Along the way the Russians also introduced some novel training ideas that NHL teams almost certainly will not adopt. The traditional postgame meal for NHL pros is a large quantity of beer. "The Canadian doctors insist there is a lot of nutrition in beer," said a Russian journalist. But after a game the Russians consumed nothing stronger than fruit juice, Coca-Cola or springwater.
On the ice their workouts were long and hard. No one ever came to the bench for a squirt of the water. At one point the third-string goaltender, Alexander Sidelnikov, lounged against the boards for a moment. Kulagin appeared instantly. What he said only Sidelnikov knows, but the goalie pulled down his mask, skated to the far end of the ice and began to practice his splits.
The Russian shooting drills were models of logic. There were no slap shots from 60 feet. No slap shots from 10 feet. No slap shots, period. They stressed wrist shots, aiming for spots. As Montreal's Ken Dryden said, after giving up 12 goals in his two starts, "They get their shots off quicker than players in the NHL, and their shots are just as hard, if not harder."
Despite their repertoire of firm, quick shots, the Russians tend to pass the puck a good deal. If they revealed any weakness at all in Canada, it was their inclination to make the extra pass near the goal. Often they were well situated for an easy shot on either Dryden or Tony Esposito, but instead passed off. Kulagin, reminded of a Russian saying that goes, approximately, "Nothing ventured, nothing lost," scoffed at such criticism.
During practices and games the Russians employed a strict unit system on the ice. That is, they kept the same three forwards and two defensemen together at all times. "That's not such a bad idea," said Canadian Coach Harry Sinden. "It certainly helps with the teamwork." In the NHL, teams generally rotate three lines and two sets of defensemen so that the unit starting a game does not appear together again for six shifts—or about 12 minutes. If NHL teams adopted the unit system, though, a Bobby Orr or a Brad Park would see less time on the ice. Sinden thought about that a moment. "Maybe it's not such a good idea after all," he said.
Canada's humiliation, though deep, did not necessarily imply drastic reform. "What it comes down to is that we are different breeds," said John Ferguson, Sinden's assistant. "I don't think North Americans can—or want to—live the Spartan existence." Sinden interrupted him: "I don't know if I could take these guys out to a trampoline after practice and tell them to jump around for a couple of hours."
Another reason why the NHL will resist change has to do with economics. By dollar standards the NHL is a huge success. Forget the lack of parity between old and expansion teams, or, indeed, between All-Stars and Russians. Last year the NHL played to almost 100% of seating capacity in 11 of its 14 cities. The Vancouver Canucks finished last in their division. So how many season-ticket holders canceled their subscriptions? Seven. Why change?
But if Sinden, Boston's Stanley Cup-winning coach in 1970, returns to the NHL, something he almost certainly will do now that the building firm he worked for has filed for bankruptcy, he, for one, will try to benefit from the Russian techniques. "After all," he said, "whoever told the Canadians we knew everything about the game?"
As they left for Moscow, the Russians were saying much the same thing. "We came here to learn from the Canadian pros," Kulagin said, "and now maybe the Canadian pros can learn something from us. These four games have taught us the Canadian players are ordinary people like we are."
How ordinary are the Russians? "If someone gives them a football," said Frank Mahovlich, "they'll win the Super Bowl in two years."