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Jets' Maurice: Olympic ice won't make big difference

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- There is a widely held assumption that a big factor at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be the ability of each team to adjust to the international ice surface.

Montreal Canadiens center and Czech Olympic team captain Tomas Plekanec went so far as to say that hockey on international ice, which is 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, is "a completely different sport."

You can count Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice among those that may disagree with Plekanec's description.

Maurice spent last season coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, and one thing he noticed during his time in Russia was that the most successful team didn't necessarily cater its game to the big ice.

"The interesting part about it for me is that the team that won the last two KHL championships, Moscow Dynamo, has a Russian coach, almost all the players are Russian, and they play a North American game," Maurice said before his Jets faced the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday. "They chip pucks, they finish checks, they block shots, and that's where the KHL is going. The rink is wider, it's not longer. If it's in the corner, it doesn't take you any longer to get there.

"There's more of the North American game getting into Russia than there is necessarily the big ice coming into our game."

That's bad news for anyone who was hoping to see more of a puck possession game in Sochi rather than the usual "chip and chase" style of the NHL, but Maurice says with the talent that will be on display in Sochi we should see the best of what the big ice has to offer.

"When that game is played at its best, there's both," Maurice said. "You get the big hits and you get all that, but then you get the room to make plays. That's the nice part of the big ice. When it's at its worst, it's a soccer game."

Aside from the hockey component of his life in Russia, Maurice said the cultural differences were quickly overshadowed by just how similar life was to his home in Canada. He feels the North American players heading to Sochi shouldn't have much trouble adjusting in any case, because the place they will be spending their most important time will not be much different from what they are accustomed to.

"The great part for those guys is when they hit the ice, they're home. With everything they need to worry about, they're going to be the most comfortable during the 60 minutes of that hockey game," Maurice said. "The first six weeks I was there, I couldn't believe how different it was. Everything was different. But then after that, I couldn't believe how much it was like home.

"Once you get past that original perception, it's not much different. It's cold. It's as cold in Winnipeg as it was in Magnitogorsk or in Sault Ste. Marie, where I grew up."

The Russian team that will compete in Sochi has nine players on the 25-man roster who play in the KHL, including former NHL stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, who are still in their prime. Among the traditional hockey powers, Russia and Finland have nine players each who play on international ice, and the Czech Republic has eight.

"They don't have to go through any of those mental adjustments that the non-big ice surface teams have to, it's in the way that they play," Maurice said. "Their systems won't have to change."

Aside from Kovalchuk and Radulov, and perhaps Phoenix Coyotes prospect Viktor Tikhonov, most North American fans are unlikely to be very familiar with the KHL component of the Russian roster. Maurice warns that lack of notoriety should not be mistaken for a sign of weakness.

"I've seen a lot of them, they've got a good team," Maurice said of the Russians. "At the end of the day, Canada still puts the most powerful group of players on the ice, but the top end players over there are brilliant. They're very skilled, but a different style of game, different mentality in terms of how they play."

Maurice is also familiar with Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov from their time together in the Hartford Whalers organization, and he cited him as another example of someone who might not be a familiar name in North America, but who also shouldn't be taken lightly.

"Coach Bill was an assistant in New Haven when I was in Hartford, so he's just got a vast understanding of the game and how it's played in all different leagues," Maurice said. "They'll be very well coached and very motivated."

That last part, the motivation, will come not only from the coaching staff. Much like Canada was under the intense glare of the spotlight at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Russia will have the same level of scrutiny in Sochi, if not more.

"Just as it's a big deal for Canadians to play over here, it is a huge deal, and you see that with Ilya Kovalchuk, for those Russians," Maurice said. "There's just a tremendous amount of pride in their country and their game.

"And pressure."

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