Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Greatest: Part II



Soviet Hockey (1956-1988)

As one of the most menacing forces in sports history, Soviet hockey and their all-red uniforms remain one of the most iconic images of the Cold War era (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8j9ag_FnSE). They were relentless and metronomic in the pursuit of victory. Victory, funnily enough, is the true measure of greatness in a team (duh), and almost no other team in any sport enjoyed the kind of consistent success over so many decades as the Soviet hockey machine (and make no mistake, they were machine-like in churning out gold medal performances). Spanning multiple generations, it was portrayed as the perfect symbolism for Communism’s superiority in the world of sport, as it was the system and not a select group of individuals that led to unbroken and unprecedented success. Between 1956 and 1988, the Soviets won every single Olympic gold medal in hockey save two (1960 and 1980).

Now obviously the 1980 games was the ‘Miracle on Ice’ (since as Americans who have grown up since then it’s virtually ingrained in our heads). And don’t get me wrong, no one loves a little Al Michaels “do you believe in miracles?” discussion more than I, but it’s undeniable that we grow up learning far too much about the 1980 American team than we do about the seven other gold medal Soviet teams. Certainly the reason is obvious. They’re not American, thus we care less about them. Yet for anyone who’s truly looked at those championship Soviet squads, I must say they’re worth a glance (or two or three).

The funny thing is that when I did look over Soviet hockey’s history, I was amazed first by how remarkable their talent and team structure was (and how deep the talent pool went) but perhaps more by the fact that a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong. The mythical history of Soviet hockey is largely, in this country anyway, mythical because we truly don’t know it (or maybe more that we choose not to know it, but I’ll get to that). So much of what we’re taught comes from North American movies, documentaries and TV shows that are filled with guys speaking from a North American perspective because they are (surprise!) North American.

The Soviet hockey team (as portrayed by Disney, HBO and American media)

What we’ve been expected to believe about Soviet hockey is a true lesson in propaganda. Much of it is derived from the story of the Miracle on Ice. As the story goes, the U.S hockey team (composed of college kids) was put together by coach Herb Brooks and somehow managed to shock the veteran Soviet team and win the gold medal in Lake Placid. This part is true, but this is where we go from fact and into the overly politicized and disneyized (is that a word?) half of the story.

According to the litany of movies and documentaries about the 1980 team, the Soviets are bigger and stronger (in the stereotypical form of the Russian bear, aka Ivan Drago). In reality, more than 90% weren’t any taller than 6’1”. Boris Mikhailov, who gets a fairly large mention in Disney’s ‘Miracle,’ was only 5’9” and 170 lbs. Hardly the towering behemoth that looms over Rob McClanahan at face-offs (which is the exact scene from the movie. In fact, if we’re really going to call out the movie, Mikhailov was a right-winger and not a center, but why nitpick?) That’s one of the bigger myths (that the Soviet’s were a team built on size and strength). Nothing could be further from the truth. Soviet hockey was about speed and movement. Thus it would have made very little sense if they were a bunch of 6’5” lumbering goons.

Added to this, a universal trait in Western representations of Soviet hockey is that they were machine-like and never showed emotion. That they were machine like is correct (just look at their win totals and margins of victory) but they were certainly emotional. In Mikhailov’s last game, he was carried around on the shoulders of his teammates; such was their love and respect for the unassuming assassin who came from Moscow. In a completely separate incident, Mikhailov displayed another kind of emotion altogether when he kicked Canadian Gary Bergman during a famous series of games that Canada’s pro played against the top Soviets in 1972 (known as the ‘Summit Series’). This earned him a villainous distinction among all Canadians. So if you doubt Soviet emotions, just ask any Canadian who’s above the age of 45 about Boris Mikhailov and let the obvious loathing in their expression answer your question.

Why we imagine them to be Ivan Drago look-a-likes

Hulking size and blank emotions coupled with a knack for relentlessly crushing the opposition in a completely unsportsmanlike way. Those are the traits that are portrayed to be synonymous with the Soviet team again and again. The question is then, why are Soviet hockey teams (and the 1980 one especially) portrayed this way? Part of the answer lies in the modern day decision making of film companies and their marketers. The other part is embedded in a stigma of the Cold War that remains to this day.

Blending a historically accurate story with the bureaucracy of a film marketing team will rarely allow for accuracy (especially at Disney). In other words, too many people are concerned over how to make a film universally appealing (and thus more marketable and profitable). Credibility and accuracy are many times sacrificed to make way for a certain age group that the film might not reach. As moviegoers, we are subjected to dumbed-down, abridged versions of stories because they want the film to reach a diverse audience. Thus we lose a lot of the subtlety that most stories actually possess because the movie producers and their production bureaucracy feel that their film loses some bite from its plot.

