There is a clear distinction between the European and North American styles of play. The sick-handling and agile skating belongs to Europe, and the hard-hitting and chaotic style of hockey lies within the confines of the United States and Canada. Both have downsides and upsides.
Many players find it hard to adapt to the different styles of play when they travel abroad. Some players thrive in it.
Other players have the opportunity to take their native style of play across the pond.
That was the idea among the Russian Five of Detroit: the defensive efforts of Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov in addition to the offense of Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, and Igor Larionov. These five players dominated the NHL, putting in shifts of two minutes on both ends of the ice. In fact, in the documentary, Red Army, legendary coach Scotty Bowman went to the five players and said, “I don’t know where you guys learned to play like that, but don’t change a thing.”
The Soviet style of play is so different from any style of play that succeeded and proceeded it. It was so different and special that when players like Fetisov began playing in the NHL, they struggled mightily. They could not adapt. To Fetisov, the NHL had no ‘structure’.
The Soviet Strength
The playing system and the training are some of many reasons that the Soviets won almost every Olympic Gold, World Championship, and games against NHL teams. But the main reason to get a hockey team as brilliant as the Soviets were was because of politics.
It was a war without declaration
To fully understand how the Soviets came to strength in the sport of hockey, you need to understand the relationship between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War. Both countries wanted to prove why they were the strongest in the world. Remember the ‘Space Race?’ Remember the nuclear arm race? Both sides fought to become the best country in the world over many different facets. The USSR wanted their communistic values to expand, and the USA wanted to prevent that from happening. It was a war without declaration.
Having the best sports teams was something that the USSR cared about. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense: having a superior sports team can show that you have the stronger and tougher countrymen. The Soviets wanted to prove that they, in-fact, did have the strongest and greatest citizens.
The Red Army hockey team was actually an insane prospect to think about; they were part of the Soviet military once they joined the hockey club! You could be drafted into the hockey team. You were a soldier and represented your country’s prowess in a sport.
In the USA, Canada, and most places in the world, the idea that a national sports team could be branch of the military is such a foreign idea. But, the Soviets made sure that the idea was not so alien-like, training their players as if they were in a boot camp. They wanted to win at all costs.
How to Play the Soviet Way
Anatoli Tarasov is considered by many to be the ‘Father of Soviet Hockey’. One of the smartest minds in all of hockey, he created the style of play that the Soviets played in.
I think it is extremely difficult for all non-Soviet hockey watchers to understand the importance of the pass. In North American hockey, the player who needs to receive the pass needs to be in the correct areas of the ice. They need to help out the player with the puck.
Flip that idea around. Soviet hockey is the opposite of that.
The player with the puck needs to get into the correct position to compliment the players without the puck. Think of a server at a restaurant: they are supposed to deliver the food to the customer. The player with possession of the puck is the server, the players without the puck are the customers. The diagrams below provide a very simplified and general look at the two different playing styles.
With this idea, players needed to be good at passing the puck. There were no two-ways about it: if you could not pass, you could not play in the Red Army. Beyond the passing, the players constantly weaved back and forth on the rush, confusing the opposing defensemen on who to cover at any given time. It was just an exhilarating style of play to watch and an even more frustrating watch for opposing fans.
This was not an easy style to learn or to teach. If you wanted to implement this in your team, you’d need to work on your players almost 24/7.
Because players of the Red Army were members of the military, the training was intense. There were as much as 4 training sessions a day, and all of them caused players to go to the extremes.
Another reason it would be hard to implement this in North America is because of the rink sizes. Even today in Europe, the rinks are usually much wider than the North American rinks. This leads to an increase in ability to stick-handle the puck and there becomes more room to skate. Hitting is more difficult, so in-turn, they decide not to hit. The focus of the game is different. That play style divide is large still.
Playing the Soviet style is one of the most difficult things to do. In my opinion, it was the most unique and greatest style of play there ever was. There was a reason that the Russian Five struggled in the NHL before joining the Detroit Red Wings: they could not adapt. The polar opposite style of the Soviets could barely be matched by almost every North American team.
Will we ever see this unique style in the NHL? I don’t think we ever will.
Dylan Coyle is a “The Wraparound” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanRCoyle.