Hitmen will enjoy modified NHL ice surface

SCOTT FISHER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:30 AM ET

Home-ice advantage usually can't be measured by tangible methods. Crowd support, a bigger dressing room, a home-cooked meal.

They all add up to give the home side an advantage.

But the Calgary Hitmen, who host the Red Deer Rebels in their home opener this afternoon (2 p.m., The Fan 960), will get an even bigger boost at the 'Dome, which -- thanks to the Flames -- is the only rink in the WHL that will use the new, expanded offensive zones.

The WHL adopted most of the sweeping changes introduced at the NHL level but decided to wait a year on changing rink dimensions and curbing the size of goaltending equipment.

But with the 'Dome ice being modified to NHL specifications, the neutral zone has been shrunk by four ft. and the goallines have also been pushed back.

What it boils down to is an extra four ft. in the offensive and defensive zones.

GM/head coach Kelly Kisio is aware of the huge advantage that could provide his team if his players learn to use it effectively.

"We've got that extra two feet up top and that could make a difference," Kisio says. "It could open up the slot a little more if teams aren't aware of it.

"It should help when you're cycling the puck in the offensive zone, you can stretch the other team out."

Not since the Boston Gardens closed its doors in 1995 has a team enjoyed an advantage of playing on a different rink than the rest of the league.

Kisio remembers playing in the old barn, which resembled a short-track speed skating ring.

"That was the last one that was really different," Kisio says. "That was a tiny, little place. You had to react pretty quick there.

"(The Bruins) got used to playing there where everything happens so much quicker. You don't have the extra 10 ft. on the width.

"You had to be ready to get dirty to play in that building."

The Hitmen plan to incorporate the 'Dome's unique dimensions into their systems, which could pay big dividends.

But assistant coach Dave Lowry said it may take some time.

"We've only been in the 'Dome for a short time, so we haven't been able to practice a lot of different things with it," Lowry says.

"It's new to us right now too but we'll try to do different things as the year goes on. It'll be a learning experience for us as well.

"But we're going to try to find a way to use it to our advantage."

The Hitmen have the personnel to make it work.

With mobile blueliners like Dustin Kohn, Jeff Schultz (when they return from NHL camps) and Brett Carson should benefit from the extra room.

"It gives us a couple more feet and we've got some guys back there who can move the puck," Lowry says. "If we can get control and spread the ice out, hopefully we can use that and develop plays off of it."

Carson is looking forward to having a little extra breathing room in the attacking zone.

"It will help us in our own barn because there's that much more room," the Carolina Hurricanes prospect says. "Other teams will come in and it'll be in the back of their minds that they're used to playing with smaller zones.

"The defencemen will be able to creep into open areas because the forwards will be down low and we'll have alot of room up top.

"Especially with the skill we have on the blueline this year, it should be a big advantage."

Where fans will likely see the biggest impact is on the powerplay where the extra four feet will allow for increased puck possession and wider passing lanes.

"You can spread the penalty killers so far out that we're able to find more holes," Carson says. "We've been working on that a lot, with the d-men staying high and passing it back and forth to pull the forwards out.

"Then we put it low and let the forwards go to work with all the extra room."


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