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Article "The Beautiful Game" By Igor Larionov

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A very eye-opening piece written by The Professor on the near-extinction of creativity in today's game. Enjoy

LINK: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/miracle-on-ice-hockey-russia/

I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane back from Finland a few weeks ago. People kept telling me I had to see it. I didn’t understand how a film about a jazz band had anything to do with me. Then the drummer student in the movie messes up a rhythm and his crazy conductor throws a chair at his head. A little later on, he messes up the rhythm again and the conductor makes him repeat it over and over again for hours. The kid is sweating and his hands are bleeding and when he finally gets it right, he collapses on the drum kit. Then the teacher just walks out of the room without saying anything.

People kept asking me, “Is this what life was like as a hockey player in the Soviet Union?”

“No, not at all,” I tell them. “In the movie, the student eventually gets to go back to his nice apartment and take his girlfriend out on a date. We did not have it so lucky. They sent us right back to the barracks.”

Though I never had a chair thrown at me. A puck or two maybe.

Most Americans think of what happened at Lake Placid on February 22, 1980 and they see it as the end of a story. For me, the “Miracle on Ice” was just the beginning. I was not on that Soviet team. I was 19 years old and still playing for my hometown team in Voskresensk, 55 miles southeast of Moscow. We didn’t do the crazy training you see in documentaries about the Red Army team — lifting boulders, doing gymnastics, skating with weights. I wasn’t even allowed to lift any weights until I was 17. We just played hockey. It was all about skill and technique. All day, every day.

After the Miracle on Ice (though we did not call it that in the Soviet Union), I was recruited to play for CSKA Moscow, which doubled as the Soviet “Red Army” national team. There was no choice to be made. You could not hide from Red Army. Every young man had to serve in the army for two years. It was my duty. The philosophy of my hometown team was more of a democracy. From day one at CSKA, you knew you were in the army. You did whatever you were told.

My fear when I arrived was that I would lose my identity as a human being. At Red Army, you were a hockey player. That was your entire existence. We trained for 11 months straight and lived in simple barracks-style housing. The furniture was like a Motel 6, but after a few months it started to feel like Shawshank prison. There was one telephone for 25 players and you would have to stand in line to wait your turn to call your family or your girlfriend (you had to pick). We would practice on the ice for four hours a day and then lift weights, run, and do off-ice training for another five to six hours. We might watch film for two hours after that. Off days? That’s funny. No off days. You skated every single day. I remember before and after the 1984 Olympics, we were given six “nights off” the entire year. This meant that if the game ended at 9:30 p.m., you could leave the facility and go see your family until practice the next morning.

The only thing we did for fun was play pool. Oh, and we had a set of dominos.

Whenever my kids see documentaries about this, they think it’s crazy. But in Cold War times we really did not have any exposure whatsoever to the Western world. We had no idea what life was like in America. To us, this was all normal. Everybody knew that when you hit age 30, you’re done. Washed up. That was it for your life. You had to go work in a factory or something because you spent 12 years in a sports facility. So this was it.

It might seem impossible that the creative style of hockey that we were known for was born out of this military system. But you have to understand what happened to us when we laced up our skates and stepped out onto the ice — it was like breathing fresh air. We found a way to express ourselves. It could be 5 a.m. It could be 11 p.m. When we were on the ice, nothing mattered. We were in our own world. This atmosphere lead to so much creativity. To call it “fun” is much too simple. It was freedom.

I essentially played with the same four guys all the time — Krutov and Makarov were my wings, Fetisov and Kasatonov were my defensemen. Every day, every waking moment, same guys. They called us the “Green Unit” because of the green jerseys we wore at practice. Our mentality was similar to the jazz band from Whiplash. We wanted to improvise and create and play the game in a beautiful way that would make the crowd get up out of their seats and applaud. All five guys were a symphony of moving parts. Everyone was moving constantly, even the defensemen.

