The idea of having an advantage over your opponents when playing at the place you call “home” is centuries old in sports and competition. In hockey this idea is known as “Home Ice Advantage”. However is there really such a thing as home ice advantage? This is a topic of debate among analysts because often the factors pointed to improving a team’s performance at home games are intangible ideas that can’t be measured with statistics. If this were true, how is it that in the current NHL, where parity is so prevalent between teams, do the majority of teams still have better home records than away records? The idea of home ice advantage should have been lost in an age of parity in the NHL, but it has actually grown as an idea. The Detroit Red Wings, during the 2011-2012 season, brought home ice advantage to the forefront of hockey lore with their 23 straight home game wins. This was a remarkable feat not ever accomplished even before the salary-cap era. There is one constant in the idea of home ice advantage, the arena. Here is a look at how a team’s home arena has made home ice advantage become such a prevalent part of the modern game.
A great example of the birthplace of home ice advantage in the NHL is the original home of the Boston Bruins, The Boston Garden. The Boston Garden gave the Bruins a huge advantage every night they played there before any of the later renovations were done to the building. Unlike modern times where most home ice advantage ideas are rooted in intangible things, the Bruins had advantages for very tangible reasons in the Boston Garden. Visiting teams had to deal with many nuances during a game at The Boston Garden. The original rink at The Boston Garden was smaller than all the other rinks in the NHL at the time. Sitting at 191 feet by 83 feet rather than the 200 feet by 85 feet that all the other rinks were built to. This was before the NHL had made a rule governing rink size, so it was allowed. Players from visiting teams had hard times adjusting their game to the smaller ice surface whereas the Bruins, having practiced on it daily, could control games. The small surface made playing in Boston a physically grueling process as Boston players knew to take advantage of the closer boards by running their opponents into them. The layout of the players’ benches and penalty boxes at Boston Garden threw many visiting players off their game since they were also in non-standard spots. The visiting player’s benches were on the opposite side of the ice of the home player’s bench instead of beside each other. This caused havoc during visiting team’s line changes and the Bruins would take advantage of this regularly. The penalty boxes also sat in different locations than normal which further threw off visiting team’s games. Perhaps the most annoying thing for visiting players was the locker room, which was considerably smaller than the home teams and had no plumbing installed. The Boston Garden in its original form, before renovations, became the poster child for home ice advantage in the early NHL.
Home ice advantage in the NHL today is often attributed to intangible factors whose influence on the game can’t be meticulously calculated. There are still some tangible factors as well, but they aren’t as prevalent as the example of the Boston Garden above since the NHL has made more strict rules to govern arenas to allow teams, both away and home, to have an equal playing field. So how is it that teams still put up better home records than away if the league has tried to eliminate the idea of home ice advantage through facility regulations? Looking at the Red Wings incredible run of 23 straight home wins during the 2011-2012 season shows some insight to some home ice advantages, both tangible and intangible. The Wings were an average team away from home that year but also beat the NHL all-time record for consecutive home wins in a season, even beating other team’s records from the early years of the NHL when physical cases of home ice advantage like the Boston Garden existed. The Wings tangible home ice advantages were largely still related to the arena. Joe Louis Arena is often cited as having the liveliest boards in the NHL with pucks almost seeming to slingshot off of them. This can be hard for visiting players to play off of and predict where the puck will go, having had minimal prior experience with the Joe Louis Arena’s boards. The other thing that helps the Wings’ home ice advantage is a combination of both tangible and intangible things. Joe Louis Arena, being as old as it is, is from a time when seats could be a lot steeper due to lack of strict building codes. This allows the fans to be closer to the rink than any other arena in current use by the NHL. This makes the crowd more intrusive to the visiting team’s mental game as chants can engulf the rink to levels not seen in other rinks. There is no way to prove that intangible things like chanting directly impact a game, but the Detroit Red Wings win streak happened to coincide with their first sustained sell-out streak in decades. Maybe the increased crowd and energy and taunting of the visiting team in the arena was the thing the Wings players were missing to be truly successful at home.
Home Ice advantage might be the thing of superstition, but even NHL front offices aren’t convinced. More and more money is spent on making the home arena a place for the home team players to succeed. Millions are being spent on upgrades to fitness facilities, practice facilities, and locker rooms in the hopes these will improve player performance. Millions are also being spent on the fan experience; from giveaways, to arena seating improvements, to technological improvements, all of this is done in the hopes a larger and more positive crowd will help the home team win. In the District Detroit project, the new arena promises better experiences for both fans and players. The Red Wings, for the first time, will have a practice rink at their home arena instead of having to drive to a different practice rink when the Joe is occupied. Many other teams have this already and the front office is hoping that with the Wings having to no longer practice away from home, especially on game days, that they will be more energetic when game time comes due to less travel while at home.
Then again, the Red Wings broke the all-time record for consecutive home wins in an aging arena without state-of-the-art facilities and no attached practice rink, while others that had an attached practice rink and state-of-the-art facilities could not break the record. So maybe “Home Ice Advantage” is just a myth and it is just luck that teams have better home records than away records. Or maybe, just maybe, the belief in the myth is the intangible thing that brings the idea of “Home Ice Advantage” into reality.
Cover Photo by: www.aynottawa.ca