TORONTO – When the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto inducts its class of 2013 on November 11, one of the most innovative but misunderstood figures in the sport’s history will take his place among the game’s greatest builders. Nicknamed “the Fog,” the late Fred Shero, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 65, was a study in contradictions.
A studious, bespectacled and shy man who preferred to communicate with players via written messages rather than verbally, Shero was often reviled in the hockey world as a purveyor of “goon tactics.” In reality, this image obscured the fact that the two-time Stanley Cup winning coach possessed one of the sport’s most progressive-thinking minds.
For example, Shero was the first NHL coach to make use of assistant coaches. He was the first to make even rudimentary use of video study. Moreover, one of his greatest contributions to the worldwide advancement of the game is also the least-known facet of his coaching career: Shero was the first NHL coach and one of the first North Americas to extensively study Soviet hockey, embracing many of its tactics and adapting them to the smaller-rink game. Shero was also an early and vehement advocate for NHL teams to scout and sign European talents.
It is this aspect of Shero’s legacy that will be celebrated when IIHF President René Fasel will be present at the induction ceremony on November 11 in Toronto. Fasel will remind the assembled guests and viewers that Fred Shero gathered lots of his inspiration from Europe.
Shero, whose parents emigrated from Russia to Canada prior to his birth in 1925, served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. He played 145 games in the NHL as a defenceman for the New York Rangers but spent most of his playing days in various minor leagues. He retired as an active in 1958 to pursue a coaching career, which lasted until the 1980/1981 season.
Prior to getting his first NHL coaching opportunity with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1971, Shero coached four minor league championship teams and three squads that lost in the final round of the playoffs. During his stint with the Flyers, the team won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and reached the Finals again in 1976. Later, he coached the New York Rangers to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals.
Shero’s proudest personal accomplishment, however, came in a single match: On January 11, 1976, the Flyers defeated CSKA Moscow (Red Army) by a 4-1 score at the Philadelphia Spectrum. This was a game in which Shero had long dreamed of participating, and he spent many years mentally and strategically preparing to coach.
Ray Shero, Fred’s son and the current general manager of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, said in a 2008 interview that his father never viewed the Flyers-CSKA game as a political statement. To the elder Shero, it was all about the hockey challenge of finding a way to defeat a system of play he’d studied and admired for many years.
A longtime member of Shero’s Flyers teams, defenceman Joe Watson, agreed.
“No one in the NHL understood the Russian hockey better than Freddie,” Watson said in 2010. “Freddie actually went over there to Russia. He watched how they practised and trained and played. He talked a lot about the things he picked up from them.”
Shero was a devotee of the hockey philosophies of Anatoli Tarasov, “the Father of Soviet Hockey”. For well over a decade leading up to the game against CSKA, Shero absorbed all he could read, observe and discuss about Russian-style hockey. Even in the early 1970s, when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place and travel between North America and the Soviet Union was difficult, Shero twice made trips during the NHL off-season to attend coaching clinics and to trade hockey-related ideas and observations with Viktor Tikhanov and other top Soviet hockey coaches and instructors.
One of the greatest thrills of Shero’s life was meeting and even striking an unlikely friendship with Tarasov, who was seven years his senior. In a private audience between the Stanley Cup winning coach and the initial creator of the global hockey superpower, the two men developed great respect for each other.
As Shero later told the tale, the intended brief courtesy meeting became a full night of sharing bottles of vodka and comparing notes on their respective hockey philosophies. Even though neither man could speak more than a few words of the other’s language, their drawings of ice diagrams and physical gestures bridged the barrier.
“It was a perfect friendship, because Tarasov spoke no English and neither did Freddie,” joked hockey historian and statistician Bruce “Scoop” Cooper, alluding to Shero’s famously taciturn nature and cryptic pronouncements.
Shero borrowed several ideas on practice methods and game tactics from the Soviets and adapted them to the NHL setting. For example, Shero brought back from Moscow a three-man passing drill which simultaneously utilized three pucks, rather than one. Much of the system that Shero drilled into his Stanley Cup champion Flyers was a combination of hand-picked North American and Soviet tactics from which Shero created his own set of rules.