If you watch video of us back then, it barely resembles the way the NHL is played today. It’s more similar to how Barcelona play soccer. Our philosophy was about puck control, improvisation, and constant movement. Now, the game is all about “north-south,” chip-and-chase. We moved side-to-side and swooped around the ice looking for open spaces. A backward pass was just as good as a forward pass. You didn’t have to see your linemate. You could smell him. Honestly, we probably could have played blind.

Because of the Miracle on Ice, there is a misconception that the Soviet style was destroyed by the scrappy Americans on that day in 1980. In reality, my generation dominated that decade, winning Gold at four World Championships and two Olympics. I was lucky enough to finally make it out of the U.S.S.R. in 1989. I played for 12 seasons and won three Stanley Cups, and I never changed the way I played. I was 5’10”, 165 pounds. If I was just coming into the league today, I would probably be considered too small. I would be sent down to the minors after my first or second neutral zone turnover.

I am not exaggerating. There’s a reason why Pavel Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997.

People ask me why this creative style of play is now so rare at the NHL level. The first thing that gets pointed to is the fighting and dirty play. But that’s not the heart of the problem. I’ve never been a fan of fighting, but hockey has always been a violent game. Bobby Clarke purposely slashed Valeri Kharlamov and broke his ankle at the 1972 Summit Series. Those games were more brutal than anything you see today, and it didn’t stop the Soviets from playing creative hockey.

The problem is more philosophical and starts way before players get to the NHL. It’s easier to destroy than to create. As a coach, it’s easier to tell your players to suffocate the opposing team and not turn the puck over. There are still players whose imagination and creativity capture the Soviet spirit — Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago just to name a few. However, they are becoming exceptions to the rule. Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued. They’re told “simple, simple, simple.”

That mentality is kind of boring. Nobody wants to get fired. Nobody wants to get sent down to the minors. If you look at the coaches in Juniors and minor league hockey, many of them were not skill players. It’s a lot of former enforcers and grinders who take these coaching jobs. Naturally, they tell their players to be just like them. Their players are 17, 18 years old — younger than I was when I joined the Red Army team. Say what you want about the Whiplash mentality (or the Soviet mentality), but if coaches are going to push kids at that age, why are they pushing them to play a simple game? Why aren’t coaches pushing them to create a masterpiece?

We lose a lot of Pavel Datsyuks to the closed-minded nature of the AHL and NHL.

I remember Datsyuk made a couple turnovers in a game when he first came to Detroit at age 23. Players on the team like Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and myself had to tell him, “Pavel, just keep doing what you’re doing.” Thankfully, Scotty Bowman had the wisdom to see his potential. If he was on a different team with a different coach who did not appreciate that kind of unique skill, Datsyuk might have been out of the league. He would be playing in the KHL tonight.

In Russia right now, there are four or five Datsyuks playing in the KHL who never got their chance. Sergei Mozyakin led the KHL in scoring last season and was in the scoring race for most of his 20s. But he’s 33 now and nobody in America has ever heard of him. Why? Most North American coaches don’t have the patience for his style of play.

I roll my eyes whenever I hear people talk about how fast the game is now and how sophisticated the systems have become. Watching the game, does it really seem much faster? Does it really seem more advanced? We had a saying in the Soviet days that I wish more coaches and scouts would adopt today: It’s not how fast you skate, it’s how fast you think.

Everyone in America should be proud of Team USA’s incredible upset on the 35th anniversary of Lake Placid. I certainly have come to appreciate it a little more now as a long-time resident of the U.S. But hockey fans should also remember the legacy of the Soviet teams of that era. In a strange way, the flashes of brilliance you see from Toews, Kane and Crosby are a product of Soviet creativity and freedom on the ice.

Video clips from the film RED ARMY, currently in theaters around the US. The film is written, produced and directed by Gabe Polsky and executive produced by Werner Herzog and Jerry Weintraub. Sony Pictures Classics is the distributor.
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It's kind of sad to see creativity being taken out of the game. Even in the Canucks organization we can see this happening. We drafted guys like Hodgson and Schroeder for their offence and creativity and then make them learn and develop their defensive game for years. I see the same thing happening with Shinkaruk.

