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Sweeping changes

Russian hockey looked different after '72 Summit Series

Posted: Friday September 27, 2002 10:07 PM

By Jon A. Dolezar,

The Series
An exhibition which turned legendary
1972 Summit Series Game Recaps
Defining event in Canadian history
Russian hockey changed drastically
Oppression bred creativity on ice
From SI
Eliot: A lasting impression
Flashback: Still blushing
Flashback: Off to Hockeyland
Flashback: Narrow victory
Q&As: Henderson | Tretiak
Team Stats: Canada | Soviet Union
More stories
Canada bodychecked communism
Slap in face to Canadians
Hopes were dim heading to Moscow
Too much garbage with series
Hockey in Russia scarcely resembles the game that was played there three decades ago.

The Russians used to be the passing experts. Now they are every bit as rough and tumble as North American players.

Thirty years ago, short, crisp passes kept their opponents on their heels as they maintained control of the puck for seemingly the entire game.

The Soviets ran the hockey version of football's West Coast offense. They were, to steal from the legendary Brazilian World Cup soccer teams, playing "the beautiful game."

They operated like clockwork, controlling the tempo of a game and only advancing up ice when an opening was clear. Once in the zone, the Soviets worked the puck around quickly, eyeing up the perfect shot.

And it really was a sight to behold. Soviet hockey flowed like a beautiful Tchaikovski symphony. It was more complex than a Tolstoy novel. And it was prettier to look at than the most splendid Repin oil painting.

The Soviets trained harder than any team before, or probably even since, ever did. Physically demanding practices were common and they would repeat the most basic maneuvers and tactics many times until they had perfected them. Their desire was to hone their system to be able to dominate every opponent. Perfection. It was the singular goal.

"First it was physical preparation," Soviet center Vladimir Petrov said. "And technical development, to see very clearly what is going on on the ice. You have to always be ready and be in the right place at the right time. You have to see very clearly where your teammates are and where your opponents are. There was much time spent on how to be more disciplined on the ice."

The Summit Series introduced the Soviet players to a different style. The beautiful game met the scraggly game.

"All of Russia was very shocked with anger at the tough, tough style of the game that the Canadians played," 1972 USSR team representative Jan Jdanov said. "It was unusual to see this kind of behavior when players show their fingers and fight the police. And even now, when you see this footage, it's shocking. But again, it was the war. It was capitalism against socialism, so that's why I think it was so."

Team Canada stunned the Russians with their emotional outbursts at calls they deemed questionable. Soviet hockey preached discipline, and mouthing off to the officials could result in a penalty, with a short-handed situation the worst possible result.

"The myth of the great Canadian player had already been shattered for them," hockey researcher Joe Pelletier said. "It wasn't quite as shocking for them. They came away with such an awe of the Canadian heart, with players like Phil Esposito showing their emotions on the ice, which was very foreign to them. I think they came away with quite an amazement of such Canadian qualities."

The stylistic differences were apparent from the start of the first game at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, 1972. Canada was rough and tumble, chipping the puck into the zone and activating its physical forecheck to get the puck back and get into scoring position. The Soviets played like a ballet on ice, skating gracefully, passing crisply and always maintaining careful possession of the puck. The contrasts were jarring at first.

"That they were almost robotic in their execution," Canadian defenseman Brad Park said. "Their planned attack was very much structured. A lot of emphasis on skills, shooting, quick releasing of passes. What they probably learned from us was the emotion that it takes to compete. They didn't show it. They probably had it, but it was very much kept hidden, where we expressed it and used it to get to a higher level."

After the Summit Series, an assimilation of the two styles began. The result has been a 21st Century hybrid which was born out of the differing philosophies of the Canadians and Soviets in the '72 Summit Series.

"In Russia there were many changes," legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak said. "Russian hockey players have developed more checking and harder play. And I think North American hockey players took from Europe more passes and more discipline. The Russians taught the Canadians some things and the Canadians taught us some things. But all together, it's great hockey."

The Russians had previously relied almost exclusively on wrist shots. Of the Summit Series team, only Soviet left wing Alexander Yakushev owned a formidable slap shot. After meeting the Canadians, however, the slap shot become a part of the game for Soviet players.

"At the time the series was played, Russian and European hockey was much more advanced then the NHL and Canadian hockey," Russian hockey historian Arthur Chidlovski said. "Don't misunderstand me, Canadian hockey is well established and it is the homeland of hockey, but it kind of existed in isolation. It was not as progressive as European hockey. Today's NHL style took a lot from the 1972 Summit Series. It's basically a mixture between the two styles. You can't really say this is a Canadian style or this is a European style anymore. Nowadays it's all modern style that combines the best features of both schools. The difference was much more distinct during the '72 Summit Series."

