What the NHL Should—and Should Not—Learn From the Olympics

NHL: The defending player must touch the puck on the other side of the red line (in other words, behind a team’s own goal) to trigger icing. The NHL introduced hybrid icing this season, which gives officials discretion to automatically call icing if there is no chance that an offensive player will reach the puck before a defenseman.

IIHF/Olympics: Icing is automatically whistled when the puck crosses the red line.

Which is better? NHL. The health benefit of preventing potential full-speed races into the boards to touch up for icing are paramount. Last season, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen broke his heel on an icing touch-up and is out for the entire 2013-14 NHL season. But the league’s introduction of hybrid icing—the first change to the icing rules since 1937—creates a workable solution without completely abandoning the concept of an onrushing forward stealing the puck from behind the opponent’s net.

Rink Size

NHL: 85 feet wide, 200 feet long, 17,000 square feet of ice space.

IIHF/Olympics: 100 feet wide, 200 feet long, 20,000 square feet of ice space.

Which is better? NHL. As I noted in my preview of Olympic hockey, Europeans prefer the larger rink because it prioritizes stickhandling and speed over physical play. But the in-game tension of a smaller rink and the resulting increase in physicality is what makes North American hockey such a fast-paced thrill ride. In the NHL, everything from a power play to a sustained forecheck to an empty-net situation takes place across a smaller patch of ice, forcing more confrontations both at the site of the puck and in front of the goal.

Fighting Rules

NHL: Five-minute major penalty for fighting, with potential match penalties for escalation.

Olympics: Automatic match penalty and potential suspension for the next game.

Which is better? NHL. The pragmatic answer may be to favor the IIHF method and basically remove fighting from hockey. But I can’t imagine hockey without moments like this one—and millions of other NHL fans surely couldn’t either.

Goalie Rules

NHL: The goaltender can only handle the puck in the crease and in a trapezoid-shaped area behind the goal.

Olympics: The goaltender can handle the puck anywhere behind the goal.

Which is better? NHL. Playing on the narrower North American rink, keeping the goalies confined to a smaller area of the ice, is a good thing. The NHL rules, in general, favor a more compact style and protect goalies from nearly all contact by opposing players, so keeping netminders close to their nets levels the playing field.

There are several other rule differences between the IIHF and NHL (a full list can be found here), but the overall takeaway from comparing the divergent rules is that international hockey favors a more fluid, skill-based game, something like “the beautiful game” so cherished in European soccer. Hockey in Canada and the U.S. is more compressed, more violent, and more entertaining—except in late-game situations.

Which is why the NHL would be wise adopt the IIHF’s shootout rules for the 2014-15 regular season. North American hockey has a rule system that gives it more nonstop action, harder hits, and higher tension throughout than its Olympic cousin. And that commitment to a faster, edgier game should extend to the finishes of shootouts. At the very least, T.J. Oshie (and fans of T.J. Oshie) would be happy.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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