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A World Of Differences For NHL Players In Sochi


This week, the men start playing ice hockey in Sochi. Now, I admit that, although I'm a confirmed TV sports fan, watching National Hockey League games just isn't one of my vices. The Olympics, though, inject a dose of chauvinism into the game, which is kind of fun. I was a kid when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union back in 1960. And in the age of HDTV, we can actually see the puck, which makes the game a lot more watch-able, at least for me.

But the men's hockey game in the Winter Games is a little different from the NHL game, even if a lot of the players are the same. And to help hockey illiterates like me with the differences, we've called on ESPN's Scott Burnside who has had unusual access to the building of the U.S. team that's in Sochi.

Welcome to the program, Scott.

SCOTT BURNSIDE: Well, thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, Scott, just to explain here, there a lot of NHL players in Sochi. So the National Hockey League is on hiatus right now for the length of the games.

BURNSIDE: Yeah, absolutely. And it's been a contentious issue since the National Hockey League started participating in Winter Olympics in 1998. For lots of players at the midseason holiday, a chance to get some fruity drinks by a pool or on a beach. And for the other players who have been selected by their national teams to take part in the tournament, in some ways it might be the chance of a lifetime.

Zdeno Chara is the captain of the Boston Bruins, was given leave to miss the final two games before the break, so he could carry the flag for Slovakia in the opening ceremony. So it tells you that it's such a big deal for the players who are selected to play in the tournament.

SIEGEL: The size of the rink is different in Sochi from the National Hockey League. How different and how does that affect play?

BURNSIDE: In some ways, it's a world of difference. In the National Hockey League, the standard hockey rink is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. In Sochi, at the Olympic level, an extra 15 feet in the width, so the rink is 100 feet wide as opposed to 85. And it really does change fundamentally how the game is played at the Olympic level. And it is why, I believe, that neither Canada nor the United States has brought home a medal of any flavor in the two games have been held outside of North America. It's a completely different game and it will be an ongoing storyline in Sochi.

SIEGEL: So, four years ago in Vancouver, you're saying because the Winter Games were in North America they were played on the same dimensions as the National Hockey League, but not when they're being played in Europe?

BURNSIDE: That's it exactly. The main games were played at the home of the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, and it was a much more NHL-style tournament. And, whether it's a coincidence or not, the two teams made up entirely of NHL players - Canada and the United States - met in the gold medal game. And, of course, what was perhaps one of the greatest games played anywhere on any stage, with Sidney Crosby scoring the overtime winner for the gold medal for Canada.

SIEGEL: I read a quotation on NHL.com from the Canadian coach Mike Babcock, saying that: In North America it takes two steps to get out of the defensive side, over there it's going to take three or four steps. Skating is a huge factor. Is it really that different a skill set that's called upon in the bigger rink?

BURNSIDE: Yeah, it really is. And it's a whole different mindset. Yes, it's the skating. You have to be able to skate well. You have to be able to make intelligent first passes out of your zone. But it also takes an incredible amount of patience. You can't be running around. The NHL game, by and large, much more physical, a lot more premium put on body contact. Because there is so much more space on the Olympic ice, if a player is running to try and make a hit, it's easy for them to be caught well out of position, and then set up an odd man rush for a scoring chance the other way.

So patience and discipline, along with pure skating - the ability to get from side to side and up and down the ice - will be at a premium. And that's why forming of the both the U.S. and the Canadian teams were under such a microscope, because they had such a lack of success playing in these Olympic tournaments outside of North America.

SIEGEL: How important is this to, well, let's say to American or Canadian players? How important is getting a medal in the Winter Olympics as opposed to coming home and winning the Stanley Cup?

BURNSIDE: That's funny. We talked to a lot of players who were involved in the gold medal game in Vancouver over the last two days for an oral history project we're putting together. And talked to a number of players who had both; they won a gold medal, won a Stanley Cup. I don't think there's any way to adequately compare the two. But suffice it to say the gold medal - and a medal of any kind, really - is incredibly important. It is something that is completely unique as an athlete.

SIEGEL: Scott Burnside of ESPN, thanks for talking with us about Olympic hockey.

BURNSIDE: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Scott Burnside is national hockey writer for ESPN.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.