Once a trend in college hockey, Olympic-sized rinks are going away
Brush Christiansen went to the mayor's office when he found out about the plans for the soon-to-be-built Anchorage arena.
Christiansen, the head coach of the Alaska Anchorage men's hockey team, brought two pillars of the city's hockey community—Harry McDonald and Dempsey Anderson—to inform mayor George Sullivan that the ice surface was scheduled to be smaller than regulation.
They lobbied for something else.
They wanted to make the arena the wave of the future: a full-sized Olympic ice sheet, 200 feet long by 100 feet wide—15 feet wider than the traditional North American, NHL-sized ice sheet.
This was the size of the rink in Lake Placid, N.Y., where months earlier the U.S. had stunned the Russians in hockey's greatest upset en route to the 1980 Olympic gold medal.
The wider ice sheet would have multiple benefits: It would give players more time and space to increase creativity; it would allow the school to pitch recruits that they could train to be the next Olympians; and it could potentially help Anchorage in a bid to host a future Winter Olympics.
The mayor agreed.
Sullivan Arena opened in 1983 as college hockey's first Olympic-sized rink.
Over the next two decades, Olympic rinks became one of college hockey's hottest trends.
Prior to the Miracle on Ice, there wasn't a single Olympic-sized ice sheet in college hockey. In the two decades that followed, 19 college hockey rinks opened and more than half of them (10) were either full Olympic-sized or Olympic hybrids—within five feet.
St. Cloud State (1989), Alaska Fairbanks (1990), Minnesota (1993), UMass (1993), New Hampshire (1995), MSU-Mankato (1995), Colorado College (1998), Wisconsin (1998) and Northern Michigan (1999) all built big ice sheets.
But nobody is doing it anymore.
It has been nearly two decades since a full Olympic or an Olympic hybrid has been built in college hockey, and many of those who have Olympic sheets are trying to get rid of them.
Minnesota State-Mankato renovated its home, the Verizon Center, in 2013 to shrink the ice surface from 100 feet wide to an NHL hybrid, 87 feet wide.
Minnesota has publicly announced plans to eventually shrink Mariucci Arena. Head coach Don Lucia wants it to be a hybrid at 92.5 feet wide. And privately, hockey officials at New Hampshire and Northern Michigan have talked about a desire to shrink their ice sheets.
In most cases, it is either cost prohibitive or logistically impossible to make the changes.
But it appears that the one-time college hockey fad is becoming a thing of the past.
"I think it was a buzz that it would create more creativity and more puck skills," said Rick Comley, the longtime college hockey coach who was at Northern Michigan when its Olympic rink was built. "I think what people have found out with the big ice sheet is that there's less contact and less goals. That was always the case in Europe. But they are such big soccer people that they are content with a 2-1 game. North Americans like contact and they like scoring, and I think that's why the movement has gone away from it."
Start of the trend
The Olympic-sized ice sheets have always been—and still are—prevalent in Europe and international hockey.
They didn't catch on in North America until after the Miracle on Ice.
The 1980 Olympic team, coached by Minnesota's Herb Brooks, was filled with college players who became icons after their stunning upset of the powerhouse Russians.
Their influence seemed to play a big role in the building of Olympic rinks.
After Anchorage's Sullivan Arena became the first, St. Cloud State was next. Minnesota and Minnesota State soon followed.
Brooks was the head coach at St. Cloud State when it planned the National Hockey Center and has deep ties to Minnesota, where he played and coached the program to three NCAA national titles.
"I think it was Herb Brooks, his influence, the '80 Olympics—and I think Alaska had a lot to do with the international competition," Comley said. "They'd try to get their big events there. I'm not sure about the sequence that followed."
In the first 15 years following the Miracle on Ice, there were 11 college hockey rinks built. Only two were true NHL sheets (Clarkson and Mercyhurst).
UMass opened an Olympic hybrid in 1993 and New Hampshire became the first East Coast team to build a full Olympic rink in 1995.
The trend rolled into the late 90s.
Colorado College, which is located in the hometown of USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, built an Olympic-sized rink in World Arena in 1998. Wisconsin, coached by longtime successful USA Hockey coach Jeff Sauer, built an Olympic hybrid (97 feet wide) in 1998.
