Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Updated: February 14, 1:13 PM ET
Russian style is harder to find in Olympics
By David Lassen
Scripps Howard News Service
They made their Olympic hockey debut in 1956 -- and won the gold
For the next three decades and more, teams from the Soviet Union
were The Big Red Ice Machine, winning seven of nine Olympic gold
medals. In the 1970s, they began facing the top professional players
from the National Hockey League, and more than held their own, all the
while playing a style of hockey dramatically different from the game
known to North Americans.
But times, political realities, and playing styles all change. The
Soviet Union team -- which had one gold-medal encore as the Unified
Team of 1992 -- is no more. Neither is the distinctive pass-oriented,
puck-possession approach which allowed Soviet teams to win games 3-2
or 4-3 while outshot by enormous margins, or the mystique that came
from North America's infrequent exposure to the Soviet players.
Now, Russians are a fixture in the NHL, the Russian style is less
distinguishable from the North American game, and the Russian team is
not a prohibitive favorite. In the last two Olympic tournaments, the
Russians were fourth (their only non-medal performance) and second.
But if they're no longer the Big Red Ice Machine, neither are they
pushovers. For all that has changed, the Russian team in Salt Lake
City could win the gold medal as easily as any of the tournament's
other automatic qualifiers.
"I think we have the same chance as five or six other teams do,"
says goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. "There are so many good teams
with all those great players."
When Soviet teams began venturing to North America for exhibition
games against NHL teams, they tended to work for a perfect scoring
opportunity on every possession, and as a result might take only a
dozen shots in a game while their opponents would take 30 or more. In
his book "The Game," former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden
called a 1975 game with Soviet Central Red Army the most most
disappointing of his career, a 3-3 tie in which he made just 10 saves
while his Soviet counterpart, the legendary Vladislav Tretiak, made
Ottawa Senators general manager Marshall Johnston, whose experience
against the Soviets dates from his days as a player on the 1964 and
1968 Canadian Olympic teams, thinks much of the Soviet style evolved
from playing on the larger ice surface of international hockey.
"A lot of your scoring chances in a bigger rink aren't really good
chances," he said, "because they're from further out, and from poor
angles. And so consequently their style was to always control the
puck, make plays, don't shoot until you get those good angles."
Ultimately, Dryden argued in his book, the Russian style was
limited because hockey is not inherently a possession game, but a
transition game, with frequent changes of possession. So the Soviets
began to evolve, moving from a game that stressed a patterned approach
in which teams set up inside the blue line on each possession to one
in which players were willing to press the attack, taking advantage of
3-on-2 and 2-on-1 breaks.
By the time the Soviets played an NHL all-star team in a 1979
series, "they had a model transition game," Dryden wrote. "It
worked spectacularly. It offered no patterns to disrupt, no time for
us to organize and prepare."
Meanwhile, said Johnston, the NHL was borrowing elements of the
Russian game -- wingers criss-crossing at the blue line, a greater
emphasis on possession, forwards "cycling the puck" (a rotational
movement near the net).
Then, as the barriers of the Soviet Union came down, Russian
players began playing in the NHL, and the cross-pollination of styles
"In the (NHL), some nights it's almost like you're in a good
scoring position anywhere inside the blue line," said Johnston. "So
you shoot the puck and hope for a rebound or a screen or a deflection.
You've got a lot of Russians playing in the National League now, and
consequently they do a lot of that stuff too."
Russian forward Alexei Yashin agrees.
"Everyone plays in the NHL now," said Yashin, "so everyone plays
the NHL way."
That Yashin and so many of his countrymen are now in the NHL
reflects the huge changes in his homeland over the last dozen years,
and not just because the area that used to produce players for the
Soviet Union now is sending four teams to the Olympics: Belarus,
Urkraine and Latvia, which must play in the qualifying round, as well
Johnston points out that, with the end of state-sponsored sport,
Russian hockey changed dramatically. In the old system, the best
players were funneled to four Moscow teams -- Red Army, Dynamo, the
Wings and Spartak -- and costs to players and teams were absorbed by
Now, in a free-market system, the best Russian players and teams
are wherever there's money to pay for them. Top players command lofty
salaries -- "They're paying $200,000 or $300,000 U.S.," said
Johnston, "and a few years ago, that's what it would cost for a whole
team" -- and a more spread-out league faces greater travel costs.
"Hockey's big business in Russia now, with the marketing of
players and selling of players," said L.A. Kings coach Andy Murray,
who has extensive experience with European hockey. "The revenue
generated for individuals over there by selling good players is such
that they're now preparing players to play in the National Hockey
League. ... They're much more physical; they've learned they can
compete physically with NHL teams."
And on NHL teams. Just two players on the Russian roster, both
goalies, play in Russia. The rest come from the NHL, one of whom,
Khabibulin, nearly stole the show at this month's NHL All-Star Game.
Playing the third period for the World All-Stars, he made 20 saves
to shut out the North American stars -- and remind everyone that he and
his team could be a force in Salt Lake City.
"I hope he's a little off his game at the Olympics," said U.S.
forward Jeremy Roenick, "because if he's on his game with the team
they have in front of him, that team could be really scary."
Contact David Lassen of the Ventura County Star in California at