Column: Emotional and emotionless hockey
Friday, 24 August 2007
Originally published on IIHF.com in 2002
By Lucas Aykroyd
The USA-Russia semi-final provided twenty of the greatest minutes in Olympic hockey history. The key to the amazing third period was the emotional high both teams maintained down to the final buzzer that confirmed the USA’s 3-2 victory and berth in the gold medal game against Canada.
The Americans played an emotional game from start to finish, whether they were blazing confidently down the wing to deliver a huge hit or panicking in the midst of the Russian offensive outburst that made it a one-goal game within a span of two minutes and ten seconds.
But the Russians only got their heads and hearts into the game in the final period, and that, more than anything else, is why they lost the so-called “Miracle on Ice” rematch.
In the 1970’s, the entire hockey world became familiar with the traditional Soviet style, which downplayed emotion to an extreme. The Soviets would devastate opponents by never getting overly encouraged or discouraged based on whether they were winning or losing a game.
They could trail 3-0 going into the final period, as the Russians did here against the USA, and calmly knot the score with a series of passing plays in which every man on the ice would touch the puck: “Petrov, back to the point for Ragulin, down low to Mikhailov, he throws it to Davydov and Kharlamov tips the shot home.” The five-man unit would barely celebrate as they trooped to the bench and the next assault wave came out.
But the Russians can’t play this emotionless style anymore. They are not low-key advocates of collectivism. They drive Porsches, date tennis stars and make more money in one month than some Third World countries do in a year.
Their NHL superstars do not need to defend the “all-triumphant truth of our Soviet morality” which Vladislav Tretiak cited (probably under duress) in his biography, Tretiak: The Legend, published in the still-Communist year of 1987.
To win nowadays, the Russians must summon up a level of emotion to match the oft-praised “heart, guts and desire” that Canada always cites when it wins and which has been boldly demonstrated by the Americans in front of their fans at these Games.
After the 3-2 win, USA defenseman Phil Housley sounded giddier than he ever did during his trip to the Stanley Cup finals with the Washington Capitals in 1998. The 37-year-old veteran of some 1,400 NHL games confessed: “When you win a game like this, you still feel like a kid out there.”
Emotion, emotion, emotion. Housley couldn’t get away from it in his statements: “This is a chance of a lifetime.” “What a great feeling.” “It felt so good.” “Everybody’s patting each other on the back.”
Housley was part of the American team that beat Russia 3-0 at the 2000 IIHF World Championships in St. Peterburg. Now he’s beaten the Russians again in front of his fellow countrymen. But his words and his facial expression made it clear that the Olympic atmosphere has pushed the emotion on this USA team to a whole new level.
The Russians couldn’t control their negative emotions when the game was over. Heading for the post-game handshake, Boris Mironov skated past Bill McCreary, yelling “Good job!” and giving a sarcastic thumbs-up. Danny Markov punctuated his foul-mouthed tirade at the officials by grabbing his crotch, which earned him a gross misconduct and a suspension from the upcoming bronze medal game against Belarus.
Russian Head Coach Slava Fetisov complained with some validity about a check to the head area that Chris Chelios laid on Igor Kravchuk near Russia’s blueline, while Russian journalists insinuated that their country might have been cheated out of a third goal that would have tied the game because referee Bill McCreary didn’t review the play. Fetisov suggested pro-North American bias might have influenced these decisions.
But there was a statistic that revealed more about the emotional arc of this game than any other. It was the total shots on goal at the end of the second period: 38-11 in favor of the United States.
Those numbers have a familiar ring. They come very close to the 38-13 final shots on goal from the classic December 31, 1975 game at the Montreal Forum between the Montreal Canadiens and Central Army, which ended in a 3-3 tie.
With an old Soviet team, a low number of shots like 13 could have been acceptable, a reflection of their successful commitment to the collective style.
But nowadays, the Russians need to shoot the puck just as much as their North American and Scandinavian counterparts. It’s the result of the hybridisation of hockey since the late 1980’s, regrettable in that it reduces the level of intrigue in international games, but also a fact of life in the sport.
If the Russians only take 11 shots in two periods in a game played in 2002, it means they’re emotionally flat. They are not skating the way they can. They are lost.
“We tried to take ice away,” said USA Head Coach Herb Brooks when asked if the Russians came out flat. “You have to give our athletes some credit.”
Definitely. But most of the credit the Americans receive should be for their ability to play 60 minutes of emotional hockey for the new millennium.
The current American style is not as subtle or beautiful to watch as Russian hockey in full flight. But it’s impressive and effective in its own way. It’s a high-tempo, hard-hitting game built around taking big slapshots and driving to the net.
On balance, the USA has been the best team in Salt Lake City. Now they have to reconfirm that status one more time.
Canada will be hard-pressed to match the level of pro-USA emotion that will fill the E Center on Sunday, February 24, not to mention the USA’s firepower on the big ice. As long as the Americans have not expended too much of their emotional energy against the Russians, the gold is theirs to lose.