Northern Michigan, which needed a big rink to host the Olympic short-track speedskaters, built an Olympic-sized sheet in the Berry Events Center in 1999. The speedskaters have since left.
"There was a push at the time to start moving to bigger sheets," said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who was the head coach at Fairbanks and Colorado College when Olympic-sized rinks were built there. "Europe had it. North America was the only one that had 200 by 85. Everything in Europe or Russia was all 200 by 100.
"When there was an opportunity to build new facilities, I think you saw the trend was to go a little bit bigger."
Another indication that U.S. colleges were swept up with Miracle on Ice fever: The big rinks never caught on in Canada.
Not a single Canadian Hockey League junior team—an umbrella that includes the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League—plays on an Olympic ice sheet.
Transition back to NHL sheets
That trend has come to a screeching halt, though.
No one has built a full Olympic or an Olympic hybrid since Northern Michigan in 1999.
Of the 13 college arenas built since 2000, 11 are traditional NHL sheets and two are NHL hybrids (Boston University and Notre Dame are 90 feet wide).
There are several reasons for it.
In 1998, the NHL started sending its players to the Olympics. No longer were colleges trying to recruit and develop players with the Olympics in mind. If athletes wanted to play in the Olympics, they had to go through the NHL.
Every Olympic rink and Olympic hybrid arena in college hockey had its groundbreaking before the 1998 Nagano Games.
Also, college hockey has become a more prominent path to the NHL, setting records nearly annually for alums in the league. Some programs sell recruits on the fact that they'll be developing on the same sized ice sheets they'll use in the pros.
College hockey's biggest games are all played on NHL sheets now, too.
From 2000-09, NCAA regionals were often held on Olympic-sized sheets: Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, Colorado College's World Arena, UMass's Mullins Center and Wisconsin's Kohl Center all hosted them.
But no Olympic-sized sheet has hosted an NCAA tournament game since Mariucci Arena in 2009. The NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Committee has made rink size a key criteria for choosing regional sites.
Whether it's coincidence or not, no team that plays on an Olympic sheet has won an NCAA title since Wisconsin in 2006, when it didn't have to leave the state to win the championship. Prior to that, it was Minnesota in 2003. The Gophers hosted a regional in Mariucci that year.
"That would be a disadvantage I would not want," Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said of having to play the NCAA tournament on a different rink size than his home. "Whether it's real or not—it could be just perceived—it's something I wouldn't want to change at NCAA tournament time."
What size is right?
Hastings has an extensive background on the different rink sizes.
He has served as an assistant coach at St. Cloud State and Minnesota—both programs with big sheets—and at Omaha, which has an NHL sheet.
A year after he was hired at Minnesota State in 2012, the Verizon Center was set to undergo major renovations. He took the opportunity to shrink the playing surface. It is now 87 feet wide, three shy of an NHL sheet.
"When we had the opportunity to do a remake, I thought it was important to have the same size for the level the players are aspiring to get to," Hastings said. "It's a little more fan friendly. If they are going to pay a dollar, they want to be entertained. I appreciate watching a game on an NHL sheet.
"I'm not taking anything away from what other programs have. Everyone is going to like what they have. But it's something that was debating and discussed quite extensively when we had the option to change, because we had to tear up our floor and get a new ice plant. We're very happy with the direction we went."
Minnesota could be the next to shrink its ice size, but Lucia doesn't want to go down to an NHL sheet.
He says a width of 92.5 feet may be ideal—the exact split between an NHL and Olympic sheet.
"When hockey started in North America, guys were 5-(foot)-7, 5-8, and they didn't skate like they do now," Lucia said. "If we do something—nothing has been determined yet—but if we do end up shrinking it, it will probably be a hybrid.
"I'd say it's too bad when the NHL built all these new rinks, it's too bad they didn't build them 90 feet—giving it five more feet because guys are so much bigger now."
"I'd say 200 feet long is fine," he said. "Eighty-five is too small, 100 is too big."
The Olympic-sized rinks aren't about to go totally extinct, though.
Many of the nine current Olympic or Olympic hybrids could remain until new ones are built—and that could take decades.
