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Zaugg: Canada’s socialist hockey values

Will talented Russia face team-oriented Canada for gold?

15-05-08
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Canada against the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series. Photo: HHoF/Frank Prazak

QUEBEC CITY – It's time for a new clash of the titans. The last time that truly occurred was in 1987, 21 years ago.

The Russians, then known as the Soviets, played five big games in Canada. They twice faced the NHL All-Stars at Rendez-Vous ‘87 in Quebec City, and then played three classic games in the Canada Cup finals in Montreal and Hamilton.

Since that, Canada and Russia have only faced off once for the top prize in a Canada Cup or World Cup, IIHF World Championship, or Olympic tournament - at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

And some say we have never since seen games like the ones in 1987 in international hockey.

Yes, there are wonderful hockey cultures in Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the USA. We have seen plenty of outstanding games in international hockey over the last 21 years.

But nothing compares to a gold medal game with Canada versus Russia.

Of course, back in 1987, it was different and much more fascinating. For Westerners, Russia was considered an evil, mysterious country behind the Iron Curtain, something like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.

The Cold War is over, but Russian hockey still remains mysterious for us. Now, their coaches and players mostly speak English - or even, in the case of Slava Bykov, perfect French. But they can’t really explain to us how it’s possible to produce such wonderful players as Alexander Ovechkin. Players who bring a mix of incredible skills, discipline, toughness, and wild emotion.

Maybe it remains mysterious to most of us because we don’t travel as often to Russia as we do to North America (or at least, we’re not exposed as frequently to their culture), and also because most of us can’t talk to them in their native language.

To me, the Russian hockey culture is still a world full of secrets. And that holds true even though I’ve crossed this wonderful country by train from Moscow to Vladivostok.

One of those secrets seems like part of the Russian culture. There’s a kind of sporting sadness or even tragedy in the way they’ve regularly lost big games since earning their last world title in 1993.

Some of those losses are irritating, and you can’t explain them simply by referring to obvious things like tactics or goaltending. That’s because lot of the Russians are more than just ordinary players. They are geniuses.

Most Canadian players are predictable in their approach. But most of the Russians are not. They often remind me of Wayne Gretzky, the greatest Canadian genius of hockey. But very often, genius and tragedy go hand in hand.

For example, Russia’s loss to Finland last year in the semi-finals in Moscow was like something out of the movie Dr. Zhivago.

That's why I wouldn’t take the risk of betting that Russia will win gold this year. But I would still love to see Canada play Russia for the title.

And the fact is, Canada would probably win that game.

The Canadians have very often found ways to stop the more talented, faster, better Russian players in the past. And they can likewise do it here on home ice.

In the good old days, the clash of hockey cultures mirrored the clash between socialism and capitalism. And now, it’s all been reversed. The Canadians have the better concept of teamwork and defensive responsibility - for socialist hockey values, so to speak- than the Russians with their great individual brilliance.

In other words, the Canadians have become better Russians.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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