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The rise, fall and resurrection of Russian hockey






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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 medal.

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 35.

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 accelerated.

"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 as Russia.

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 the state.

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 http://www.insidevc.com.