The men’s ice hockey tournament at PyeongChang will be the first since 1994 not to include players from the North American National Hockey League (NHL), but Sweden’s goaltender Viktor Fasth thinks this could lead to a faster game as players from European leagues are used to the larger rink used in Olympic competition.
“The hockey in Europe has a high standard,” Fasth said. “And perhaps we will be able to notice by the pace of the game that the players are used to playing on the bigger ice surfaces. The NHL players come from a smaller rink where the game is more centrally focused, where they don’t have to cover bigger areas.”
Fasth, the 2011 World Championship MVP (most valuable player), knows the playing style differences well, having spent three years in NHL and two in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) before returning to his current club, Vaxjo Lakers, in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), last year.
With 16 competition days and surpassed only by curling, ice hockey is the second longest-running event at PyeongChang 2018, concluding with the men’s final just hours before the Closing Ceremony.
The fast-paced contact sport is contested by six skating players on each side trying to get the puck into the opponents’ goal using sticks. Men’s ice hockey has been an Olympic event since 1920, with the women’s competition introduced in 1998.
Each match is played over three 20-minute periods and the team with most goals at full-time wins. If the score is tied at full-time, a five-minute sudden-death overtime period is played (20 minutes in the gold-medal game). The game ends when the five/20 minutes have expired or when a goal is scored. Should no team score during that period, matches will be decided by a game-winning shot (GWS)in a penalty shootout. That is how Sweden beat Canada in the final of the 2017 IIHF World Championship.
“It’s one of those things that we do at the end of trainings, practising penalty shootouts,” Fasth said. “It’s for fun, but it is also good to have been in these situations in training so we know what it’s like.”
Key skills & top tips
The biggest difference between men’s and women’s ice hockey is that the women are not allowed to deliver body checks to an opponent.
A player who commits a foul is given a two-minute penalty and, according to Fasth, making the most of these short periods is key to winning an ice hockey battle.
“Power play (when a team is one man up) and penalty kill (one man down) are usually match-deciding. To have a strong power play that can produce points and goals is extremely important, especially in these short tournaments where there are tight matches, and it’s the same with penalty kill.
“To be able to keep clear with one man down you win a lot. Because you will get penalties, that will always happen. The game is so fast.”
Fasth became a goaltender because he was “fascinated by being an individualist in a team sport where the difference between becoming a hero or a scapegoat is pretty small”. Wearing an estimated 20kg of leg pads and other protection, his job is to stop pucks coming at him at about 150kmh.
“The most important thing is to always see the puck and to be patient and stand up, waiting for the player to make the move first.”
Hoping to challenge Canada
Should Canada repeat its men’s and women’s double gold medals from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, it would be the men’s tenth title and the women’s fifth, having won every Olympic competition since 2002.
However, Fasth believes Sochi 2014 runners-up Sweden have a good chance of winning gold in PyeongChang.
“We have so many incredibly good players, both in KHL and SHL, who are leaders in their team. We have a good squad so it looks great,” he said.
“We have to be favourites. The Czech Republic has a good team, as well as Canada and the Finns, so it will be tight. It’s much more of an open game now that the NHL players aren’t in.”