No Longer the Soviet Union
It was the story of the day yesterday, though I in no way (despite picking them to rise up and win gold) found it to be an upset. I mean, the Fins were the higher ranked team entering the game! Regardless, the Russians were bounced in the Quarter finals. And while I picked the Russians to win gold, believing that they would be so much more motivated than other nations to win, I said it in my preview that they were a very flawed team. They lack anything of a decent blueline, and while they have a lot of flash up front, they really lacked depth and 200 foot ability (200 mile ability I guess on this ice) even though it wasn’t defensive play that cost them. The Russians simply put, are nowhere near what they used to be.
What they used to be was the Soviet Union. And they were cold, stoic, robotic, whatever you want to call them, but they were incredible. It isn’t as if in 72 it was all about having their way with an unprepared and out of shape group of Canadians, they proved that they were our equals as a hockey playing nation. They proved that in 81 when they turned Mike Liut from possible future hall of famer to journeyman goaltender (did you know that Liut was the runner up to Wayne Gretzky for the 1981 Hart trophy?) And then again in 87 where they didn’t win, but combined with Canada to give hockey fans maybe the 3 greatest games ever played. And they were the ultimate team. Now sure, they played a lot together. The USSR national team was basically made up of players who played for CSKA Moscow (Central Red Army), but they had players who played at both ends of the ice, they had a tremendous defense, they had great playmakers, they could put together a great hockey team. They were highly skilled, but they knew how to play the game.
So is it just because they became a democratic country in 1991? Honestly, that likely has something to do with it. Is it coaching? Other than Tikhnov, name another Russian coach? (and no Mike Keenan and Dave King don’t count) But I believe it is far from the only problem. One thing that I can’t help but notice is the style most of their top guys play. They play like a guy who came on the scene in North America during the 1991 World Juinor’s in Saskatoon. He then went onto play for the Vancouver Canucks. Yes, maybe one of the best things to happen to Russian hockey, has also been one of the worst. Pavel Bure.
Not identical by any means, but Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Malkin, Radulov, Semin, etc all have a lot of Bure in their games. Maybe more than any other former Russian player. Then you have the younger generation of Russian players who have now grown up watching Ovechkin, and how could you not love him if you are a kid growing up in Russia? He’s fun, energetic, scores goals at will, he is maybe the most entertaining hockey player on the planet. Of course people confuse things like eye pleasing and entertaining with “best”. He’s far from the best despite what some people will tell you. He is one of the two best snipers.
And so kids like Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Yakupov and Nichushkin grow up wanting to play this same way. Who is the one impact player the Russians have, or have coming, who plays more the “Soviet” way? Pavel Datsyuk, born in 1978. He was the only guy this team had who plays a complete game. All those snipers are great, but if they aren’t surrounded with guys who can play a complete game to compliment them, they become useless much like they did in this tournament. They are a football team loaded with WR’s and they don’t have a QB, o-line, or defense.
It may sound like a stupid comparison, but I’m going to make it anyway. This kind of reminds me of the way Canadian hockey was in 1998. Now of course looking back 16 years later (to the day actually), we were the best. We simply ran into a guy who when he was in his prime was maybe the best goaltender of all time…and he was right in the middle of that prime. We also had awful luck of having Lemieux retire the year prior, Karyia out with a concussion, and Joe Sakic was hurt during the tournament. What would have been our 3 highest skilled guys.
But even so, we weren’t producing much skill. We were pretty much only producing these power forwards who had little skill, tough/stay at home D-men, we were all about playing “the Canadian way” and grew up with Grapes telling us to do so. We were also victims in a way of Eric Lindros the same way I believe the Russians have become a victims of Pavel Bure. Everyone got so excited as to what Lindros could be that we were developing guys to either match up with him, or be the next Lindros.
In 1998 for the Russians however, they had their best finish in any best on best tournament since becoming Russia. That team had players like Khabibulin, Mogilny, Larionov, Fetisov, Slava Kozlov, Tverdovsky, Malakhov and Zubov all stay back in North America because of political or personal reasons at the time. They still won Silver. They were STILL solid on all 4 lines, still had 3 really solid D pairings, and good (not great) goaltending. And they had players who knew there roles. Sure Bure was electric, but Fedorov was an elite 2 way center, say what you want about Yashin but at that time he was solid defensively and an elite playmaker, and I could go on and on and on. But the point is, they didn’t just have 8 elite guys that played the same way. They could put a legitimate team together, and were a serious threat. I think up until yesterday, this is how much of the hockey world still thought of the Russians. But they haven’t been what that team was for a long time now.
The Bure idolizing is just a theory of course and while I truly believe it has been part of the issue, I’m positive there are many different issues with Russian hockey. There has to be a happy medium. It used to be that these guys wouldn’t show any emotion at all (of course mainly due to communism). Now, it is all most of them want to do is snipe, celly, repeat. They need to get back to developing D-men, developing 200 foot forwards. Get some of the pride back in playing tremendous defensive hockey and combining the offensive flair with the defensive play like Pavel Datsyuk does. This is the country who deemed Bob Gainey the best player in the world in the 1970’s because of how great his defensive game was.
I would be an idiot to sit here and tell you I have the answers to what ails them. I have no clue how they develop their players or anything about their program. So I can’t speak to that, but I have noticed that they are basically only developing one type of player anymore and that has to stop. If you can develop all world talent like Malkin, Ovechkin, and Kovalchuk then you’re doing SOMETHING right. They just need to get back to teaching their kids to play a complete game, and a team game. Until that happens, the Russians will be on the outside looking in when it comes to these best on best competitions.
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