There is a plethora of differences between the North American and European style of playing the game of hockey. The most obvious difference, when comparing the two styles is ice surface dimensions. North American standard rinks are 200 x 85 feet, while European ice sheets are “Olympic-sized” at 200 x 100 feet. It may not seem like much of a difference, but when you consider square-footage, we’re talking about a 3000 square-foot difference! That’s a nice chunk of extra real estate to dangle around in.
With extra space, we see a lot of relative differences in the style of play. More room breeds differing strategies on both, how to attack and how to defend. While North American hockey systems—on the offensive side—focus on “staying in lanes” and “playing in traffic”, the European game focuses on maintaining puck possession and generating speed and momentum, especially through the neutral zone.
On the defensive side of the puck, the North American game is a science. Every piece of real estate is tracked and sectioned off. The infusion of hi-tech video analysis allows teams to find effective ways to “cut the ice” and force opponents into smaller, low-risk areas. The most prominent example of North American defensive strategy is the “Neutral-Zone Trap”, first employed by the Montreal Canadiens during the 1970s, but made infamous by the New Jersey Devils during the mid-90s. The “Trap” focuses on using manpower to angle and force attacking players into highly-congested areas of the ice, forcing a higher percentage of turnovers and counter-attacks. On smaller rinks, this is a much easier and effective defensive strategy to employ.
Conversely, European hockey focuses its defensive efforts on using speed to force turnovers. Where North Americans are told to “Always finish your check”, Europeans rely heavily on angling and stick-checking, as to ensure that they are able to recover quicker to the center of the ice, where they will quickly re-attack. This is why you tend to see less physicality in the European-style game. There is simply too much ground to cover and you don’t want to catch yourself out of position.
The European game also tends to be a bit more on the cutting edge when it comes to rule changes. For example, when I was playing in Europe, early on in my pro career, there were a couple of rules that I had to learn the hard way. The first rule was the “Head Checking” rule, which was instituted in Europe far before it made its way over to North America. Every time I delivered what I thought was a textbook, hard, clean hit, I was given a 2-minute minor for “Contact to the Head”, accompanied by a 10-minute misconduct. After about five of these penalties in my first three games, I just stopped hitting players hard and spent more time just “getting in their way”. Although I was frustrated about not be able to plaster guys, it did reduce the amount of devastating contact in the game, ultimately leading to a faster pace and less injuries over the course of a season.
Below are 3 other significant differences I noticed during my two seasons overseas:
1) 5-Man Units
During my first season playing in Europe, we had a coach, Vadim Musatov, who played 10 years in the Russian Superleague (Modern-day KHL) . He was a long-time international teammate of Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny and participated in the infamous “Punchup in Piestany” game between Canada and Russia during the 1987 World Junior Championships. One of the things Vadim instituted as coach was the “5-Man Unit” system. The 5-man unit, where a line of forwards and a pair defencemen would always play together, was common in Russian hockey.
At first, I thought this was just plain weird, but after a while, I found it to be very beneficial. Playing in consistent 5-man units allowed our team to develop strong chemistry within those units. In North America, it’s common to keep consistent defencemen pairings or forward lines, but 5-man, 5-on-5 units just isn’t commonplace.
Thinking back, it made a lot of sense. Why should we be separating forwards and defencemen when it comes to developing chemistry? Today’s hockey is played with a lot of offensive infusion from the backend, and the forwards and defencemen are more integrated so why not try and capitalize on it?
2) Practice Structure and Intensity
Another major difference between hockey in North America and Europe was the way practices were structured and the intensity in which they were carried out. Coming out of the NCAA, I was used to “practicing the way you play”. This meant finishing checks, blocking shots and always going 110%. Day-in an day-out in college, it was battle drills, battle drills and more battle drills. It was all about intensity.
In Europe, after my first practice, our coach called me and my roommate (another Canadian Import) into his office and told us basically to cut out the “Tough Guy” bullshit and tone it down in practice. Most of our practices were spent working on skill development (flow drills), controlled scrimmages, and maybe 10 minutes on system play. We usually spent the first 10 minutes of every practice playing “Monkey in the Middle”! It was more about being better at hockey than being better at running systems.
3) Celebration of the Hero
They put a lot of emphasis on “Celebrating the Hero” in Europe. From “Man of the Match” gift baskets of booze, chocolate and cheese, to the “Golden Helmet”, worn by each team’s leading scorer, there is a lot of incentive to be the best. From the North American standpoint, this seems misplaced as we tend to try and celebrate all the various ways players contribute to the success of a team, but in the European culture, where there isn’t as much of a focus on “roles”, it makes more sense.
You see, in most European pro leagues, teams are usually a lot more top heavy. The first two lines are usually made up of the skilled, older, star players, while the third and fourth lines tend to be younger players who are aspiring to become skilled, star players one day. The concept of celebrating the hero is in place to push these young bottom liners to work hard and succeed. It’s a system based upon apprenticeship.