Yes it's great to have a two way game in the NHL but it's a lot easier to find a grinder/two way forward in FA or in the later rounds of the draft than it is to find offensive talent. Not everyone can be a Bo Horvat, most elite teams have gamebreakers like Kane who have a ton of offensive skills. (Obviously, the key here is balance. You can't have a team full of the small guys who play offence or you'd end up like Edmonton. But a lot of the time teams are adopting a defensive approach to the game.)

Another thing is how lucky we are as Vancouver fans to have the Sedins. We complain now cause we don't see Sedinery all the time anymore but it really has been a pleasure watching the two work magic on the ice. With the Canucks drafting more two way forwards and adopting a "meat and potatoes" style game, I don't think we'll be seeing anything like the Sedins anytime soon. The 2010-2012 Vancouver teams were a treat to watch.

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Keep in mind that an all-star team made up of the best players in the country and much more capable of playing a freewheeling style than your average NHL team. Also keep in mind, even if you're taking risks offensively, you still can't be completely careless in your own end. However, I do see what he's saying. I think a prime example would be the Sedin twins under AV vs. Tortorella. AV used the Sedins in a way that played to their strengths, whereas Tortorella tried to fit a square peg into a round hole and their performance suffered as a result.

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What I took away from this:

  • Larionov's insight about the coaches could not be more on point
  • This style requires chemistry and playing with each other for a very long time - something that rarely happens in today's NHL with free agency
  • The Sedins have been fortunate enough to be with each other their entire hockey life, and they have the hockey IQ that is required to play the game this way
  • Thus, the Sedins are able to play this style - like Datsyuk, they almost certainly would have returned to Europe if not for Crawford, Naslund and Linden recognizing their special talents and urging them to "play their game"
  • Right now, I can only think of Getzlaf+Perry and Toews+Kane as a duo (other than the twins) that can truly say that they have had the privilege of playing together since the very beginning and built chemistry "the Soviet" way - it is truly a rarity in today's NHL to find even a duo (let alone a line or a 5-man unit like Larionov's) that is grown together and built together in such a way
  • Not everyone has the IQ to play this way - in fact, most players don't
  • The NHL has no choice but to play North-South because the majority are simply not capable, and those who are capable may not spend enough time required to build this chemistry with each other due to free agency
  • Thus, these guys will have to continue to be a rarity among the North-South two-way grinders, but hopefully we recognize and don't crush the ones who are capable of playing the game artistically
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Good read, thanks for posting.

I think the biggest issue is that coaches are constantly finding ways to shut down the skill players, and the NHL rules allow this to happen. If the recipe for success is to use defensive minded systems, then that's what the coaches will use. If a player is told to play 'simple' then he'll have to do that if he wants ice time.

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Great read !

I miss mid 80's to mid 90's hockey so much. Fedorov, Bure, Mogilny, were just magical to watch. Lidstrom, Forsberg, Sundin, Sakic, Naslund the list goes on and on. Coaches allowed their players to flourish and improvise.

Many coaches have tried to roll the finesse system in recent years. We had it with AV for quite sometime and it was affective except of course come playoffs :( when the league switches back to full barbarian mode. The older systems were designed to entertain as well as win.

When the league started to take out the enforcers and the trap system began to take over the star players were left to the wolves. Now we have such a confined game where turnovers instantly make you pay. It really makes it hard for young players to get out of the dog house so to speak .

I know the fans want the crazy dangles, I sure as hell do. With how much money is on the line now perfection is almost demanded.

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The NHL is not and has hardly ever been a venue for creativity.

The Canucks were the most creative team in the league and the NHL refs allowed teams to take them out with brute thuggery.

Many serious injuries the Canucks endured were never even called as minor penalties.

Many North Americans relish violent hockey and that is more than evident in the NHL playoffs.

The truly skilled players have to be healthy and highly intelligent just to survive the NHL goon fest,let alone thrive.

It is amazing the twins have performed at the level they have without protection in a game where violence is accepted /promoted and the highly skilled players laughed at and ridiculed.

