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How the dour Russians learned to embrace flash and dash

It has been sports' ultimate makeover – from "robots" to "divas" in 40 years.

The reminders have been almost daily: old, grainy shots of unsmiling, often unrecognizable Soviet Union hockey players from the 1972 Summit Series contrasting with gap-toothed, animated Alexander Ovechkin standing front and centre with Sidney Crosby as the National Hockey League Players' Association and the league decide whether there will even be a 2012-13 NHL season.

It is, at times, hard to believe that the Russian players of today have any genetic connection with the Russians who skated out onto the Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, 1972, and, promptly falling behind 2-0 to Team Canada, methodically and silently came back to stun Canada in a 7-3 rout.

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"Their absence of facial expression – actually a form of Soviet correctness – contributes to the disparaging 'robot' image we'll soon hang on them," Roy MacSkimming wrote in Cold War, his history of that remarkable series. "The helmets, which we're not accustomed to, also create that impression."

Unlike Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals, they did not leap and slam backward into the glass after scoring. Unlike Ovechkin, they did not give funny interviews – recently referring to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as "The Bettman," as if he were some evil force that must be defeated – and none ever even attempted to speak English during the series.

Today's Russians are, in some hockey opinions, considered "over the top" when it comes to flamboyance, personality and difficulty. While Ovechkin might be hockey's most colourful performer, recent Russian players have been damned for being too selfish (Alexander Semin, a brilliant talent given up on by the Capitals but signed this summer by the Carolina Hurricanes for an eyebrow-raising $7-million), too wild (Alexander Radulov, who returned to the Nashville Predators from the Continental Hockey League (KHL) last spring and led the team in playoff scoring until he was permanently benched for partying too hard), too moody (Alexei Kovalev, who gave up even trying while making $5-million a year with the Ottawa Senators).

This is not to say all Russian players are over the top. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is as humble as a Gordie Howe and skilled as a Jean Beliveau, a quiet, team-oriented player other NHLers consider the hardest-working, cleanest and smartest player in the game.

None of those personality tags would have been applied to the old Soviet players, who went about their games so methodically they neither celebrated nor responded with exaggeration. If they scored, they returned to centre for the faceoff. If Bobby Clarke or Wayne Cashman or Bill Goldsworthy baited them, they skated away, always businesslike. So attached to game plans and tactics were they that, at one point, Frank Mahovlich said: "Give them a football and in three years they'd beat the Dallas Cowboys."

Canadians knew nothing whatsoever about the Russian players of 1972 when they arrived. Team Canada scouts said, at best, there might be one player on the Soviet squad with NHL-level skill. They had no goaltending, weak shots, moved too slowly, telegraphed their plays and, the experts said, wouldn't win a game. Maybe one. "Canada to romp in eight," Dick Beddoes wrote in this paper. "It's a Russian team in decay."

So it seemed 30 seconds into Game 1, when Phil Esposito put Canada ahead. But by the end of Game 8, Canadians knew only too well what players like Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Yakushev, Valery Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Alexander Maltsev could do. The talent was always there; the personality would be unleashed later.

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Lawrence Martin, author of The Red Machine: The Soviet Quest to Dominate Canada's Game, believes the transformation from robots to divas parallels Soviet society's transformation over the same time period from communism to quasi-capitalism.

"Individual enterprise was alien to the Soviet way and to the 1972 Soviet hockey team," Martin says. "The Russian game, until the system changed, was based on the collective philosophy. Players were confined to training camp barracks year around. They were trained to keep emotions under control."

The diva personality, he believes, was always there, even if mostly hidden. "The Russians played in harmony," he says. "They were the Bolshoi on blades, a socialist symphony. It was a highly skilled, artistic, passionless form of hockey. That's how they won. That's also how they lost."

When Martin was based in Moscow for The Globe and Mail in the 1980s, he attended games at Luzhniki Arena and, while impressed with the skill, was struck by a sense that the players "didn't look like they were enjoying themselves." Even strong emotion from the stands was discouraged by stern announcements over the P.A. system.

After glasnost and the fall of communism, all that changed. Individualism became prized, personalities unleashed. Even the style of play changed. "By and large," Martin says, "Soviet hockey players have transformed themselves into Canadian-styled players."

Jeremy Kinsman, who was Canadian ambassador in Moscow from 1992 to 1996 and was once himself a fine college player, says that in 1972, the public on each side "viewed the other's team as a caricature." Canadians saw robots; Russians saw thugs.

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"The realities were in between," says Kinsman, who today teaches part-time at Ryerson University in Toronto and the University of California in Berkeley. "Soviet sport didn't promote individualism in publicity terms, but the team above all. Fans knew who the stars were and they were heroes. It's true that today Russians are into much more of an every-man-for-himself culture. There aren't many pro hockey players around born before the Berlin Wall went down."

Kinsman's thoughts are echoed by Igor Kuperman, who spent 15 years working for the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL and was assistant GM of the Russian team at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was 15 and living in Moscow at the time of the series and as caught up in it as any 15-year-old in Canada.

"So many myths," says Kuperman, who today is a senior executive with Pointstreak Sports Technologies in Toronto. "They said the wives of Russian players fainted when they went to North American grocery stores and saw the abundance. These Russian players had played hockey all around the world. They knew what the world was like. It's a myth that they were just robots.

"It's similar to the notion many Canadians had that bears walked in the streets of Moscow."

If Russians seemed to lack emotion, he says, there was reason for it back then: They had no competition.

"How much emotion could there be when you've just scored 12 goals against some other team?"

Perhaps that is one legacy never considered in the endless discussion of the 1972 Summit Series.

When the Soviet players saw what emotion could do for Canadian players, they saw it as a skill worth working on.

And 40 years later we have divas rather than robots.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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