It has been an interesting week with the 35th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" when the USA beat the Soviet Union in hockey at the Lake Placid Olympics. It truly was a miracle too. In the movie "Miracle" about the team, USA coach Herb Brooks tells his players that the Soviets would beat them 9 of 10 times but that game was going to be there moment. In reality, the Soviets would have beaten them 99 of 100 times - they were truly that much better.
Igor Larionov was part of the next wave of top Soviet players. Mostly playing on a line with Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov, the three formed the top unit for the Soviet national team for the next decade and were instrumental in winning the 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medals. Part of what made this week interesting is reading an article written by Larionov posted at theplayerstribune.com called The Beautiful Game (click here to read the full text). Larionov writes about what it was like to part of the Red Army hockey program: the 11 month season, the 10 hours of training each day, the lack of any social life.
He also talks about the joy of stepping on the ice to be "creative" when the rest of their lives was very regimented. He writes:
"It might seem impossible that the creative style of hockey that we were known for was born out of this military system. But you have to understand what happened to us when we laced up our skates and stepped out onto the ice — it was like breathing fresh air. We found a way to express ourselves. It could be 5 a.m. It could be 11 p.m. When we were on the ice, nothing mattered. We were in our own world. This atmosphere leads to so much creativity. To call it “fun” is much too simple. It was freedom."
He goes on:
"We wanted to improvise and create and play the game in a beautiful way that would make the crowd get up out of their seats and applaud. All five guys were a symphony of moving parts. Everyone was moving constantly, even the defensemen."
I wonder how many players aspire to this kind of play in today's game - whether the players are boys or girls, atoms or midgets, or frankly, amateurs or pros. And, I would argue that the few players who genuinely strive to be creative and "make the crowd get out of their seats and applaud" are the players who make an impact at the level they are playing.
Larionov then comments on today's pro game and how we as coaches approach teaching within the framework of winning games:
"As a coach, it’s easier to tell your players to suffocate the opposing team and not turn the puck over. There are still players whose imagination and creativity capture the Soviet spirit — Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago just to name a few. However, they are becoming exceptions to the rule. Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued. They’re told “simple, simple, simple.”
That mentality is kind of boring. Nobody wants to get fired. Nobody wants to get sent down to the minors. If you look at the coaches in Juniors and minor league hockey, many of them were not skill players. It’s a lot of former enforcers and grinders who take these coaching jobs. Naturally, they tell their players to be just like them. Their players are 17, 18 years old — younger than I was when I joined the Red Army team. Say what you want about the Whiplash (the movie) mentality (or the Soviet mentality), but if coaches are going to push kids at that age, why are they pushing them to play a simple game? Why aren’t coaches pushing them to create a masterpiece?"
So, here is the message to both players and coaches of both genders and all ages. Find ways to be creative. Edwin Land, co-founder of the Poloroid Corporation (photography) said, "an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail". Players need to be able to take risks on the ice and coaches need to be able to support their players taking risks. Kim McCullough, a fellow coach and blogger, wrote in a post last year, "Girls hockey players need to understand that it is not only OK to take chances, but it is the ONLY way to get better. Getting to and excelling at the next level is all about being CREATIVE."
My coaching philosophy: scoring goals is fun. To my mind, a 9-8 win is way more fun than a 1-0 win (and my apologies to goaltenders everywhere).
As coaches, we need to get away from teaching constrictive systems and prescribed plays, and instead find ways to teach concepts and allow creativity.
Players: It's OK to fall down. Always go full speed in games and in practices. Play on the edge and if you are truly taking risks, you will occasionally fall down but you will improve an succeed in the end.
And find ways to create a masterpiece!