So, coaches say it's important to have teams that can play on both types of rinks.
"In our game right now, the more you can make yourself flexible as a group, the better off you're going to be," Hastings said. "If you're going into Western Michigan, you better be able to play heavy or they're going to get a hold of you. If you're going to St. Cloud, and you're running that extra eight or 10 feet to finish your checks, you're going to get yourself out of position and be in trouble."
The University of North Dakota is one of the fortunate programs that has the ability to practice on either rink size in its home building.
When Ralph Engelstad Arena was constructed in 2001, then-coach Dean Blais asked Ralph Engelstad to attach an Olympic-sized practice facility to its main, NHL-sized sheet, so it could practice the week leading up to a series on a big rink.
UND has already played eight games this season on Olympic sheets—the most since it joined the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2013. It is 3-2-3 on Olympic ice, 7-3-2 on smaller sheets this season.
UND won't play on another big rink all year.
"We're glad with what we have as far as the NHL sheet," UND coach Brad Berry said, "but we're also thankful we have the Olympic rink to practice on."
The only other National Collegiate Hockey Conference team that has both NHL and Olympic sheets at its home facility is Colorado College.
St. Cloud State travels across town to the Municipal Athletic Complex to practice on a small sheet before certain road series on NHL sheets.
The other five NCHC teams all play on NHL sheets but do not practice on Olympic rinks before playing games on the big sheet (Omaha used to practice on an Olympic rink in town under Blais, but hasn't under first-year coach Mike Gabinet).
Comley, who served as head coach of teams with both NHL and Olympic ice sheets, said he thought it was harder to go from a small sheet to a big one.
"I know when I was at Michigan State, whenever we were going to an Olympic sheet, you were going to try to practice for it," Comley said. "There's so much room and they are so different. It's a completely different game for goalies and defensemen. For forwards, it's OK."
There are several small adjustments that players have to make when playing on the different-sized sheets.
"There are some things we have to adjust," Berry said. "The angles are different for goalies. I think for defensemen, gap control and D-zone coverage is a little bit different."
Former UND goalie Jake Brandt, now a TV analyst for Midco Sports Network, said different rink sizes create major challenges for netminders.
"You have your spots picked out on a specific rink, but all of that you can throw out the window, because it's way different on an Olympic rink," Brandt said. "All of your angles are different and you can easily get off your angles. As a goaltender, everything is just drastically different than what you're used to playing."
Former UND defenseman Matt Smaby, who plays a physical game, said he had to make adjustments going from the NHL to the big rinks in Germany, where he won back-to-back championships.
"In an NHL-sized rink, a player like myself who is involved physically, you don't have to move very far for contact," Smaby said. "In Europe, I had to pick my times better. I had to pick proper times to make a run at someone or make a hit. That took some learning."
UND junior Joel Janatuinen, who grew up playing on Olympic rinks in Finland, said there are adjustments for forwards, too.
"You just don't have the time and space that you had back in Europe," he said. "If you get the puck, you don't have a lot of time to make decisions and handle the puck and look around. You have to be quicker in your decision-making.
"As a winger, the D-men are right in your face in college. You've got to be fast with the puck and careful not to turn it over. In Europe, it really depends on the game. There can be high-tempo games, or else the game can be really slow with both teams scared to lose the puck, skating on the outside and nothing really happening."
That's one reason why Hastings is a fan of the small sheets.
"I've looked at it this way: When you see players have to make decisions quicker in smaller areas, when time and space gets taken away, that's when the real elite players separate," he said.
Bentley will open college hockey's newest rink next season. That will be a standard NHL sheet.
Others may soon find a way to adjust their rink sizes as the era of Olympic rinks in college hockey seems to be over.
"The Miracle on Ice impacted hockey a lot," said Christiansen, who retired in 1996. "It was a great win. Hockey and the NHL were fine then, but it sure helped college hockey, because a lot of those kids were college hockey players on that team. There was a lot of talk about colleges going to Olympic rinks at that time.
"We decided to go with an Olympic-sized ice sheet. The only unfortunate part is that you can't go back to an NHL-style ice sheet if you want. You can't go back without moving seats or anything."