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Puck Readers 2010, "The Boys of Winter": Time to get over Lake Placid?

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"What a feeling!"via <a href="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Z144YJM9L._SS500_.jpg">ecx.images-amazon.com</a>
"What a feeling!"via ecx.images-amazon.com

Having led our summer series off last month with Ken Dryden's 1983 classic "The Game", those of us who have been reading our Puck Reader's selections can claim to know a whole lot more about hockey in the 1970s. Our first book focused on the best of NHL professionals and the Canadian (and Canadien) tradition of excellence at the time. Today, looking at the second choice of the summer, "The Boys of Winter", from 2005, we can testify to the power of youth to believe, as a group of untested players and their brilliant, if unlikeable, coach were able achieve what no one thought possible.

"The Boys of Winter", by Wayne Coffey and subtitled "The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team" brought me so much closer to a story of which I already knew the ending and most of the characters. Maybe, like me, you're old enough to remember for yourself how the story unfolded live over thirty years ago

For me, a surprising common thread of these two books was getting a real time feel for the powerful influence of the Soviet hockey machine on all of hockey during that era. What an interesting cultural allegory to the Cold War these two stories become when read back-to-back, even more pervasive in the sport than is frequently attached to the familiar storyline of that one night at Lake Placid.

After the jump, I've put down some thoughts that draw from both these books, now hockey standards, and how perhaps they still influence culture of professional hockey and the players as we know them today.

In "The Game", Ken Dryden, erudite (okay, a bit dull) Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971-1979 who won more trophies than I could list, used the days of the week in a professional hockey player's life (in fact in his final spring in the NHL) to structure his memoir. His observations, sorted by chapters identified simply Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, cover a broad range of ideas, from recollections of his childhood, the culture of the sport and hockey people, the power, money and pressures of celebrity, and even the politics of Quebec's strained relationship with the Anglo-majority of the rest of Canada. In my post last month, I mentioned that I was intrigued by Dryden's narrative of how the emergence of the powerful Soviet hockey program completely surprised and embarrassed the Canadian hockey tradition. Dryden devoted pages to the specifics of how the Soviet's unconventional "style" of hockey forced the Canadian (NHL) game, which he suggests had become stale or complacent, to meet the challenge and get better.

In this month's book, Wayne Coffey, who is an amazing story teller and sportswriter, is comfortable exploring the drama of high emotions and complex relationships as he portrays his subjects with both honesty and empathy. His prologue begins as the 1980 teammates gather in Minnesota for the funeral of their coach, Herb Brooks, in August 2003. Coffey then takes us right back to Friday afternoon, February 22, 1980, Lake Placid: USA vs USSR in the first semi-final of those Olympic Games. 

Beginning with the drop of the puck at the start of the first period, Coffey, over the course of 200-plus pages, provides a vivid play-by-play of the entirety of the historic game. In a literary montage that I thought worked superbly, he pauses at important moments of the play to present personal and revealing flashback and "where are the now" profiles of each of the players and others who were part of that night. To me, it is exactly what I want sports (and sports writing) to be about: the magic of the team, a motley collection of unknowns, which no one would expect could even compete against the Best Team Ever. Instead, defying the odds, they bring to the ice in what became the defining game of their lives perfectly-matched skills, a creative strategy, and 110% effort united in their singular goal. And winning it all. Hooray! What's not to love? U S A. U S A.

A great story and a book that beautifully brings us everything we need to know about an unparalleld event in sports history and the everyday stories of the people who made it happen. I also learned so much about the geography of Minnesota hockey, I feel like I could hold my own if invited to a family gathering of Edina native Jamie McBain. I digress...

But, for those who want to read on, I'm not going leave it there. Bits and pieces of current hockey news have been popping up the last week or so that seem relevant to what I've been reading and I'd like to hear your thoughts.

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While it is so easy to stick with the tried-and-true portrayal of good guy Americans and bad guy Soviets, that's just not how we do it in this new century, is it? (see: Wicked, and take it from there)

For me, the best of Coffey's effort to detail every aspect of this one game was that he took the time to research and portray the Soviet teams' point of view. We sure weren't hearing that in 1980. He traveled to Moscow interview the Soviet players, and in one of the more revealing moments of the story, we hear from their coach, Viktor Tikhonov.

Years later, [Tikhonov] sat in his office after coaching CSKA to victory in its home arena, a boxy indelicate place, grayish brown and hulking, on a Moscow Avenue called Prospekt Leningradsky. His office was maybe three meters by four meters, a spartan space with a table, bookshelf, and pennants of all the teams he coached on the walls. Videotapes are crammed into every available space.....

He smiled faintly when asked if he has watched a videotape of the game [the loss to the US in Lake Placid]. "There's no need for me to see the game. I saw it once."

This one game is epic in American Hockey history, perhaps in the history of all Teams USA at the Olympic Games in any sporting event. Ever. Period. But for the Soviets, now mostly just Russians, the night was expunged from their history. One bad game, no point to dwelling on it. Rather, like all good competitors, they came back with renewed commitment and dominated International hockey for the next decade.

But that doesn't make good copy in this hemisphere, so to be sure, the rivalry lives on. Partly because that one win was so remarkable, and maybe because of those who stand to profit from the re-telling. 

Back in February, there was an undeniable enjoyment that most of us took in the flogging Team Russia received at the hands of the Canadians in Vancouver, and three months later, as further proof of North/American superiority, we smiled at the inability of Russia's loyal uber-talented players to capture gold in Germany at the IIHF World Championships. Even as we overlook that it took an underdog European nation to beat them. Everyone (unless you're a Caps fan) seems to get a kick out of a Russian Fail. Why?

During the NHL season, think about how we all enjoy a chance to heap scorn on the Russian players of the NHL; the more talented they are the more we pile on. Ovechkin, Malkin, Nabokov, now Kovalchuk...Admittedly, Pavel Datsyuk gets a bye - is it his Lady Byng play? (Or cause he's the only guy who looked appropriately dressed in the Zetterburg wedding party photo) .  

I may be over-thinking this, but I'm worried that in part this is derived from how it allows us to relive that patriotic pinnacle of Lake Placid 1980. It's so easy to hate those bad guys. 

 

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Winter_classic_header_medium

via cdn.nhl.com

Even in the jaded scorn we have for the Crosby-Ovechkin marketing rivalry that we count as another reason to complain about Gary Bettman, isn't there a subtext of Sid the Kid, babyfaced and very Anglo (maybe in the spirit of the Cold War's greatest Western spy James Bond), while Alexander Ovechkin with his gapped-tooth smile becomes, for many, a hideous villain, so good at what he does that we wonder if he may be a product of gene splicing. You'll hear "There's something different with that dude"; kind of commentary from opposing fans; "He's strong, he's skilled, yeah, but he chokes. Besides that, he's dangerous, reckless." From my observations (just read the comments on Ovie of the 2011 All Star Game poster unveiled today for an example), this aspect of the rivalry is so ubiquitous, we don't even notice it. As Ovechkin has matured, the bad rap has grown right along with him.

So big deal, right? It’s all good fun. What sports and competition is about. Okay.  Maybe. