A Russian-language hockey text from the 1960s, commenting on the Canadian game, described it as “primitive and individualistic.” It was a common refrain in Soviet literature of the time. Their hockey was artistic and scientific, played in harmony. Ours was mayhem.
It wasn’t just the Russian opinion. Dave King coached in both the Soviet Union and the NHL. When young and trying to learn coaching, he looked around for educational material. “It really struck me,” he said. “We didn’t have any.”
Unlike the Soviets, our game had no preconceived system, former Maple Leaf Brian Conacher once recalled. It was “totally undisciplined.”
In an interview I had with him shortly before he died, Fred Shero, a student of Russian hockey despite coaching the violent Philadelphia Flyers team, spoke of how much more advanced the Soviets were in the sport. As a player, Canadian coaches had taught him nothing, he said. Once, before going on the ice, he asked his coach what system he was using. “What do you mean ‘system’?” the coach responded. “Just get out there and play for Christ’s sake.”
Among all the glorious reminiscences of our landmark win over the Soviets in 1972, what shouldn’t be forgotten is just how backward we were – inexcusably so – in our approach to the game compared to the Soviets.
They had only begun to play Western-style hockey in the late 1940s. We had been at it for several decades by then. They had no indoor arenas at the time, few outdoor facilities and very little contact with the outside word. And yet, remarkably, in the space of 25 years, they came to be as good as our very best.
One reason was that they applied brainpower and science to the sport. They took the game into the lab and dissected it. They developed intricate tic-tac-toe passing patterns. They emphasized finesse as opposed to a smash-and-grab power game. Their accent on teamwork was far superior. In Soviet hockey, the puck carrier was instructed to be the servant of the other players. While our professionals had two- or three-week training camps, they had year-round conditioning, dryland training and rigid discipline.
They had an advanced thinker in Anatoli Tarasov, who coached the great teams and wrote hockey texts that were studied and applied. One of the few in Canada who took a sophisticated approach was Lloyd Percival, author of the 1950s study The Hockey Handbook. It prescribed refined systems and training regimens to improve balance, agility and lateral movement.
When a Soviet team first played in Canada in 1957, Mr. Percival charted its every move. He found that the Soviets made 100 more passes in the game than the Canadian team. Some on our side of the pond caught on, one being Walter Gretzky. He had his son Wayne doing Soviet-style skating and passing drills from the age of three. But Mr. Percival was largely ignored by a professional hockey establishment set in its primitive ways.
The Russians were the Bolshoi on blades, a socialist symphony. But their game had many weaknesses. They waited too long to shoot, they didn’t know how to use the body, they were weak at defending the front of their net, they didn’t pursue rebounds. Most of all, in playing a collective style, they lacked the passion, the emotional intensity of their Canadian rivals. They had no fire in the heart, the totalitarian system having sucked it out of them.
The contrast could be seen in the play of two great centres. There was the surging pulse of Phil Esposito, and there was the lack of it in Alexander Yakushev. In their despondent rhythms, the Soviets fell victim to the emotional frenzy of the Canadian skaters.
With time, with the glasnost unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russians would find their individual spirits. With time, our side would pick up on some elements of their artistry. But we were slow learners in the sport. In 1972, we won in spite of it.
Lawrence Martin is the author of The Red Machine: The Soviet Quest to Dominate Canada’s Game.