June 13, 2010

The Russian Odd Couple: Hockey And Politics

When Russia suffered a humiliating quarterfinals exit from the 2010 Olympics in a 7-3 drubbing at the hands of arch rival Canada, the coaching staff of Vyacheslav Bykov and assistant Igor Zakharkin took a lot of the blame. Their old school tactics proved to be fatally obsolete despite the team's great promise. The coaches refused to change up lines or get favorable match ups, and they failed to change their clearly ineffective game plan until it was far too late.

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.


TheRealDFG said...

Great post!! I was wondering if anyone was going to comment on that last game. When I watched it, it looked just like the Olympic games. The Russians were tired and beat up. The Czech team (with the exception of Jagr, of course) seemed younger and faster and just out hustled them. I know they don't play the dump and chase game or work the boards like other North American and European teams but they just looked silly sometimes.

I think it would have been in the best interest for players like Gonchar, Malkin, and Ovechkin to sit that one out but they had that chip on their shoulder to go out there and try and prove they could beat any team that was assembled.

When you come up short in the Olympics against fully stacked teams I don't think anyone thought badly about their performance. But when you do it again with virtually your same lineup, against mostly anemic squads in the World Championship...I can't believe they didn't reopen the Gulag's.

Anonymous said...

I think what the Russians should do is prepare for the Olympics thoroughly with their PHYSICAL CONDITIONING and TACTICS like they used to when they were winning all those World Championship and Olympic Titles!