The Beautiful Game

I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane back from Finland a few weeks ago. People kept telling me I had to see it. I didn’t understand how a film about a jazz band had anything to do with me. Then the drummer student in the movie messes up a rhythm and his crazy conductor throws a chair at his head. A little later on, he messes up the rhythm again and the conductor makes him repeat it over and over again for hours. The kid is sweating and his hands are bleeding and when he finally gets it right, he collapses on the drum kit. Then the teacher just walks out of the room without saying anything.

People kept asking me, “Is this what life was like as a hockey player in the Soviet Union?”

“No, not at all,” I tell them. “In the movie, the student eventually gets to go back to his nice apartment and take his girlfriend out on a date. We did not have it so lucky. They sent us right back to the barracks.”

Though I never had a chair thrown at me. A puck or two maybe.

Most Americans think of what happened at Lake Placid on February 22, 1980 and they see it as the end of a story. For me, the “Miracle on Ice” was just the beginning. I was not on that Soviet team. I was 19 years old and still playing for my hometown team in Voskresensk, 55 miles southeast of Moscow. We didn’t do the crazy training you see in documentaries about the Red Army team — lifting boulders, doing gymnastics, skating with weights. I wasn’t even allowed to lift any weights until I was 17. We just played hockey. It was all about skill and technique. All day, every day.

After the Miracle on Ice (though we did not call it that in the Soviet Union), I was recruited to play for CSKA Moscow, which doubled as the Soviet “Red Army” national team. There was no choice to be made. You could not hide from Red Army. Every young man had to serve in the army for two years. It was my duty. The philosophy of my hometown team was more of a democracy. From day one at CSKA, you knew you were in the army. You did whatever you were told.

My fear when I arrived was that I would lose my identity as a human being. At Red Army, you were a hockey player. That was your entire existence. We trained for 11 months straight and lived in simple barracks-style housing. The furniture was like a Motel 6, but after a few months it started to feel like Shawshank prison. There was one telephone for 25 players and you would have to stand in line to wait your turn to call your family or your girlfriend (you had to pick). We would practice on the ice for four hours a day and then lift weights, run, and do off-ice training for another five to six hours. We might watch film for two hours after that. Off days? That’s funny. No off days. You skated every single day. I remember before and after the 1984 Olympics, we were given six “nights off” the entire year. This meant that if the game ended at 9:30 p.m., you could leave the facility and go see your family until practice the next morning.

The only thing we did for fun was play pool. Oh, and we had a set of dominos.

Whenever my kids see documentaries about this, they think it’s crazy. But in Cold War times we really did not have any exposure whatsoever to the Western world. We had no idea what life was like in America. To us, this was all normal. Everybody knew that when you hit age 30, you’re done. Washed up. That was it for your life. You had to go work in a factory or something because you spent 12 years in a sports facility. So this was it.

It might seem impossible that the creative style of hockey that we were known for was born out of this military system. But you have to understand what happened to us when we laced up our skates and stepped out onto the ice — it was like breathing fresh air. We found a way to express ourselves. It could be 5 a.m. It could be 11 p.m. When we were on the ice, nothing mattered. We were in our own world. This atmosphere lead to so much creativity. To call it “fun” is much too simple. It was freedom.

I essentially played with the same four guys all the time — Krutov and Makarov were my wings, Fetisov and Kasatonov were my defensemen. Every day, every waking moment, same guys. They called us the “Green Unit” because of the green jerseys we wore at practice. Our mentality was similar to the jazz band from Whiplash. We wanted to improvise and create and play the game in a beautiful way that would make the crowd get up out of their seats and applaud. All five guys were a symphony of moving parts. Everyone was moving constantly, even the defensemen.

If you watch video of us back then, it barely resembles the way the NHL is played today. It’s more similar to how Barcelona play soccer. Our philosophy was about puck control, improvisation, and constant movement. Now, the game is all about “north-south,” chip-and-chase. We moved side-to-side and swooped around the ice looking for open spaces. A backward pass was just as good as a forward pass. You didn’t have to see your linemate. You could smell him. Honestly, we probably could have played blind.

Because of the Miracle on Ice, there is a misconception that the Soviet style was destroyed by the scrappy Americans on that day in 1980. In reality, my generation dominated that decade, winning Gold at four World Championships and two Olympics. I was lucky enough to finally make it out of the U.S.S.R. in 1989. I played for 12 seasons and won three Stanley Cups, and I never changed the way I played. I was 5’10”, 165 pounds. If I was just coming into the league today, I would probably be considered too small. I would be sent down to the minors after my first or second neutral zone turnover.

I am not exaggerating. There’s a reason why Pavel Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997.

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.

I remember Datsyuk made a couple turnovers in a game when he first came to Detroit at age 23. Players on the team like Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and myself had to tell him, “Pavel, just keep doing what you’re doing.” Thankfully, Scotty Bowman had the wisdom to see his potential. If he was on a different team with a different coach who did not appreciate that kind of unique skill, Datsyuk might have been out of the league. He would be playing in the KHL tonight.

In Russia right now, there are four or five Datsyuks playing in the KHL who never got their chance. Sergei Mozyakin led the KHL in scoring last season and was in the scoring race for most of his 20s. But he’s 33 now and nobody in America has ever heard of him. Why? Most North American coaches don’t have the patience for his style of play.

I roll my eyes whenever I hear people talk about how fast the game is now and how sophisticated the systems have become. Watching the game, does it really seem much faster? Does it really seem more advanced? We had a saying in the Soviet days that I wish more coaches and scouts would adopt today: It’s not how fast you skate, it’s how fast you think.

Everyone in America should be proud of Team USA’s incredible upset on the 35th anniversary of Lake Placid. I certainly have come to appreciate it a little more now as a long-time resident of the U.S. But hockey fans should also remember the legacy of the Soviet teams of that era. In a strange way, the flashes of brilliance you see from Toews, Kane and Crosby are a product of Soviet creativity and freedom on the ice.

Video clips from the film RED ARMY, currently in theatres around the US. The film is written, produced and directed by Gabe Polsky and executive produced by Werner Herzog and Jerry Weintraub. Sony Pictures Classics is the distributor.