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Guys like Kassian and Shinkaruk have already seen this in full effect under the Canucks.

I wonder if we did that with j Schroeder and are doing it again with shinkaruk.

It's kind of sad to see creativity being taken out of the game. Even in the Canucks organization we can see this happening. We drafted guys like Hodgson and Schroeder for their offence and creativity and then make them learn and develop their defensive game for years. I see the same thing happening with Shinkaruk.

It's evident that Larionov makes a very good case about creative players being forced to simplify their games in today's North American development systems

However, is this relevant to Shinkaruk? Honest question - do you think that Hunter is a creative player?

I think not - Shinkaruk isn't really a creative player IMO. Is he an offensive threat? Of course, but he is dangerous in a different way - he's more of a speedy sniper/goal-scorer than a creative player in the mold of Kane, Gaudreau, etc.

Watch these highlights of Shinkaruk from his two full junior years:

Then watch these two clips of Soviet "creativity" that you can find in the original article:

Creativity is more what the Sedins use to create offense - Shinkaruk does not play this way. I think Shinkaruk plays a lot more like Brendan Gallagher - you see him going to the dirty areas in junior and getting quite a few garbage goals as well as sniping some from far out. I think this AHL stint is necessary for Shinkaruk because he's not a really creative player, but one who relies on speed, quickness/accuracy of release and going to the right areas to score

As he transitions from junior to the pros (AHL/NHL), Shinkaruk is probably finding that it is a lot harder to get to those hard areas to score goals against men, and that the goaltenders are a lot better too, meaning he needs to release the puck faster, pick the corners a little better, etc.

So I don't think this "creativity" dilemma applies too much, if at all, to Shinkaruk. To be more effective, I think Shinkaruk needs more time to add a little more muscle and gain some experience in battling to get to the areas he need to go to score, and to learn to release a little quicker and more accurately than he used to in junior. In the meanwhile, he might as well improve defensively and really turn himself into a complete player. You can create scoring chances by playing well defensively, creating turnovers and go the other way to create scoring opportunities for yourself

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Some of the young players in the NHL today that I think have the creativity:

Vladimir Tarasenko

Mikael Granlund


Johnny Gaudreau

Jonathan Huberdeau

Jonathan Drouin

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As for Kassian, he's careless at times - that's his problem and therein lies his inconsistency

Larionov was creative, but he was also responsible. Kassian is very careless with the puck sometimes, which lead to a lot of turnovers - you see it in the games when he's off (ex. Minnesota). He'll need to be more responsible with the puck - especially on breakouts from our own zone

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North American hockey is all about winning. So kids instead of learning the fundamentals and trying to be creative. It's defensive schemes, and stifling hockey.

Coaches are too afraid to let the kids play a freewheeling style, and learn from mistakes.

Take Bure all you want. Larionov was the man. I was so angry that he went to play in Switzerland so that Sovintersport would not continue to draw a portion of his salary. But I understand it was the principle of the thing.

But why he didn't come back to Vancouver in 93-94 hurts.

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The style of the 80s Soviet teams is incredibly akin to the way the Sedins play. It's interesting, because I've always noticed how different hockey was in the 80s, but if you look to Europe, the style is much more similar to today's game, or at least, the best players of today's game.

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Horvat's a pretty creative player. He's always doing those drag moves.

Yeah and he's holding onto the puck more and more. I think we need to see a little more from him (perhaps in the future) to say that he can be that type of a player, but I think the potential is there too

I would be ecstatic if he found a partner to be his "Daniel" so to speak and learned the cycle game from watching and practicing with the Sedins. I think he has the smarts to emulate it and the body to withstand the beating that comes with that style of play

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Wonderful find OP! Very worthwhile. Completely agree with what Igor said. Players are being limited to what they can envision and for a good chunk have to play X's and O's to get by. There are a few that are creative but like Larionov said, they are just exceptions.

We see this with Kassian and Shink is getting the treatment in the A as well. Unfortunate. Wish teams would take time to review what was said here and implemented this into their teams. Would go a long ways for hockey and those players.

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