Russian Hockey

A decade earlier, I discussed a potential book with a great Devil fan Sue. She pitched the idea of digging deeper into Russian hockey roots. Russia’s influence changed the game with the historic ’72 Summit Series the tip of the iceberg. With more time for other hockey ventures, reexaming Russia is worth looking into.

During the lockout, MSG Network has run hockey specials, including some classic exhibitions between the Rangers and Russia during the 1970’s. What we got was a rude awakening to just how skilled the Russians were. They were so advanced, using superior conditioning, skating and playmaking to mount an attack. One we weren’t ready for. It makes Canadian hero Paul Henderson that much more special. And also explains why Bobby Clarke simply followed orders with a two-hander breaking Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle. No way would they have come back.

It’s rare that I’ve seen highlights of Kharlamov. However, either by YouTube curiosity and thanks to MSG, I got to see how breathtaking he was. This was a special talent who would’ve brought fans out of their seats had he been able to play in the NHL. There’s no telling how many goals he would’ve scored. A look into how good the Stastnys were with particularly Peter gives us only a glimpse. And we know how great he was. If you haven’t seen the piece on NHL Network about their defection, watch it.

On NBC Sports Network last year, they aired a great documentary on the Summit Series. It gave us more perspective from both sides as far as what they were thinking and strategy. This is a must for any hockey fan.

In my first discovery, hockey was originally called “banty” in Russia. Played in the 1890’s, they used a ball instead of a puck. Ice hockey was introduced in the 1930’s. From my understanding, their version was much different from Canada with the Russians carrying over banty rules.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that coach Anatoli Tarasov changed their philosophy, turning the CCCP into a powerful unit. They were successful instantly, winning the world championships in ’54 and finishing first in the Olympics in ’56. It was just the beginning with the Soviets taking nine consecutive world championships and winning eight European. Under Tarasov, they took Olympic gold in ’64, ’68 and ’72. Their dominance gave them the nickname Big Red Machine.

Tarasov also coached CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Army), guiding them to 17 championships. He coached them for 27 years (’47-74). For his contribution, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1974 in the builders category. A Kontinental Hockey League division is named after him. The Tarasov Division is one of four in the KHL featuring CSKA Moscow, HC Vityaz, Severstal Cherepovets, HC Sochi, Dynamo Moscow, Topedo Nizhny Novgorod and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

STYLE OF PLAY: The Russian style of hockey is all about skating, puck possession and play making. As emerging Caps second-year center Evgeny Kuznetsov references in a post he wrote entitled How We Play Hockey in Russia on the Players Tribune, Russian players are taught from a young age to skate, hold onto the puck and pass.

My father teach me, too. First thing, you never look at puck. Eyes always up. Look left, right, forward. You look down, it’s over. Even now, if I look down at puck in a game, my dad let me know about it. He texts me. If I score three goals but I don’t have an assist, he texts me. Because he teach me to be unselfish. You have to play for your partner. This is very Russian, this principle. I guess because of the Red Machine.

But this works only when all five guys working together perfect. If a guy skates in and shoots from blue line without passing, it’s like he doesn’t have respect. That’s how we play in Russia. When I come to America last year to play in NHL, I learn it’s a little different.

Russian hockey is all about skating and skill. One point Kuznetsov mentioned was that if a player dumped the puck in the KHL, they were often benched. It probably helps better explain why some Russian players aren’t as successful in the NHL. There’s a huge difference in philosophy. On a smaller ice surface with less time and space, sometimes the only good play is to dump the puck in rather than risk a turnover at the blue line.

However, Kuznetsov also illustrates the team oriented style the Caps play. Similar to how the defending champion Blackhawks play, they possess the puck and play off each other. It’s resulted in a Eastern Conference best 28-7-2 record with 58 points in 37 games. It’s also worth noting that that puck possession style has won Chicago three Cups in six years. 

Two of the greatest Russian hockey players who can control a game are Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk. Ironically, they’ve starred for the same team in Hockeytown for the Red Wings. They followed in the footsteps of countryman Igor Larionov. Aside from the fact they all played together winning Cups in Detroit, what do they all have in common? All three could skate and make plays with the puck. They could each use their speed to back up the D gaining the blue line while circling around looking for open teammates.

Both Larionov (2008) and Fedorov (2015) were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Datsyuk should join them when his career is over. A remarkable two-way player who’s won two Cups and three Selke Trophies as the league’s top defensive forward, the supremely skilled Datsyuk combines great skating and play making with tremendous defensive acumen. Throughout his career, he’s only finished a season with a minus rating once. Like Fedorov, he’s a fantastic skater who makes everyone around him better.

To be honest, Fedorov’s ’93-94 Hart season is still one of the more memorable. He had 56 goals and 64 assists totaling 120 points with a plus-48 rating. He finished second behind Wayne Gretzky in scoring, third in goals trailing countryman Pavel Bure (60) and Brett Hull (57). Fedorov was second to Scott Stevens (+52) in plus/minus leading all NHL forwards. He led the league with 39 goals at even strength and tied for second in game-winning goals with 10.

Until recently, Fedorov held the record for most goals (483) scored by a Russian in the NHL. Alexander Ovechkin passed him this season. Ovechkin currently has 496 and will become the first Russian born player to reach 500. Astonishingly, he’ll do it at only 30. The three-time Hart winner and five-time Rocket Richard winner is writing his own legendary script in Washington.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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