The Russians Weren’t Coming

Posted on February 26, 2010

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What happened to the Russian men’s hockey team in their much-hyped showdown against arch-rivals Canada last night? On paper the teams were evenly matched, and clearly the most talented two teams in the tournament, with 7 of the top 8 NHL goal-scorers between them.

And yet the Canadians dominated every facet of the game, including of course the scoring (7-3 in the end). Most strikingly the Canadians were able to control the puck inside the Russian end, especially behind the Russian net, often looking like they were on a power play when both teams were at full strength. And Team Canada’s checking line of Nash, Toews, and Richards shut down the top Russian line of Ovechkin, Malkin, and Semin.

So what happened? The usual explanations abound. This article surveys them well. Explanations of strategies and results are notoriously vague and cliched in the hockey media.

So of course we are hearing about how the Canadians had better “chemistry” on their team. But it is unlikely that “chemistry” ever explains anything in team sports. Winning makes you look and feel like you have chemistry, not the other way round. (More on this theme — and my indebtedness to King Kaufman — in future posts.)

We can, however, surely point to some strategic errors by the Russian coach, Vyacheslav Bykov. He left the starting goaltender, Nabokov, in for 6 goals, when he should surely have been benched after the fourth. And bizarrely, he did not take advantage of his right, as coach of the “home” team, to have the last substitution before each face-off. Once the Canadians committed to match their checking line up against Ovechkin’s line, Bykov could have pulled that line and put them on 40 seconds later when the checking line left the ice.

Not benching Nabokov, who had clearly not brought his A-game, is just a mystery. (His back-up is one of the hottest goalies in the NHL this season.) But let us speculate about why Bykov failed to exploit his only “home ice” advantage (especially given that the Canadians had the emotional, de facto home-ice advantage), and why the Russians in general had such a difficult time containing the Canadian forecheck.

And by “speculate,” I really mean speculate. I see a scenario that melds the sin of (national) pride and the vice of international gamesmanship.

Bykov has been described as the last great hockey player not to play in the NHL. His stellar Russian career had peaked by the time the Soviet Union collapsed and his countrymen began streaming into the NHL. He was in fact drafted by the Quebec Nordiques (the team that would soon become the Colorado Avalanche) in the 9th round of the 1989 draft, but he never showed up and never played a game in the NHL.

Think there might be some resentment there — as many of his Russian colleagues, also late in their careers, became rich and famous in North America? Think that resentment may hide behind a belief that the Russian/European game is a purer form of hockey? Think this might be one of the reasons he included 9 players from the elite Russian league on this current team, even though there were plenty of other top Russians to cherry-pick from NHL rosters?

But even if there was no such resentment, can anybody imagine that someone with no direct contact or knowledge of the NHL game — and the much smaller NHL ice surface — would be in a position to coach a team in a tournament full of NHL players and played on NHL rinks? Perhaps this is why he couldn’t believe his eyes when his superstar line was being neutralized by “less skilled” checkers. I suspect that the long-standing strategy of using a checking line simply doesn’t work well on the much larger international ice surface. The same goes for the “cycling” strategy used by NHL forecheckers behind the opposing team’s goal. Apparently this just doesn’t work in Europe.

The Russian players often looked like they didn’t know where they were supposed to be, especially in their own end. One has to assume that the Russian players from the NHL knew what they should have been doing, but that they were being ordered to play the system proposed by a coach who knew much less about this version of the sport than they did. This would explain why they all looked so dispirited. When Bykov refused to switch goalies, the rest of the players must have lost all hope. Bykov looked like a deer in the headlights most of the night.

So on this speculative hypothesis, the Russians were done in by the vanity of their governing federation, which selected Bykov rather than a former player of his generation with NHL experience. And by a combination of vanity, resentment, national pride, and sheer bewilderment within the heart and head of the coach.

But perhaps none of this would have mattered if they had not been forced to play on the NHL ice surface. But how did that happen? I have no idea. The use of “small” ice in the Olympics for the first time has not formed part of the narrative of these games by the NBC announcers, or by any of the mainstream journalists I’ve been reading. But it is surely a huge story.

The use of the NHL-sized ice surface was clearly in the interest of the Vancouver organizers (allowing them to save money by using existing rinks), the Canadian and US hockey teams (the only ones whose players didn’t grow up playing on international-sized rinks), and the NHL (which has a strong interest in the US team doing well to boost the game in its most precarious markets). But how was the alignment of these interests enough to make the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation consent to the small rinks? After all, they were not able to make this happen when the Games were in Salt Lake. I’d like to hear more about this story.

It sure looks to me like the two North American teams were able to “fix” the tournament long before any of the star-studded teams ever took the ice.

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