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    Wednesday, February 11, 1998

    Big rink a big challenge

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

      There's a huge difference between the kind of hockey that will be seen in the Olympics and the product that the National Hockey League serves up.
     Yesterday, we examined some of the general areas in which the games differ, such as the types of passes and the power play.
      Today's article deals with specific ways in which Team Canada must make adjustments to what is a significantly different type of game.
     It's not a board game
     Simply put, there won't be as much of it as there is in the NHL. Think about it. When was the last time you saw two consecutive passes without one of them being banked off the boards?
     In the Olympics, there will be more open-ice play simply because there is more open ice.
     The concept of making a pass, then breaking and getting the puck back remains very much a part of the international game. Therefore, if the Canadian defenders aren't alert to the give-and-go, they'll be in trouble.
     It will be there, but it will be significantly reduced. Contact is more difficult to achieve on the larger surface, but the potential for big hits still exists.
     European forwards like to circle behind a puck-carrying defenceman, then roar past him and pick up the puck with speed.
     A Canadian defenceman who is alert to this and who is a good hitter -- Rob Blake for instance -- can make the most of the opportunity to jump up when the forward turns to look for the pass.
     The subsequent hit could be devastating. But, if the forward dishes off the puck just before he gets nailed, the Canadian defenceman will be badly out of position. The key is to know when to hit.
     A defenceman going into the corner to check a puck carrier has to be much more conscious of his speed than is the case in the NHL.
     The corners are bigger and deeper, so he can't go in there out of control.
     Any checker must control his speed, steer the opponent and, when he gets a chance to close him down, go for it. If a Canadian tries to close down an opponent too early, the result will be a one-on-one, and against Europeans that's dangerous.
     The Canadians will have to be much more disciplined than they are in the NHL -- and conversely they'll have to defend against Europeans who already know that.
     It's a different game on this surface. The Europeans don't come in and shoot the puck off the angle because it's not a great shot. There's not much to shoot at.
     So they'll come in and delay and look for the late man.
     They like to go deep, then put the puck out to the near side, whereas NHLers tend to cycle the puck and bang it off the boards. Near-side passes are a big part of international hockey, which leads us to the next point.
     The nets are two feet further out in Olympic hockey than they are in the NHL.
     That gives a forwards more time to hang on to the puck while a teammate gets into position for a good shot. A defenceman has to challenge because it's part of the game, but he can't challenge too far, so the goalies have to be alert.
     They also have to make a number of other adjustments.
     Two more feet doesn't sound like much, but when a team comes in and fires the puck around the boards, that extra distance make it difficult to get back.
     But on the positive side for Canada, players like Wayne Gretzky, Paul Kariya (if he comes) and Steve Yzerman will be thrilled with the amount of room they have behind the net.
     They'll be extremely effective in this style of game.
     Everybody knows how dangerous Gretzky is back there, but Yzerman also loves to work the puck low, especially if the play stalls in another part of the zone. He'll head for the back of the net and wait for the puck to get there. And when it does, he knows what to do with it.
     On a big rink, positioning is crucial, and the most dangerous zone is the area between the faceoff dots. If the Canadians give that up, they'll have little chance to recover.
     Check it out the first time the TV cameras provide an overview. The space between the dots is enormous compared to the NHL.
     Against a rush, the defencemen must make absolutely sure that the first pass doesn't go between those dots. If it gets in there on a regular basis, the gold medal is gone.
     If the opposition does get the puck into that area, it has to be with the second pass -- or later -- to give the forwards time to get back.
     The Canadians will have to learn how to use the ice. They'll have to figure out the timing -- when to break into the open. If the forwards are standing still when they get the puck, the attack has no potential on a surface that is geared to a speed game.
     As a result, the Canadians must use the first three irrelevant games to learn when to come back, when to build speed and how to get into position for the next play. Being on their traditional surface, the Europeans will adapt quickly.
     But by the time the showdown round starts, the Canadians should be prepared and no longer making mistakes that will be inevitable in the early going.
     European teams are heavily into the trap. Therefore, the Canadians should forecheck when they can, and trap when they have to.
     Canadian forechecking always has bothered the Europeans. They don't like to be hit and they tend to get flustered. Even though the Europeans are far better at handling the forecheck than they used to be, the tactic still can be effective.
     The Canadians must remember that this is a short, six-game tournament and that the first half is a learning experience.
     Most of them are familiar with this style of game. They simply have to remember how they used to play and refine their dormant skills.
     That won't guarantee a gold medal. Nothing will in a one-game knockout format. But it certainly will maximize their chances and as long as that's the case, they'll be in good shape.