I'll admit that I've never played competitive hockey in my life. The only sport I have played competitively is baseball. But what I'm about to talk about is from my experience as a fan and connoisseur of hockey and by extension, sport.
Recently, I've become frustrated with the uninspired play of my beloved hometown team, the Chicago Blackhawks. The team has played an uninspired game, held back, in my view, by head coach Joel Quenneville's stubborn need to keep some "old-school" enforcers on the roster instead of trusting young, energetic talent waiting in the wings. Quenneville's not the cause of these problems, of course, but I do believe they're a factor.
So imagine my relief when I see an article pop up on my Twitter feed by former Russian NHLer Igor Larionov. In this article on the Players' Tribune , Larionov talks about the stifling training schedule imposed by the Soviet system, including the Red Army club CSKA and the Soviet national team.
Training 11 months a year and being treated more like prisoners than players, the Soviets developed a creative, fluid game as soon as they hit the ice (that was influenced by former coach Anatoli Tarasov, who created an entire system from scratch, influenced by ballet, among other things).
This lead the Soviet team to become THE dominant power in ice hockey for decades. Not even one game in Lake Placid, New York in 1980 could stop them.
Which brings us to North America. Here in the New World, we like to think of our hockey as being... "Tough"; defense wins championships, chip and chase, a north-south game, Keep It Simple, Stupid. But, there are also some VERY creative types within the NHL; Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk and a whole host of others have been praised for being able to see where the puck will be in a few seconds and do amazing things with the puck and their stick.
Wayne Gretzky himself was so good because he was able to see where the puck was going to be, not just where it was.
It is here that Larionov bemoans the stifling atmosphere of the North American game. Particularly in these paragraphs:
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.
Reading these it made me think of the Blackhawks situation. The Hawks have a phenomenal talent by the name of Teuvo Teravainen, a Finnish prospect, in their system. One of Teravainen's favorite players in Patrick Kane, as well as Pavel Datsyuk. You can see it in the way Teuvo plays his game, particularly fast, smart and creative. Unfortunately, he's been stuck in the Rockford Shuffle this year while Quenneville goes with washed-up enforcer Dan Carcillo.
There's a sad mentality among NHL coaches to play not to lose. It's gotten so bad that it's possible this might be behind the Hawks' sluggish play. Creativity is stifled at the youth level in favor of playing "simple", physical hockey. Coaches, raised on the old-school, Broad Street Bullies, "Slap Shot", physical style of hockey insist on playing enforcers, who have been fading in popularity.
We in the West pride ourselves on creative freedom. The only place men like Larionov could express it was on the ice. Indeed, how ironic it is that the stifling Soviet style created the hockey equivalent of Brazilian soccer, while the free West has boring, physical hockey.
There is indeed a place for grit in hockey. Defense wins championships, after all. But offense wins games. And there's a reason creative geniuses like Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, and yes, the Soviet team, are celebrated: They make the game fun to watch.
I am not a hockey expert. But speaking as a fan, I do believe that coaches should let their players' creativity shine. We celebrate creativity in other sports. Ozzie Smith became known as "The Wizard of Oz" for his on-field intelligence. Michael Jordan wouldn't have become the greatest basketball player of all time if he didn't know how to get past his opponents. And there's a reason Lionel Messi is considered the best soccer player in the world today. And there's a reason they're called "Martial Arts".
I love hockey, but the sport needs to stop living in the past and embrace what it is: A fast, fluid sport that can switch between beautiful and ugly in the fraction of a second. Embrace your creativity, hockey players and coaches. Whether it's on a backyard ice rink, the local ice arena or even gym class playing floor hockey, develop your game the way you see fit. Nobody should tell you how to play the game you've been playing for your entire life. Have fun! Enjoy it! It's a game, after all!