In the case of the 1980 Olympics, this basically meant portraying the Soviets as extensions of their country. They were shown to be heartless, emotionless machines that played without mercy. Furthermore, they were rigidly disciplined, and expressed no joy in their profession once so ever. More than anything, though, they were cast in the clear and obvious light as ‘the bad guys’. North American producers were more than happy to make everyone think of them as the Yankees rolled together with Duke basketball, the Dallas Cowboys, Real Madrid and Manchester United couple with a bit of Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Lakers all in the name of more money.

Really though, we were all completely ready and willing to see them in an even worse light. As audience members, a story which encompasses such patriotic symbolism gave us carte blanche to get carried away and most of us didn’t have to be told twice. It wasn’t enough to show Team USA in a heroic light (which they deservedly were, don’t get me wrong). We had to drag the Soviets down to a level where they were completely unlikeable. Thus we were shown films and documentaries where things were oversimplified. The Soviet played dirty and without any discernable passion (on top of meeting the aforementioned stereotype of size). And don’t forget that they were the living embodiment of their aggressive and malignant government.

Yet is such a black and white portrayal necessary? Are we, as the audience, doomed to only understand a story if the good guys and bad guys are spelled out in such basic terms? Apparently, we are. That’s why the story of the ‘Miracle on Ice’ has become so clogged with the political side of it. The traditional narrative shows the Soviet hockey team to be interchangeable with their state. The reality was far different.

The truth about hockey behind the Iron Curtain

In essence, Soviet hockey was the perfect blend of individual skill harnessed into a team unit. The movie ‘Miracle’ actually does a fair job in portraying this. (One reason for this was Kurt Russell played Herb Brooks superbly and a defining characteristic of Brooks was his deep understanding of the Soviet style). Since Soviet hockey originated in the game ‘bandy’ (a game similar to field hockey played on a smaller surface) their players were already adept at couple of traits which would serve them well. Together with a short passing game, Soviet bandy players knew how to manipulate space in a small area. Once they were unleashed on a hockey sized rink, the bandy skills allowed them to dominate possession of the puck and string together flowing passing movements.

Out of these primitive beginnings during the 1930’s and 40’s sprung a definitive style: constant movement and seemingly telepathic understanding of one another. Perhaps this was why Soviet hockey teams were able to establish dominance so quickly on the international scene. After barely a decade of playing the game, they won the World Championship in 1954 and became Olympic champions in 1956.

The Soviets would go onto miss at the Olympics only twice during the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence. In fact they participated in probably the greatest hockey series ever played: the 1987 Canada Cup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987_Canada_Cup). In this, the Soviets came up short in the final, losing to the hosts. Yet when you consider that this was a Soviet team playing in the post-Vladislav Tretiak days (Tretiak was one of the best goalies of all time to the extent that he became the first player over named to the Hall of Fame without ever playing in the NHL) and also Canada’s paper-thin margin of victory, defeat becomes less of an issue.

The series included a couple of other international squads, but really it was a contest of the Canadians and Soviets. Each side compiled a litany of goal-scoring talents. The Soviets were equipped with the famous ‘KLM line’ of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Makarov is still their all-time leader in points. Team Canada naturally had a side chalk full of talent.

Still, even by Canadian standards it was ridiculous. On a single line they boasted Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Glenn Anderson. Let that sink in for a second. That’s not only three Hall of Famers, that’s arguably the two best players ever. Added to this, they had Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr in goal and defenseman (and also Hall of Famers) Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey. Oh, and some guy named Mark Messier too. They were without a doubt the greatest team in terms of pure talent ever assembled and all of them were at the peak of their powers (especially Gretzky).

Even still, the Soviets took Canada’s big guns the distance, force a three game series. The first two games went into OT (with the second going into double overtime) as both sides split the games. The third game was probably the best of the series though. And even though the Soviets lost, just check out the final goal and tell me this isn’t a write-off (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rg_-JwlN-o&feature=related and fast-forward to the 5:20 mark). That’s Gretzky to Lemieux! The Great One to Super Mario! That’s what it took to beat, by all accounts, an under strength Soviet team.

I think if anything its symbolic that the Soviet’s greatness was measured in defeat. After all, we only seem to remember them for their famous defeats. Undeniably though, the Soviets earned their place alongside the greatest teams of all time. More than that, they did it through well crafted team chemistry and a team mentality. It wasn’t communist, nor was it political. In fact, the revolt against Soviet authority in the 80’s followed by the mass-defections from the Soviet Union to the NHL proves they weren’t simply the machines and extensions of their state that the propaganda and Western point of views portrayed them to be. They were, quite simply, great hockey players who happened to represent our Cold War nemesis. Now that were nearly two decades removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, can’t we just recognize a truly dominant team for who they were?

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