The Canadians played with the traditional three forwards and two defensemen units still in use in the NHL today, but the Soviets played five-man units, with the players coming on and off the ice together. Some of these units were legendary, with the famous quintet of Petrov, Boris Mikhailov, Valery Kharlamov, Alexander Gusev and Valery Vasiliev regarded as the best in Soviet history.

"We were probably the best of all-time," Petrov said. "If you look at the statistics, we have more Olympic medals, more goals and less losses, so probably by stats we were the best. And if you added Vladislav Tretiak in, that could be the best team ever to play in the Soviet Union and probably in the whole world."

Of that famous Russian unit, Kharlamov was the most impressive player. In fact, he may have been the most dynamic player in hockey history. Kharlamov played 14 years with CSKA Moscow before his life was tragically cut short at age 33, dying in a car accident on August 27, 1981. Experts have described Kharlamov as a cross between Mike Bossy and Pavel Bure. Kharlamov was an amazing puck handler, had blazing speed, had a hard, accurate shot and was a pinpoint passer. Some say Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are the only players ever to possess comparable offensive skills. Atlanta Thrashers left wing Ilya Kovalchuk wears No. 17 in honor of Kharlamov (Kovalchuk's father's favorite player), and has a game somewhat reminiscent of the late superstar.

Scotty Bowman was a fan of legendary Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov's work, and occasionally employed five-man units while with the Red Wings. Especially when he could play a roster of five his Russians (Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov) together during the Cup-winning 1996-97 season.

The hallmark of the Soviet teams' five-man units was their work on the power play. The Russians held three practices a day during their two-month long training camp leading up to the first game in Montreal on Sept. 2, 1972. And one of those practices each day was entirely devoted to working on the power play.

"We didn't even have to look and we could make a pass, because we just had an understanding on the ice," Petrov said. "That was a very big advantage of playing with these five-man units. We played many, many years together with the same unit."

If you sit down and watch any NHL game, the influence of the Soviet power play can be seen. The umbrella power-play formation was invented by Tarasov, and nearly every team utilizes some derivation of that today.

What is crystal clear is the lasting impact these eight games had on hockey. Though the Iron Curtain wouldn't fall for another 17 years, the hockey world opened itself to European players one year later. Swedish stars Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom joined the Maple Leafs for the 1973-74 season, with several Czech stars following them to North America in the following years. Now, European-born players make up more than one-third of NHL rosters.

The Soviets blocked most of their stars from coming to North American until Sergei Pryakhin suited up for Calgary on March 30, 1989, for the Flames' 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Victor Nechayev played three games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1983, but he wasn't an Elite level player on the national team. Pryakhin paved the way for the legendary KLM line to join the NHL in 1989-90, with Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov going to Vancouver, and Sergei Makarov joining Pryakhin in Calgary. Young Russian star Alexander Mogilny also joined the Buffalo Sabres that season, though he was the first to defect and not go through the proper channels. But the Soviet's unwillingness to let their players come to North America cost hockey fans in Canada and the United States the chance to see the Summit Series stars in their prime.

Tretiak was drafted in the seventh round by the Montreal Canadiens in 1983. Habs general manager Serge Savard came to Russia four times to visit Tretiak and attempt to negotiate his release to play in the NHL. But he was told by the Russian Hockey Federation that Tretiak's father was a big general in the Soviet army, and that he didn't want his son to go to North American. Tretiak says he is aware of a general in the Soviet army with the same surname, but that his father was a major in the Soviet air force.

"I'm mad about it because I would've liked to have played in the NHL," Tretiak said. "I would've liked to win the Stanley Cup. It was a joke. The Russian government said that my father was a big general, but it was not true. They said he was a very proud father and didn't like me to move. Nobody even asked me if I would like to go to Canada or not. I would've liked to go, but it wasn't possible a long time ago."

A negative byproduct that has come about since the migration of star players to the NHL began is that the Russian leagues have become significantly rougher. Russian players who now come to the NHL are substantially tougher and more prepared for the NHL game than are players from most other European countries.

"After this series, Russian teams started to play a more physical game on defense," Yakushev said. "Little by little, it has become dirtier. It was a clean game before at all levels, there wasn't so much contact, but now there is very much."

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