I hope it won’t be too irritating to my all-American fellow rink rats to say that I will be rooting for the Russians in the early-morning game on Saturday against the U.S.A. I am that good green thing, a hybrid: half Canadian, half American, but all Canadian at moments of hockey intensity. Actually, I probably won’t be rooting very loudly, seven A.M. not being a time when it’s easy to get too rah-rah in any direction; more like grunting disconsolately at the television. But if I were to gather my resources and really root, I would pull for the double-headed eagle. My reasons are manifold, but essentially, and maybe forlornly, they’re this: the Olympic hockey tournament, which lasts a mere two weeks every four years, is pretty much the only opportunity to significantly reform a game gone very wrong. I harbor the hope, probably doomed, that if enough people see hockey played as the glorious, high-speed, improvisational sport it can be—the game that rewards situational intelligence and athletic skill at super-speed, without the coughs and starts of American football or the perpetual dawdling of the world’s futbal—then there will be pressure to improve things in the N.H.L. The Bettman era of boring hockey badly played, with a persistent soupçon of violence, has endured here for far too long.
Already, watching the Olympic hockey, there is what used to be called green shoots, or maybe snowflakes: “Oh, so you can play like that!” Though the two Canadian games have been dull—one-sided without being spectacular—the large ice surface and the rules against parking in the crease already produce a game far more rewarding of individual effort, and far less pliable to a big, slow blanketing defense, than the current N.H.L. kind. When the Czechs and Swedes, mostly N.H.L.ers, played the other day, by my count there was exactly one instance of the stultifying dump-and-chase play that dominates offensive style in North American hockey these days: the puck shot from center ice to the corner, followed by either an easy clear back out, or else a stick-jamming battle for the puck. (The only fun in this is watching players jab their sticks vaguely at the puck and directly at each other’s shins, like men trying to prod a recalcitrant beach bonfire.) The Czechs and Swedes skated. They passed. They made plays. Since it was the Russians who invented and perfected that kind of hockey, an old-style Russian victory, at least, has a chance of rewarding, and affirming, that better kind of game. You can’t help but hope that if Datsyuk and Ovechkin and Malkin could ever join together in the same spirit as Krutov and Larionov and Makarov once did, people would again be dazzled by hockey rather than depressed by the roller derby on ice that it too often is in the N.H.L.
I’m well aware that this is probably a nostalgic hope. The great Russian teams of the sixties and, particularly, the seventies were the product of a great system and an amazing talent pool, but also of an inhumane social system that could force athletes, in effect, into a kind of perpetual hockey prison, where they played together ten months a year and were lucky to break out of the barracks for a Christmas holiday—and where, of course, they could not even dream of taking their talents to South Beach for the money, as they now can, and properly do. (Whether there ought to be hockey in Miami is another question. It seems unlikely that hockey would ever put deep roots down in cities without a winter, but then, given the weather in the world, we may all be without a winter soon enough, and we’ll want to have hockey anyway.) The current Slavic crop can’t, in two days of practice, hope to reproduce the team play—the swirling passing patterns, the perfectly timed back-door drops, the sudden two-man swoops and mercurial one-man dashes—that took ten months of brutal regimentation back in the day.
But if the old teams were the product of a bad system, they were also the product of a good philosophy, a whole new way of thinking about the game. (Odd thing that the only place where philosophy can be used without apologetic quotes is in sports; we all accept that the Seattle Seahawks have a defensive philosophy, but if Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon claims to have a philosophy of the novel, he has to apologize for it with head-ducking in advance: “Well, I suppose my ‘philosophy’ of fiction is…”) That philosophy, still too little appreciated in America, was essentially the work of one remarkable man, the coach Anatoli Tarasov, who in the nineteen-forties saw that hockey could be as skills-oriented as soccer. He was the Bill Walsh of Russian hockey and deserves more note than he generally gets. (Though he was one of the first Russians inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto.) What’s more, for all the imposed discipline of the old teams, as the hockey historian Paul Harder has written, “Soviet hockey succeeded not because it was an effective totalitarian institution, but because it was so atypical.” Hockey was abandoned to its own devices, a marginal sport: the Party poured its resources into soccer and track and field, while hockey was left out on a lonely, happy iceberg of its own.
And how wonderful those teams were to watch! I recall how, at the pivotal moment in hockey history—the first game of the 1972 Summit Series, at the Montreal Forum—as Canada sank, all of us in the building looked around not in despair so much as in wonder. “My God! These guys are good!” (The one thing that most Canadians resent about the 1980 American “Miracle on Ice” is that most Americans have no idea what a miracle it really was.)
So I will be rooting for the Russians in the hope, however futile, that the sprit of Tarasov, the ghosts of the K.L.M. Line, the spectres of Kharlamov and Helmut Balderis (a Latvian, but we didn’t know that then), will force their way forward once more. Couldn’t the Americans be the ones to recall hockey to its glory? Could be! They have the players, but do they have the, well, philosophy? We’ll wake up early and see.