In the exact same week, long time hockey personality/Godhead/xenophobe/builder of the game and the host of Hockey Night in Canada’s fabled Coach’s Corner segment *and* the old, ailing coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs got fired. Let’s break this down a bit.
Don Cherry is gone. I named my little sports-or-whatever column on this publication after his show. So now that Cherry got the ax for racially charged use of the phrase “you people”, I’m the goddamn coach in the corner now. Sorry Ron MacLean. You should have fallen on your sword, because I’m coming for you next.
So, buckle up all’a you good Ontario boys and get ready for some steady-the-rudder, pucks in deep, and all of that bullshit you’ve been fed by the talking heads (not the band) of hockey since you grew up watching New York Islanders games, for whatever reason. Frankly, my feelings on Don Cherry getting fired are pretty complicated, but it was time for him to go. Now, Mike Babcock, on the other hand? Let’s talk about Mike Babcock.
Actually, first, let’s talk about Steve Fucking Dangle. You are way too old to scream at YouTube for a living, dude. Brad Marchand owns enough real estate in your head to start clearing out tenants to start an Air BnB like his name was Hannibal Burress. Your Podcast has been super fun this year, but that’s because Jesse carries it like you carry the weight of horrible Game 7s in your soul. So what? So your Toronto Maple Leafs, despite having one of the best rosters on paper, are probably going to miss the playoffs this year. Big deal. That’s nothing compared to the pain of losing a Stanley Cup Final, but I guess you wouldn’t know that, because you weren’t alive the last time the Leafs even played in one.
Anyway, about Mike Babcock. He was the highest paid coach in NHL history. He dragged your pathetic team to just being good enough that you had expectations for them again. Then you lost. Three straight playoff exits in the first round, and two of them to Boston, in Seven Games. Imagine that GIF of Brad Marchand blowing kisses as Babcock’s flight to Seattle leaves.
I’m the Coach now. And I’m tired of being rude, so here’s something completely different.
In hindsight, which is usually always nearly perfect, the fact that it took hockey coaches and students of the game so long to even consider the way the Soviets played was ridiculous.
To any casual non-fan, Soviet Union hockey was pretty much only memorable for their most famous loss – the 1980 Olympic match against the United States. Though being one of the two parties in a sporting event that would eventually be the catalyst for the entire cold war ending, in turn shaping the landscape of global politics for decades to come (I’ll explain this more later) is very memorable, the Soviet team was the best ever assembled. One loss on an important stage doesn’t change that.
To truly understand just how revolutionary and just how painfully obvious the Soviet style was, it needs to be viewed through the lense of the classic Canadian ice hockey ethos. Canadians relied on a physical game, played almost entirely in straight lines, from defensive zone to offensive zone, with a surprisingly small amount of real variations. Entering the offensive zone was accomplished by a maneuver called the “dump and chase” in hockey vernacular. It’s exactly what it sounds like, really. The player carrying the puck would dump it along the boards into the offensive zone, and the forwards would chase it down and try to steal possession away before the opposing team recovers it. The big drawback here is glaringly obvious – every time the puck is dumped, a team is surrendering possession. Even if it is brief and regained as soon as possible, surrendering possession of the thing you score goals with in a game where winning is reliant on nothing but scoring goals and scoring goals alone is kind of stupid.
I need to stress once again that the Soviet style was seriously considered to be this huge revolutionary idea that many thought wouldn’t even pan out once it was tried among “real competition” on “real teams” in a “real league”. The big fundamental differences are actually fairly simple to summize. Instead of focusing on hitting, Soviet hockey focused on speed and positional defence. The concept of a graceful, skill based game was so horrifying to Canadians in the 1960s and 1970s that the prospect alone birthed an entire culture around playing the game the “right” way. The novel idea that perhaps hockey could be played by athletes with a strategy in place eventually birthed the world’s best dressed Jingoist and hockey mega personality – Don Cherry – who would go on to become a polarizing iconoclast on Canadian television sets for decades upon decades.
The other major hallmark of the Soviet hockey style was that instead of playing the game in straight lines – instead of dumping and then chasing – they played in circles. Instead of willingly giving up puck possession, the Soviet team would simply retreat back into a zone of the ice under their control, and pass the puck around until an opening became apparent. This often made it look like they were absolutely just fucking with North American teams they were up against. A sport about speed, brute strength, precision, and finesse became an unbelievably entertaining game of keep away. This principle, this valuing of puck control based in a game where controlling the puck is one of the more important things you can do, was aided along by the fact that Russian hockey was often played in units of five players – three forwards and two defensemen who were always on the ice at the same time. The members of these five man units knew each other’s games so well that they could put in complete performances at both ends of the ice over 2 minute long shifts.
Thirteen gold medals and a rent free luxury penthouse in the minds of the nation who erroneously claims to be the birthplace of hockey must have been a fantastic fallback for those Soviet players, even before they defected. Some, like Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, even received medals and awards from the Red Army for their abilities on the ice. I think I would generally feel a lot better about most things in my life if I had a case with 13 gold medals in it hanging up behind my desk in my apartment, but I suppose the grass is always greener. I do know, however, for an absolute fact that having some recognizable marker of my accomplishment would absolutely help with the cocktail of emotional numbness that comes with your nightly numbers station listening party being interrupted by a loud gunshot type noise on the floor directly above you – even though that help would be almost entirely superficial.