IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SKILLS, STUPID: Hockey, Learning & Heart

(This article was written in January 2003, just after the Canadian Junior Hockey Team had lost the gold medal in the World Championships of that year. They lost to the Russians, which is no shame, but...)

Silver is silver, and we can still bask nationally in the sun of Salt Lake, but there was something in that oh-so-close loss to the Russian juniors that was irritating.  Our man Fleury was superb in goal and probably won his M.V.P. award on the strength of that last game, and the Canadian boys were plucky but overmatched.  It really wasn’t that close.  The thing that got to me, though, was the tearful commentary of one of the lads, trying to figure out what had happened to him, his mates, his nation.  “We gave everything we had, we played with lots of heart…”  Ugh.  Heart.  When will we realize that’s not enough?

Of course they played with heart.  That’s a given, isn’t it?  Yes, and our Canadian men fought with brilliant heart at Dieppe, too, but we remember equally the criminal lack of preparation with which they launched themselves against a mighty foe.  Please don’t mistake me, I don’t equate the two enterprises; I just wonder, with the 30th anniversary of the Summit Series having just passed, when Canadian hockey men will finally admit that we can learn about Our Game from people who don’t come from Kingston, Ontario?  Captain Scottie Upshall did (“that’s a great team over there, they must be doing some things right in Russia”), and it’s astonishing, from where I sit, that we still teach our young players that heart is pre-eminent.

The situation in other sports is instructive.  Holger Osieck, a German, was brought in to coach our national men’s soccer side.  He deplored the Canadian style of play, which involved a lot of long hopeful kicks and furious running—can you say “dump and chase”?—and immediately required ball-control strategies.  Not only that, he had asked for and been granted the authority to dictate his methods to the feeder elements of the national program; there is a unity of purpose here that is strikingly absent in Canadian hockey.

Last summer’s World Championships of basketball provide an example that Canadian hockey-lovers should recognize.  The Americans entered their “Dream Team” in Barcelona in 1992, their college all-star teams having lost in ’72 (“we wuz robbed!”) and ’88 (“oh-oh, they’re catchin’ up!”).  The youngsters were vulnerable, but when they sent Michael, Larry, and Magic, it was no contest.  Until, ten years later, it was.  The national hand-wringing after NBA players fell so clumsily last summer was eerily familiar to Canadians.  ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, a former Duke University star, was most eloquent.  Even when the Americans still had their chance to win (after losing to Argentina in pool play), Bilas was sounding the alarm.  We can’t just throw all-star teams together.  We need to prepare.  Our kids aren’t learning skills.  They play too much and practise too little.  The Europeans have better fundamentals…Sound familiar?  Their first wake-up call came in 1972, when the Soviets won Olympic gold in Munich, but their true dominance of basketball remained unquestioned.  Last summer, for American hoops, was a closer analogy to the periodic bouts of Canadian dismay that began in ’72.  Our experience in self-examination allows this prediction.  American basketball chauvinists will prevail.  They’ll learn some small technical lessons from Indianapolis, but dismiss it as an aberration.  Shrill voices will occasionally demand a fundamental rethinking of the way “our game” is approached.  They will be ignored.  And the rest of the world will continue to improve…

The Americans could learn a lot from our experience as the erstwhile “first nation” of hockey (or England’s in soccer, for that matter, which finally, desperately, hired Sven Goran Eriksson as its first foreign national coach; imagine that happening in USA Basketball, or Hockey Canada!).  But they won’t.  We haven’t learned.  Our pride in the Canadian Way to Play is quaint, but it is increasingly relegating our top athletes to “role player” status, while the NHL imports its dazzle.  What’s worse is that we’ve accepted this so completely, even romanticizing it as the demonstration of genuine passion, true “heart”, and the virtues of “old-time hockey”.  Amazingly, even the careers of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have not removed a rather defensive attitude of suspicion toward players, Canadian or otherwise, who are distinguished by their skill and cleverness.  Gretzky seems poised to act as the national face of hockey, and his insistence on a game of puck movement and speed for our Olympic teams bears great promise.  Are Canadian youngsters, and especially coaches, more likely to hear that quadrennial voice, or Coach’s Corner on Saturday evenings?

