to defenders if they approach the opponents’ blue line and don’t find skating room:
"I don’t mind seeing the puck returned back to the D in the neutral zone and all that. But yes, I do think the European game is more flowing than the North American game. I do think it’s mostly [a difference in hockey] culture, because you can see that changing in Sweden these days."
Despite my early assumptions, it seems that expanding the NHL’s ice surface would have few of the desired effects. At least, it would be difficult to expect any particular changes. Hockey coaches and players are constantly finding new ways to use systems, and there is no way to predict how North American hockey culture would make use of the extra skating room.