When the Gophers skate on home ice, it's similar to a beach vacation.
But not in a good way.
"It feels like an ocean," senior forward Jack Ramsey said of 3M Arena at Mariucci. "When we practice on Ridder [Arena] for an away series for a week and then we come back out to Mariucci, it's like … 'How is this even hockey played out here?' "
Transitioning among the different-sized rinks in college hockey — from Mariucci's Olympic-sized 200 feet by 100 feet to the Gophers women's NHL-sized 200x85 and all the hybrids in between — is something teams have to navigate. The Gophers are the only program in the Big Ten with the large international sheet and return to it this weekend against Wisconsin after two weeks on the road at smaller rinks.
A slow-moving movement to make Mariucci's sheet smaller could end the dimensional back and forth and reverse a more than 30-year-old trend. But until then, the Gophers and their opponents will just have to keep adjusting their play to their surroundings. Olympic ice encourages more creativity, since there's more space to make plays. Games on NHL ice are physical, forcing more contact and typically more goals, as everything happens quickly.
That can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on a lot of factors. When Wisconsin comes to Mariucci on Friday and Saturday, the Badgers must adjust up from their hybrid 200x97 Kohl Center. They'll have to compensate for more room on special teams and larger gaps with their defense. But when the Gophers play away from home, they can feel crowded and pressed for time on a tighter rink.
Recordwise, though, it's been fairly even. The Gophers are 5-5-2 at home and 4-5-2 away, but that might be because the defense and offense benefit from different sizes. Gophers freshman defenseman Ben Brinkman noted skating as the main difference between big ice and small. The young defensive unit does better on smaller ice because there's less ground to cover. But some of the speedy forwards make really good use of that extra ice.
"We have so many different players on our team," Ramsey said of which type of sheet suits the Gophers best. "You might give me the puck and be thinking, 'It'd be better for Jack Ramsey to have an NHL-size rink because he's going to get to that corner. He's going to get to that puck quicker.' You put Rem Pitlick on an Olympic-size rink, he might blow by a D. Or Sammy Walker. Because [the opponents are] not going to have their gap ready. [Pitlick and Walker are] going to have so much time to beat them."
Gophers coach Bob Motzko, in his first year with the program, previously coached at St. Cloud State for many seasons, which also sports an Olympic-sized rink. He said the bigger ice is great for practice and developing skills in young players — something the many elite European NHL players have proved after starting out on the bigger ice.
And while he said it's easier to transition from a bigger rink to a smaller one than vice versa, that might become a problem of the past soon enough. Olympic-size rinks became a fad in college in the 1990s, but now they're slowly phasing out. Minnesota State Mankato, for example, shrunk its Verizon Center sheet to 200x87 in 2013. The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation even commented earlier this month about potentially moving all international competitions to NHL-sized surfaces.
Mariucci is heading toward that fate, just a little slowly. The program announced its intentions in 2014 to reduce the size of the 25-year-old rink to a hybrid 92.5-foot width. Since then, the Gophers have revamped their locker rooms and players' lounge and will next update the weight room and coaches' offices. The last part would be the actual ice, something Brian Deutsch, assistant director of athletic communications, called a "long-term project" for which "fundraising efforts are ongoing."
The smaller ice would also increase seating and create better sightlines. And with his team performing well on hybrid rinks at Notre Dame and Wisconsin this season, Motzko thinks the in-between is the happy medium.
"That's the perfect world to have a little hybrid," he said. "That's on the horizon."