Hint—yesterday’s National Post had this headline on its front page:  “Oh, stop crying already! Canada still rules hockey”.  Accompanying stats in which Canada had a record superior to the Russians (leading NHL scorers, Olympic wins, world junior wins) was an article peppered with the observations of, you guessed it, Don Cherry.  We were missing players that their NHL clubs wouldn’t release, and so on.  For all the truth contained in the article, it’s a reminder of how defensive Canadian hockey types can get, a sort of emotional left-wing lock.  This shouldn’t be a dark period of national self-examination; Lord knows we have more serious matters to debate. But let’s hope that we teach our kids to better know and love the wizardry and speed of the game.  The heart will follow.

Hockey, Russian Style

Did you see the Russians today? Lord, they play a dazzling brand of hockey! The Red Men looked spectacular in a dominating 5-0 win versus Sweden. Gosh, I wish we were paying more attention to how the Russians train their kids to skate and handle. They are sometimes accused of being selfish, but much of that comes from the resentment of the less-skilled. You know: “Oh, so-and-so’s a hot dog. Yeah, he’s good BUT…” You could even see it in the way that Reverend Cherry rumbled and threatened brimstone last year (remember this?) when Sidney Crosby scored with a lacrosse-like high-altitude wraparound goal. Sounds like sour Grapes to me. (Yes, I meant to do that.) (If you missed the pun, please proceed directly to the next paragraph.)

I like to make sweeping diagnoses that lend gravitas and grandeur to things like, oh, hockey. Try this on for size. In Canada, we still have a lingering and rather Puritan suspicion of the arts, and you can see it even in our approach to hockey. We like determination, a workmanlike approach, aw-shucks humility, and straight lines. Up and down the wing. Shoot it out. Dump it in. Keep it simple. Don’t be a smarty-pants, young fella! Who do you think you are? Russia, meanwhile, has a deep tradition of reverence for dance, music, poetry and all forms of expression. They revere (too much in some cases, no argument here) the great ones, the Talents. They are much less likely than we are, it seems from the outside, to routinely cut down their “tall poppies” for being so gosh-darned, well, tall. So skill and speed and creativity and, yes, artistry are all valued and nurtured in their players. So they don’t play in straight lines. Their number one objective is not to throw the puck into the corner and then grub and grunt to get it back…

At a certain point in the history of our great rivalry, the Russians realized that they could learn something from the legendary Canadian “grit” that we all love to talk about. They will dump the puck and chase it now when teams sit back and clog the blueline. They can be tough in the corners (after all, there’s not a long learning curve for those skills — you have to be tough and you have to be willing). They can cycle the puck in those corners, too, because who else can turn so nimbly and accelerate so quickly? But what have Canadians learned from Russians? Not every Russian can dazzle like Alexander Ovechkin — he is a prodigy — but why is it that seemingly every pro-ready Russian can stickhandle at top speed and get that wrong-foot shot away instantly while even the great Canadians can’t? I answered this question more fully in an article you can find here, but basically it comes down to Canadian chauvinism: we think we’re the best, and therefore have nothing to learn from anybody.

Canada still has far more players in the NHL, the world’s best league, than any other country. We still do lots of international winning, and our juniors did it again this year. But if we weren’t so arrogant about it, maybe we’d have more of the showstopping stars and not only the guys in the orchestra pit or the corps de ballet. Sorry for the arts references, but you know what I mean. Maybe football’s a better example: we produce the hockey equivalent of offensive lineman and tight ends, but the QBs and RBs and wideouts are rare. (And this is no mere analogy: ask any CFL roster!) I want the Canadian lads to lead in the skills department as much as they do in the realms of desire and toughness, and I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive. Not, at least, if we’re willing to learn something from the Russian (or Czech or Swedish…) way of developing hockey players. As the saying goes, It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.