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

An NHL game can't end the way Team USA's dramatic victory over Russia did. Which reopens a familiar debate: Should the league adopt Olympic hockey's rules?

The USA’s 3-2 shootout victory over Russia in the men’s hockey preliminary round at the Sochi Olympics is indisputably the game of the tournament so far. The thrilling victory featured six shots in the tie-breaking shootout by one American man, T.J. Oshie, who saved the day for the U.S. and gained thousands of Twitter followers in minutes.

The game was a triumphant win for the Americans and a stinging setback for the Russians in front of a rabid home crowd and their president, Vladimir Putin. But had the game been played using NHL rules, the U.S. would never have even reached a shootout, and Oshie would be just another very good American player.

Olympic hockey is governed by the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and is different from the NHL in several critical respects. For one, a player cannot shoot more than once in a shootout in the NHL, at least not until every player on the team has shot at least once. In the Olympics, a team can send up the same player ad infinitum if the shootout reaches the sudden-death stage—which is why Oshie had six of the eight U.S. attempts against Russia, scoring four times.

Oshie’s spellbinding shootout performance has helped to reopen a debate that seems to come up at every Winter Olympics—the one over whether the NHL should adopt international rules (or vice versa). In what other ways do NHL and Olympic men’s hockey differ? And which IIHF rules should the NHL adopt? Let’s assess.

Shootout Rules

NHL: A player can only shoot once in a shootout unless every player on the team has shot, no matter how far into sudden death the shootout goes.

IIHF/Olympics: If the teams are tied after three rounds of the shootout, it converts to sudden-death rules. At that point, teams may re-use a shooter from one of the first three rounds (as the U.S. did with Oshie), and then use that shooter the rest of the way (ditto).

Which is better? Olympics. Other than Russian fans, who didn’t love watching The T.J. Oshie Show on Saturday? The Russians alternated between captain Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk in the five sudden-death shootout rounds, but U.S. coach Dan Bylsma went with Oshie every time. The final four rounds—Oshie keeping the U.S. alive in the fifth and sixth rounds, then winning it in the eighth—was as dramatic as a hockey game can get.

Stoppage of Play When the Net Is Dislodged

NHL: Play can continue after the net has been slightly dislodged from its moorings if there is a scoring chance and the dislodgement is minimal. Officials have greater leeway to award or uphold a goal upon video review.

IIHF/Olympics: Play is immediately halted if the net is “displaced from its normal position, or the frame of the goal net is not completely flat on the ice.”

Which is better? NHL. It’s a tough call, but if a passing defenseman or a goalie knocks the net just slightly off its moorings—as occurred just before Russia scored an apparent go-ahead goal late in the third period against the U.S.—the officials should have the discretion to allow a goal in certain cases. Why reward goaltender Jonathan Quick and the U.S. for the net moving just a hair when no Russian player knocked it awry? And here, the rule disparity was the difference between a last-minute Russian lead and a tie game. (Apparently the IIHF agrees: Its president, Rene Fasel, said on Tuesday that the organization will adopt the NHL rule.)

Stoppage of Play for Icing

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.