Missing the days of mystery

Originally published on IHWC.NET in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

As much as I enjoy watching Evgeni Malkin team up with Sidney Crosby on the Pittsburgh Penguins power play, there’s a part of me that wishes Malkin had stayed in the Russian Superleague. Not under compulsion, not due to any contractual or political impasse. Frankly, the reasons why Malkin–or a host of other European stars–might have chosen to stay on the east side of the Atlantic aren’t my primary concern here.

It would just be cool to have more of these guys playing year-round in their domestic leagues in order to revive the old sense of mystery that used to pervade international hockey tournaments.

Back in the 1980’s, when I grew up in the Western Canadian province of British Columbia and watched the Olympics and Canada Cups on TV, you really didn’t know much about anyone who wasn’t playing in the NHL. You had to rely on cursory wire service reports and fleeting glimpses at the showcase tournaments. And for Canadians, watching the IIHF World Championships wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today with TSN’s coverage and the webcasts offered by IHWC.NET.

Of course, you could also check out the touring Soviet teams that played NHL clubs over the Christmas holidays, in addition to smaller international tournaments held in Canada. I remember being blown away by the skills of Czech (Czechoslovakian in those days) forward Jiri Hrdina, who racked up five points in an 11-2 thrashing of the USA at the 1987 Calgary Cup, which also featured Canada and the USSR. “Wow, who is this guy?”

After seeing Vladimir Krutov tear it up in the 1987 Canada Cup, I was naturally profoundly disappointed when the superstar Russian winger failed to meet expectations in his lone NHL season (1989-90) with the Vancouver Canucks. Coming in, the unsmiling Krutov had that mystique about him. Especially when paired with his CSKA Moscow center, Igor Larionov, “The Tank” seemed to have the potential to score 50 goals, knock the cocky Mark Messier on his rear end a few times, and lead the Canucks to the Stanley Cup. Well, that didn’t happen. We thought we knew Krutov, but we didn’t.

Even at the very start of the new millennium, it was possible to envision more of a mystique around certain international stars. At the first IIHF World Championship where IHWC.NET was in operation (2000), I can’t say I was particularly familiar with Czech goalie Roman Cechmanek to begin with, although I knew he’d become one of the Extraleague’s top stars. Then the tournament began, and Cechmanek looked like some crazy, machine-like hybrid of Dominik Hasek and Vladislav Tretiak, leading his team to gold with a 2.00 GAA and .925 save percentage. Again: “Wow, who is this guy?” His performance there somehow seemed more compelling than when he arrived in Philadelphia the following year, built an eccentric reputation, started getting into disputes with teammates in the middle of playoff games, and so forth. The mystique dissipated.

Then again, to put another twist on the issue: would the Beatles and Led Zeppelin have been viewed like Greek deities hidden up on Mount Olympus if they’d had MySpace pages and message boards back in the day?

It’s similar for European fans. It’s hard to conjure up wild images of the invincible North American professionals when you can go on YouTube, NHL on Google Video, or other Internet video-sharing services, and dig up umpteen recent clips of Crosby, Joe Thornton, and Brendan Shanahan, instead of just getting glimpses of them at the Worlds. Today’s technology means there’s no going back.

And of course, everybody can understand why modern top-level European players want to migrate to the NHL: to earn higher salaries and to test their skills against other elite players. The trend is not going to end. But one way or another, it would be great to achieve some balance and bring back a little bit of that old “how do we really stack up against these guys” feeling as opposed to “we know them so well, and their game plan is always the same.”

At this year’s IIHF World Championship, it’s been exciting for me to see Russia’s Kazan unit work its magic. Alexei Morozov, Sergei Zinoviev, and Danis Zaripov have an obvious chemistry that can only be developed by playing together for an extended period. But in addition, when I see Morozov, it’s as if he’s become a brand-new offensive genius compared to the guy who spent seven seasons in Pittsburgh and never turned into an impact player.

Sure, Morozov tallied a record-setting 83 points in the Superleague this year, but to see him stepping up to another level and wowing the world in Moscow 2007 is cool. Kind of like the old days.

del.icio.us Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

Leave a Reply