The Evolution of Russian Hockey: What it means for us.
International hockey has always provided an opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of respective nations to develop their top players. It is also a chance to observe the style differences between the way countries play. I recently sat down to watch the World Junior Championship semi-final game between Russia and Sweden. As I watched the game I asked myself, is the style of hockey that Russia plays today different than the way they used to play as the Soviet Union?
Every nation has a stereotype of how they play the game. The Canadians have always been known for the most physical brand of hockey. The Czechs and Slovaks are known for their counterattacks bred from stacking their own blueline. Swedes have the reputation of being the smartest players and the Fins are known as the Europeans who play most like North Americans.
While these stereotypes have held true for the most part there are some countries that have evolved. For any country to reach into the elite levels of play they must at some point learn to engage the physical battles for the puck. One country that is in the process of accomplishing this is the Swiss. Shockingly, with a population of roughly 6 million this country is beginning to understand how to play championship hockey.
The Russians are a team that seems to have lost the identity it had as the Soviet Union. The Soviets were known for sharing the puck, puck possession, and attacking with numbers. The team at the World Junior Championship plays like every other Russian team in recent history, one-dimensional. Rather than attacking in waves like they once did they seem to have a barrage of 1 against 3 line rushes. With a street basketball mentality, the fans in Ufa begin to cheer as another talented young Russian winds up alone to try and make a highlight reel goal. Time after time it doesn’t work. Only when they actually have support on the attack or an isolated one-on-one is it effective. I wonder where this change comes from. Is it from trying to emulate players like Malkin or Ovechkin? Or did something change in the ways players are developed in the country?
Whatever the reason my hope is not to wake a sleeping giant or put myself on some hit list but to engage in critical thinking. In particular with self-reflection, what are we known for as American hockey players? Has our stereotype evolved? Do we coach our players to be one-dimensional? I would hope we are known as hard-working, smart talented players who have a multi-dimensional attack. It would be interesting to hear what other countries think of us as a hockey nation.