How’d the Russians Get so Good at Hockey?Jun 29, 2020
If you look at any NHL team’s roster, in most cases, you’ll find a dominant Player, who yes, hails from Russia. This was the case nearly 20 years ago when I was playing in the NHL and it’s still true today? Don’t believe me, ok, let’s look at the numbers. Here are the stats of some current NHL Russian players.
At the time I made this video.
- Washington’s Alex Ovechkin–played in 1087 games 1212 points
- Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin–played in 854 games 1003 points
- Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov–played in 448 games, 464 points
- St Louis’s Vladimir Tarasenko–played in 498 games 418 points and a Stanley cup champion last year.
But what you probably didn’t know, that not too long ago, hockey wasn’t the most popular sport in Russia and the old Soviet Union, it was Bandy, a sport similar to field hockey, but played on ice. So how did this mysterious country transition into a hockey powerhouse and continues to pump out high-end hockey talent year after year, even today?
There were 2 things that happened at 2 different places, at 2 different times, that eventually merged, and Russian Hockey dominance was the result. Let me tell you the story.
Back in the mid-1940s, soon after World War II, a young Russian was asked by the government, to put together an ice hockey program from scratch. With little more than some old hockey rulebooks, this individual would build the most powerful hockey federation in the world and become the first Russian inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
You might have heard of him, Anatoli Tarasov.
We’ll come back to him soon. Right around the same time, over in Canada, Lloyd Percival had gained national attention by providing instructional guide books and on-air programs for over 2 decades, helping to educate coaches and instructors, on how to better work with young athletes.
He helped coaches improve their coaching in basketball; volleyball, soccer, baseball and others, where millions of these labelled college curriculums were sold. Percival was a rock-star until he ventured into the sport his childhood sport of hockey
If we rewind the clock to when the NHL started back in 1917, they played this newly formed league out of Canada. In 1924, the league expanded to the United States, with the founding of the Boston Bruins and by 1926, 10 teams were up and running in Ontario, Quebec, the Great Lakes region and the Northeastern United States. The Great Depression and World War II, reduced the league to six teams, later known as the “Original Six”, and by 1942 and almost all of the players were from Canada,
Percival wanted to help remedy what he saw as a major weakness in hockey, as he found in all sports, a shortage of trained and knowledgeable coaches. At the time he started this hockey research project, most, if not all the major sports had many books available to assist coaches and instructors, but there wasn’t anything out there for hockey.
Percival set out to write the most comprehensive hockey teaching body of work that still has parts of the book relevant today as they were back to the original publication in the 1950s.
Mr. Percival’s studies and research of the sport hockey takes deep dives into skating development, puck control and stickhandling drills, shooting techniques for power and accuracy, offensive & Defensive strategies and tactics, goaltending advancement, how to organize practices to optimize ice-time and finally conditioning.
The Hockey Handbook was released in 1951 and would think the Canadian Hockey world would rejoice and praise Percival for a job well done, but that’s not what happened.
Dick Irvin, coach of 1950-51 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens, stated: “This is the product of a 3-year-old mind.”
The Hockey Handbook implied that coaches weren’t adequately exploring the possibilities of the game. Players were not training hard enough or often enough; they were not being taught to skate properly; nor were their skills being adequately developed.
He was a threat because he wanted hockey coaches and players to re-examine the very core of what they did best: coach and play the world's fastest game. And at the time, it was a fact. The best hockey in the world was in North America, but Lloyd Percival said the best wasn’t good enough. Hockey could be played faster and better when applying scientific principles of coaching, training and performing.
Canadian Hockey laughed at Percival but, this book influenced Anatoli Tarasov. It’s time for the merge.
Tarasov took the job of putting together an ice hockey program from scratch in Russia. Resources were limited, and the Hockey Handbook provided the foundation to build the program. “Your wonderful book which introduced us to the mysteries of Canadian hockey, I have read like a schoolboy,” wrote Anatoli Tarasov, the architect of Soviet Hockey.
Tarasov, took this newfound information and actually implemented it as the bedrock for the Soviet program, and built an infrastructure that relied on constant movement, passing and playmaking.
The theory proved to be right, that if the opponent makes 150 passes in a game against our 270, this means we’d have 120 more playing opportunities. In today’s terms, they built the team for puck possessions.
He focused his attention on developing the individual skills described in the book. The most important section of the book that Tarasov exploited was Training. In the simplest terms, he pushed his athletes beyond what anyone thought was capable.
The result would last for decades, the Soviets were more skilled than everyone else and far better conditioned. A team could hang with the Soviets for a period or two, but not 3. The Soviet National teams ruled international play for nearly 3 decades, winning 19 Soviet Titles and 9 straight world championships, including 3 gold medals.
"The Hockey Handbook” was rejected by Canadian hockey but this original release was the blueprint as to how hockey was developed in Russia.
The Hockey Handbook had a huge impact on Mr. Tarasov and sparked something in me early in my coaching career. Not the whole book, but one particular section, puck control.
Let me set this up for you. Soon after I retired, from the NHL in 02, my oldest was showing a strong passion for hockey and if the Dad played in the NHL, he’s expected to help coach the kids. The problem was, I didn’t have a clue on how to teach skating, shooting, passing and stickhandling skills. There was no YouTube where an inexperienced coach could search for guidance. Everything was a book or a DVD, and I became a sponge.
As I got a couple of years of coaching under my belt, I quickly realized that there was a lot of material available, focusing on skating and shooting instruction, but very little out there at the time on how to develop high-end stick skills, only the basics. I realize this right around the same time I picked up a copy of the Hockey Handbook.
He’s a few passages from the Puck Control section of the book that changed my life’s trajectory, resulting in 3 hockey-related businesses that focus on developing elite-level stick skills in an off-ice environment.
These passages are from Lloyd Percival The Hockey Handbook released in 1951.
- In the average game, players do not have very many chances to perform a particular puck-handling move. The average player during an actual game hesitates to try a new move that he has not got down pat in case he messes up an opportunity.
- He is under too much pressure to use anything but moves he already knows. Unless he learns new moves through special practice, he goes from game to game, from season to season using the same techniques, never developing additional skills.
- Observers have noticed that the players with stickhandling skills are usually standouts. No matter how the rules change, it will still more than pay the player or the coach to emphasize the development of stickhandling skills. These skills combined with the other puck carrying moves, good passing, and skating, the player will soon find professional scouts noticing his skills.
Once I read that, it was on. This passion for elite-level stick skill development over time create on off-ice stickhandling & shooting training aid products company called
- Snipers Edge Hockey offers players the best and highest quality hockey training aids in the industry. Get the skills you need to score more goals by improving your stickhandling and passing skills or increasing the accuracy and strength of your shot. www.snipersedgehockey.com
- Sweet Hockey Coach provides private off-ice stickhandling & shooting lessons business, where players stop over and put in the extra work. http://www.sweethockeycoach.com
- Online Hockey Training is an online off-ice stickhandling & shooting program, which is the world’s largest database of drills, now exceeding over 1000 drills. www.onlinehockeytraining.com
Now know how the Russians became so good at hockey and how Lloyd Percival’s Hockey Handbook had a major role in its creation and evolution.
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