The question in the post raises two vital issues:(a)retaining of "IT"
(b) transformation of comparative to positive with as...as correlative.
We would take up (b) first for it can be explained summarily. After last 'as' of two "ASs" we drop words that are mere repetitive and use either nominal or objective form of personal pronouns. However subjective forms with or without verb are avoided as they are too formal; no doubt, you're comfortablely correct in your example.
It is important to remember that when context is of help we often think pronouns unnecessary but the irony of the situation is that they're recognized as a part of speech only for this function of substitution.
In the first example, standing alone the second sentence might be unclear with out the use of 'it'
But from the context in the latter it is obvious hockey is referred to.
Reference may be drawn to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pro-drop_language, which in a nutshell explains why, barring imperative sentences and informal uses nouns and pronouns are never dropped in English as subjects. Similarly when used as an object to a verb or preposition, overt pronouns are more useful in English than in some other languages.
English is not a pro-drop-language and we are not mandatorily asked to omit pronouns where they are pragmatically inferrable. We retain such pronouns to avoid ambiguities, verbal stress or any shift in reference.
So, even if without the use of IT, the sense can well be imagined, still the writer makes use of the grammaticality unnecessary Pronoun -IT- to mean how unprecedented a turn the environment has taken; he didn't imagine it.
Grammatically, the sentence can do with or without "IT".