Just this past weekend, I found myself checking out the exceptional ESPN documentary called Of Miracles and Men. It was the most in-depth view of the history of hockey in Russia that I had ever seen. I only intended to catch the first few minutes of the film; it was not long before I was hooked.
I already knew most of the history that regarded Soviet hockey and its sports dominance but it’s a topic of discussion that always seems to bring new findings and lessons.
The Soviets have always pride itself on its success with sports & competition. This is why they put a large amount of focus, money and time into all of its international teams; they wanted to prove they were a superior culture. Late to game, right after WWII the country decided to adopt the Canadian sport of Ice Hockey.
What many do not exactly realize was that the overall success of the Soviet Union can be great attributed to one man. Anatoli Tarasov was asked to set up the country’s first hockey program and through his creativity, passions and endless desire for perfection paved the way for much of the modern game you see before you today.
The story goes as such; Tarasov asks Canada to help him in his setting up of the first Russian hockey program. Fortunately Canada refused as it was a blessing in disguise. It left Tarasov to create his own system of play that was based around his creativity. Through his passions for science and art, he would commonly adopt ideas and routines from a variety of sports, games and even Russian folk dance and incorporate them into his style and training methods.
His system was widely different from what was known back then. The mainstream approach of hockey was to allow one player on the ice to dictate the game. However, under Tarasov’s vision the game focused more on the players without the puck than the ones with it. The main idea of the system was to constantly move and create confusion; it would lead to a series of give and goes that would ultimately turn into high scoring chances or further possession. In order to accomplish this Tarasov would not create positional limitations such as defenders having to stay behind the offense or wingers staying on their side of the ice. There were essentially 3 forwards and 2 defenders and each of them could move as they wish so long as the rest of the team shifted their position on the ice and adapted to the new situation.
This is why he expressed a great deal on the mental side of the game, like a chess player his athletes had to understand the game and always be one-step ahead of their opponent. Ultimately they had to be ready for any situation especially in such a dynamic new style of hockey. There was no room for selfishness or an ego, and this school of thought led to many highly talented Russians to ultimately be cut from the national team.
Ahead of his time Tarasov would commonly keep track of his team’s ability in certain elements of the game to ensure they were meeting his requirements for a victory. Such statistics were said to be the amount of possession, the efficiency of their passing and the ratio of shots for vs shots against. These stats are what is commonly referred to today as “Advanced Statistics” and have only recently been used by the professional sporting world.
Much of this system was new but it did not take long for opponents to try to mimic this style. By opening up the doors for creativity he allowed his athletes and team to flourish just like a flower growing outdoors. Never limit yourself, especially your creativity.
In order to keep up with the new demands of his Soviet style of play, Tarasov understood that his players had to be exceptional athletes He believed that one’s overall athleticism and fitness capacity was equally, if not more, important than their overall skill level. Improving ones physical ability can improve one’s sport specific skill. This is why he ran a relentless boot camp and pushed his players past their limitations.
However, as challenging as the on-ice drills were his players still state that nothing was compared to their training off-ice. Tarasov may very well be the first hockey coach to have utilized dry-land training to improve their strength & conditioning (S&C).
Much of the stuff we know today about S&C can be dated back to the Soviet era of sports domination and Tarasov had it all in his pocket. He would refer to various sports to find new ways to improve his athletes overall fitness. Weightlifting, gymnastics and even track & field were highly utilized.
Today you can see a bit of film that shows Anatoli's unique training methods. Much of it looked strange, even for today’s standard but each and every bit of it was believed to turn these athletes into machines.
Today’s popular fitness trends of Crossfit, HIIT, Plyometrics can all be traced back to the work of the Soviet Union and nothing was deemed “not good enough” for The Soviets. They worked on everything and anything that would improve their work capacity.
This was one of the biggest reasons that made these amateurs into elite athlete that were desired by every NHL club.
Work hard on all aspects of your game, everything can have a purpose.
Though Tarasov consistently pushed his athletes hard, he also believed that every player was to enjoy the game of hockey or why do it at all? He understood that without that love, a player would be doomed to fail even with all the skill in the world. It was common for Tarasov to remind his athletes to smile, that they should be enjoying the sport because it’s a beautiful game.
How he handled his players was a defining trait of his role and led to many players thinking of him as a teacher or a father-figure. Tarasov’s successors would later come in instilling similar work ethics and tactics, and though many of them found much success in the game they would commonly find themselves with unhappy players. They would allow the players little family time, little money in return and never grant them the freedom to play in the NHL. Many players were unsatisfied with this control and retired young or ran away to North America. Much of them unhappy with the game they once loved.
Whatever we choose to pursue we should enjoy it or find something better in our lives.
This does not mean that hard work cannot be applied. Enjoy the activity, the accomplishment and the hard work that is required for success. Avoid the people who try to diminish your goals and dreams.
During Anatoli Tarasov’s tenure as head coach, he had won 12 World Championships and 4 Olympic Gold Medals. His success led to future coaches in a variety of sports to adopt his methods. The late Tarasov would often say that there were no secrets to his success. It was simply thinking outside of the box, working hard and being passionate for the things you do.
- Mark Lisica
Anatoli Tarasov spent most of his time writing books about his tactics and methods. His most famous book, Russian Hockey Secrets – Road to Olympus, indicates a quote by the late coach who described a perfect hockey player:
To me, a top class hockey player should be an all-round physically developed athlete with speed and strength plus. Such a player has an explosive starting reaction and a will that is as strong as iron. His bag of technical tricks should be big and varied, enabling him to perform his role in the line-up and make lightning decisions in tactics at any and every moment of the game. And all these qualities in modern hockey are absolutely out of the question if the sportsman lacks a high culture of the game: I have in mind tactical intuition, precision work with his partners, perfect orientation, a feeling of the game, the ability to see, understand, and even anticipate the actions of the closest and furthermost opponents and partners. And what is most important, all these qualities must be retained and put into use in the toughest moments of the game, when the pitch of a game is at its highest, when the emotions of players are as taut as bow strings.
Do you guys believe in this opinion? Who to you is the best player in the game today?