From Russia With Love

Welcome to The History of Hockey Podcast Episode 4: From Russia With Love – A Soviet Hockey Primer.  This episode could maybe alternatively be named An Intro To Soviet Hockey.  As the title suggests, this is scraping the surface of where Soviet Russian hockey began.  This particular topic, and Soviet hockey as a whole deserves a much deeper dive, and it will get one.  It will get one because the rise of Soviet hockey is an incredible story.  It was a meteoric rise the likes of which we’ve never really seen.  So, we will get there.  For now, though, we’re just going to cover some of the basics.

With the rise of the Soviet party during World War One, and its subsequent stranglehold on the country after the Russian revolution, it came to light the communists seemed to abhor international sporting life.  It was seen as a western, capitalist pitfall; one of the many things that would lead to societal collapse.  The soviets viewed sports as something that served the individual, not the collective.

The shunning of sports was interesting, particularly with consideration to hockey.  Hockey historians can trace the sport in Russia back a long way.  No one is certain exactly how far back, however we have records of the Russian Army having winter battalions that would skate into battle.  Far more revealing than that, we have records of Czar Alexander III (1845-1894) playing hockey as a child.  Surely the game existed well before him, and someone taught it to him; if not, it’s time we hailed him as its creator.  So, they have a lengthy past playing the game.

After World War Two, the Soviets had a change of heart.  They saw sports as a way to show how dominant they were, and that they were superior.  Communism is the best system on the planet?  Well, let’s prove it through sport.  The government set about building a sporting program, the crown jewel of which would be a hockey team.

The Soviets developed a skill for the game extremely rapidly.  All the more impressive because it was almost completely from scratch.  Now, they had been playing a game called Bandy for years, which requires a similar set of skills to ice hockey, but there are still enough differences to hockey.  Their meteoric rise also has almost everything to do with a man named Anatoli Tarasov; a man who truly can be called the father of Russian hockey.

Tarasov was the man the government put in charge of building the hockey program.  Like the program, his hockey knowledge was built from the ground up.  He took a trip to England where he saw a hockey game in person, and very soon, this man knew it all.  It was like turning on a light switch.  He saw hockey as a team sport, which he believed was contrary to the North American game.  Tarasov was so team oriented, in fact, he allowed all existing team members to vote on whether a new recruit could join their ranks.

He developed a style of hockey completely different from his North American counterparts.  This is how the government wanted it; in fact Tarasov was denied any foreign study materials, such as game film footage.  That’s how badly the government wanted their program to be different.  Tarasov focused on finesse, speed, team work, and artistry…because, that’s how he saw it: as an art.  He developed exercises for players from everyday activities.  He thought of things that simply hadn’t been done before (climbing trees, army crawls, tumbling etc) you name it, he made an exercise out of it.

Tarasov was also incredibly adept at seeing something in everyday life, and (not only) asking himself how can I use this for hockey? but then actually finding an answer to that question.  In fact, he even incorporated classical Bolshoi dance into leg exercises, and playing styles for goaltenders.  Tarasov was a true pioneer, and was adamant his players should have fun (something we’d see lost in later years). 

Tarasov went about building the program after the war, and by 1951, they were ready for international play.  From that moment until the fall of communism forty-ish years later, the Big Red Machine flat-out dominated the opposition.  Their overall international record was 738-110-65.  The Russians played their first international game against East Germany on April 22, 1951, and won 23-2.

By the time 1972 rolled around, Tarasov and his boys had won everything: world championship gold medals, Olympic gold medals, and boasted an incredible record.  But something eluded him and his team…success against the very best in the world, the NHL.  Professionals weren’t allowed in the Olympics at that time, and as funny as it is to think the Russians were amateurs (funny because their literal job was hockey) they were, officially, amateurs.

In order to prove the Soviets were the best, a long process was set into motion that would eventually culminate in the 1972 Summit Series.  The Summit Series was an eight-game exhibition between the Soviets and a Canadian team made up of the best NHL players. Anatoli Tarasov had gotten his dream match-up, and it was time to show the world what his boys were really made of.

