Both in international and pro circles, one of the more dubious trends in hockey in 2009-10 was the re-emergence of a belief in some circles that there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to play the game.
Ron Wilson, coach of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, said after losing the gold medal game to the Canadians: “Canada and the United States play the game like it should be – not sitting back and playing on your heels and waiting for something bad to happen and counter-punching, but actually going on the attack.” He added: “I'm teaching [my players] to play the right way; not the Slovak, Czech or Russian way where you sit back and wait and wait and wait. We are on the attack.”
Then, on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, forward R.J. Umberger of the Columbus Blue Jackets chimed in with his critique of the flashy, league-leading Washington Capitals: “They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them [in the playoffs]. If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they're going to get frustrated because they're in their zone a lot.”
To some, these comments will seem valid because a) the Canadians and Americans got to the Olympic final by playing north-south hockey and b) the Capitals were eliminated in the first round by the staunch defensive efforts of the Montreal Canadiens, not to mention the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak.
And granted, it was a good year for advocates of the old-school North American approach. For them, Canada’s Olympic title and the rough-and-tumble Chicago-Philadelphia final certainly helped to ease the pain of Sweden’s 2006 Olympic gold, the Swedish-led Stanley Cup victory of the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, and Russia’s back-to-back World titles in 2008 and 2009.
Yet if the prevailing vision of how hockey should (not can, but should) be played consists of keeping it simple, grinding it out, getting pucks deep, getting traffic in front, shooting from the point, and banging in some rebounds, we are in for an era of stylistic impoverishment.
This isn’t purely a criticism of North American hockey – it cuts the other way too. It would be just as limiting if all teams converted to the Russian gospel according to legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov, contending that pucks should always be carried through the neutral zone (never, ever dumped in – the horror!), that every goal should preferably be scored off an intricate tic-tac-toe passing play, and that bodychecking should be kept to a minimum in favour of stick-checking and pick plays.
There isn’t just one “right way” to play this great game. There are “wrong ways”. “Wrong” is going out there and deliberately trying to injure your opponents, setting aside the principle of sportsmanship. “Wrong” is also constantly feigning injury in an attempt to deceive the referees and draw penalties. But otherwise, bring it on.
Back in 1972, when the first full-fledged confrontation between Canada and the Soviet Union took place in the Summit Series, certainly it was a case of two nations trying to prove that their system was “right”. It was, as Wayne Coffey says in his book The Boys of Winter, a clash of “the rough play and dump-and-muck verticality that were the hallmarks of Canadian hockey” with “a system built on speed and criss-crossing motion” for the Soviets.
But the hockey world has seen so many changes since 1972. Styles have been integrated. The Russians shoot from the point and get traffic in front of the net much more than they used to. And as SI.com’s Jon Dolear observed in a 2002 article: “If you sit down and watch any NHL game, the influence of the Soviet power play can be seen. The umbrella power-play formation was invented by Tarasov, and nearly every team utilizes some derivation of that today.”
Ultimately, it’s still important for individual countries to remain true to the styles that have made them successful over the years, be it the Czech commitment to positional defence, Sweden’s love of puck control, or Canada’s aggressive forechecking.
Recall the perceptive comments of Russian bench boss Vladimir Yurzinov after his team lost 1-0 to the Czechs in the 1998 Olympic gold medal game in Nagano: "If you maintain your traditions, it allows you to maintain your identity. That's important. We are not all supposed to pray to one god."