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.

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