June 13, 2010
The Russian Odd Couple: Hockey And Politics
It was so bad that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for the resignation of the Sports Minister and Olympic committee chairman as well as a complete organizational overhaul of all Olympic teams.
A few months later Russia looked to win their third straight world championship title, armed with many of the key figures from the Olympic team including the coaching staff. They only lost one game, but that was in the gold medal show down with the Czech Republic. They also looked less than great against weaker opponents like Belarus and Germany, twice.
I would have guessed for sure that would have been the end of coach Bykov right then and there. Instead he's getting congratulatory phone calls from Russian President Alexander Medvedev and a new contract from Vladislav Tretiak.
Hockey and politics have always been intertwined in Russia. And it looks like coach Bykov has played the right political cards to keep his job.
There have been complaints about his refusal to adopt NHL style tactics by many long time Russian NHL players. Players like Sergei Zubov have been left off national teams because they have led the charge to drop several uniquely Russian tactics from their game plan. They believe the classic Russian game plan, specifically the insistence to not break from the 5 man unit, must abolished.
These arguments are sacrilegious as far as old school Russian hockey people are concerned. For Russians, like for Canadians, hockey is a way of expressing national identity. Keeping to their fundamental schools of thought is what made them arguably the greatest hockey nation on the planet for many, many years. They literally changed the game is played around the world because of their hockey beliefs. The old guard believes that changing these beliefs would be like taking a stake to the heart of Russian hockey.
But at some point evolution must occur. The Russians forced the Canadians to evolve their game in the 1970s and 1980s, even if it was so painfully slowly and against our own will. And thank god they did. Perhaps Russian hockey, specifically Russian coaching tactics, will change in time for a grand unveiling at the 2014 Olympics.
The question might be is there enough political will to allow Russian hockey to fundamentally change? Judging by their decision to keep with coach Bykov's "satisfactory" ways, I'm guessing not yet.