In a heartbreaking twist, however, Tarasov was unable to attend the Summit Series.  In the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, the Soviet Union drew the Czechoslovakians in the final match.  As a gesture of friendship Soviet officials ordered Tarasov to throw the game; they told him make sure it’s a tie (even with a tie USSR still would have the gold).  Tarasov flatly refused.  His team hit the ice, skating to a 5-2 victory.  Tarasov was then unceremoniously retired after the Olympics.  Tarasov was heartbroken.  Hockey was his life, he wrote more than forty hockey books, and he had a nearly unbeatable national program to prove it.  According to his daughter, Tatiana, he never truly recovered from losing his hockey team.

The USSR did go on to play the Canadian team of NHL All-Stars.  Going in, Canada was typical Canada: cocky, arrogant, self-entitled, a you should feel lucky to be on the same ice as us attitude.  The Canadians called them Russian Pretenders.  Well, that quickly changed when the Russians went up in the series three games to one.  The Canadians resulted to cheap shots against the Russians, taking liberties at every turn.  The Soviets reported “we’re here to play hockey (Canada) is here to fight.”  In the game that could have clinched the Soviets the series, Canadian (and Flyers’ captain) Bobby Clark viciously double-hand slashed (think baseball swing) Valeri Kharlomov of the USSR, breaking his ankle.  To that point Kharlomov had been the team’s best scorer, and now he was out.  With the monumental loss, the Canadians managed to squeak past and take the series 4-3-1.  Despite the narrow victory, the series scared the ever-loving crap out of Hockey Canada so much that they were forced to rethink their entire approach to how they raised, and trained hockey players.

In 1977 Viktor Tikhonov came aboard the Soviet hockey team as head coach.  He was similar to Tarasov in, maybe, one way only: he was meticulous to the finest detail.  Where the two differed, however, was just about everywhere else.  Whereas Tarasov loved, truly loved his players (Tarasov’s daughter said he looked at them as sons), Tikhonov saw them as men serving only one purpose: victory for the country.  Tarasov coached with love, Tikhonov was a dictator.  Almost to a man, you’ll hear players who played under both men make the same comparison. One player for Tikhonov said should he need a heart transplant, he’d gladly take Tikhonov’s, as the man never used it.  Tarasov told his players who weren’t smiling (especially in the youth program) “Why such glum faces? Smile! You’re playing hockey!”  Tikhonov’s boys never smiled; probably because they didn’t have a lot to smile about.

Tikhonov kept his players under contract to the government (really the hockey team) for twenty-five years.  They had official day jobs: soldier, engineer etc. but their only real job/duty was hockey, hockey, hockey.  Tikhonov kept them in military barracks for eleven months out of the year.  They practiced four times a day, and almost never saw their families.  If they were caught outside of their rooms after hours, there was hell to pay.  Tikhonov justified his behavior by saying, essentially, Hey, I miss my family too.

Tikhonov controlled everything.  Want a new apartment?  We’ll see how you play.  Want that new car?  We’ll see how you play.  Anyone who complained about the schedule, the team, the coach, the government, or anything really, risked retirement and ending up in Siberia serving the army.  This was a real fear their players had.

Possibly the last bit of footage we have of Tarasov is when he is training Slava Fetisov who had recently been kicked off the team for, you know, having a mind of his own.  Watching the film footage of Tarasov being so old and broken, but still managing to go on is both incredible, and sad.  Fetisov turns to Tarasov for help because he has no one else, the world of hockey had been closed to him after he asked to be let go so he could play in North America.  He became a pariah.  Tarasov’s love for the game, and for his players never, ever dwindled.  He helped Fetisov, and put him through the usual rigorous training program.  This would be the last time Fetisov would see the man who loved hockey so much that it was impossible to not notice.  Not that the program was by any means a failure; Russian hockey dominated for decades.  But, I can’t help but wonder where the program would have gone, what even greater heights it might have reached if Tarasov was never let go.

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