I saw my first IIHF World Championship games in 1971 in Berne. That memory prompts me to stop and take a look back in time. Has international hockey changed since 1971 or since 1990, the other time this city hosted a World Championship? Has Berne changed?
Well, the old buildings in the city still look the same as in 1971, or 500 years ago, for that matter. Even the name of the mayor has not changed since 1971. Back then it was Reynold Tschäppät, and now it's his son Alex Tschäppät. The Tschäppäts and their socialist party rule the capital of Switzerland like Richard Daley ruled Chicago in the good old days.
The arena is still the same as in 1971. Okay, the arena's name is now PostFinance Arena. But when we turn off all the disco-style lights and take a look under the fresh paint, we still see the good old hockey temple from 1971 named the “Allmend”. (And to be honest, it's still about as comfortable as it was in 1971.)
But has hockey really changed? The game we love was also a team sport in 1971, just as it was in 1990, and as it is today. But back in 1971 or even in 1990, star players could decide a game singlehandedly. It was unthinkable to send out your third or fourth line to stop the first Russian unit in those days. The creative players ruled the game, both on the international level and back home in North America. However, the Edmonton Oilers won their last Stanley Cup in 1990, and the era of firewagon hockey finally came to an end.
Today, the athletes can beat the talented stars in hockey. The less talented and creative players know how to take away time and space from individually better and smarter players. A bunch of disciplined grinders can stop the first unit of every national team if they do their work well. Therefore the game is faster and much more intense than it was in 1971 or 1990. And life for the superstars has become much more difficult.
1990 also marked the end of another era. It was the end of the great European national teams. Prior to then, the Russians had their best players all year round, and for the last time, they had the “Big Red Machine” in almost its original configuration. In 1990, Sergei Makarov and Vyacheslav Fetisov were the only key members of the Russian team that played in North America.
But was hockey better in those days? Were the Russians better?
No, I don’t think so. Sometimes the past only looks better because we were younger.
Yes, after winning gold at the 1993 Worlds, the Russians had to wait 15 more years to win another world title in Quebec City. But now, they look much the same as in 1971 or 1990.
In 1971, the best Russian forwards were Anatoli Firsov, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Vikulov, Vladimir Petrov, and Boris Mikhailov. In 1990, the Russians had stars like Makarov, Vyacheslav Bykov, and Andrei Khomutov. Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure played on their third line.
And now, watching the Russian players is like travelling back in time. There is not really a huge difference between Kharlamov in 1971, Makarov in 1990 or Kovalchuk in 2009. They have the same moves, the same speed, the same magic hands, and the same coolness. And they all create major difficulties for defenders who try to stop them.
When you look at Berne and its international hockey scene, four things are for sure: the Tschäppät family, their socialist party, the old buildings, and the hockey prowess of the Russians.
There is no reason why they can't win another gold medal, just as they did in 1971 and 1990.
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.