Flyer wingers were required to stay on their assigned wing between the blue lines, except if they had a chance to intercept a stray pass from the opposition. No forward was allowed to turn his back to the puck at any time and the only time a defenceman was allowed to do so was to quickly swing to a defensive corner. Blind-centering passes in the offensive zone were forbidden.
Shero organized the team’s defensive zone coverages to prevent the chance of being outnumbered, whether along the boards, in the slots, or up high. Diagonal passing in the defensive zone was forbidden as was skating the puck backward in the defensive end. It was acceptable for players to pass backwards in the defensive zone.
Where Shero disagreed the most strongly with the Soviets was his view on checking. Rather than relying on the sweep check, Shero encouraged his players to get a good angle on the opponent and take the body.
To prepare for the 1976 game against CSKA, Shero devised a plan to counterattack the Red Army’s precision passing game. He instructed his team not to chase the puck and focus instead on protecting their blue line and bottling up the passing lanes. To avoid CSKA’s deadly counter-attacks, Shero instructed his forwards to hold the puck as much as possible when they were in the Red Army’s end of the ice.
The tactic worked. Philadelphia won 4-1 on the scoreboard and outshot CSKA by a 49-13 margin. The loss was the only one CSKA sustained during its tour of exhibition games against the top NHL clubs. Entering the contest, the Red Army was undefeated. CSKA had thumped the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden by a 7-3 score, played to a thrilling 3-3 tie at the Montreal Forum against the Canadiens and downed the Boston Bruins by a 5-2 count.
“Freddie said ‘we’ll show them a real Iron Curtain’ before the game, and that’s exactly what we did,” Watson said.
Shero never made any secret of his deep admiration for European hockey in general and Soviet hockey in particular. As recounted in a 1974 book by hockey writer Jack Chevalier, entitled “The Broad Street Bullies,” Shero was an ardent supporter of NHL teams becoming far more active in scouting and signing European talents.
“We should have more Europeans and Russians in the league,” Shero told Chevalier. “But management can’t get it into their fat heads they’re good enough to play. They always say, ‘They lack this or they lack that.’ What do they lack? Nothing, not even guts.”
At Shero’s insistence, the Flyers became one of the first NHL teams to employ a European scout (Adolph “Augie” Kukulowicz). It was also the Philadelphia organization that was the first NHL club to draft a Soviet-trained player – gifted but troubled and ill-fated Viktor Khatulev from Dinamo Riga – in the NHL Draft.
These off-ice measures did not bear on-ice fruit for the Flyers organization during Shero’s career. Nevertheless, his early influence in laying groundwork for NHL acceptance of Europeans is a truer indicator of his legacy than the mistaken belief that Shero instructed “Flyers goons” to try and physically intimidate and taunt Börje Salming and other early European players in the League. While these incidents did take place, it was never at Shero’s own demand.
In the latter stages of his coaching career, Shero had the opportunity to coach Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson during his stint with the New York Rangers. In 1978/1979, Hedberg led the team in scoring with 79 points in 80 games and Nilsson contributed 66 points in 59 games for a club that reached the Stanley Cup Finals for just the second time in a span of 29 years.
“I really enjoyed the speed and skill of the Swedish players I had with the Rangers,” Shero told Hockey Digest in 1989. “I have been happy to see more European players come over and do well. I think it’s good for the game, and they were important players for our team.”
Whenever Shero was asked about on-ice or off-ice training methods for hockey players, he inevitably mentioned that he believed the Russians were far ahead of their North American counterparts in these aspects of their preparations.
“The Russians have dry-land drills where they stickhandle on grass,” Shero told Chevalier. “I’ve seen them skate while carrying a man on their backs.”
Shero also learned from the way Russian trainers had their athletes run and skate obstacle courses, realizing that hockey players had to deke, twist, turn and tumble. He believed these exercises to be more valuable than running long distances in a straight line.
When Fred Shero is posthumously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and Ray Shero accepts on his father’s behalf, it will be his many innovations and willingness to adapt others’ ideas into his own that will finally take centre stage. That is how the sport grows and changes.
Along with Shero, the Hockey Hall of Fame will honour defencemen Chris Chelios and Scott Niedermayer, power forward Brendan Shanahan and women’s hockey star Geraldine Heaney.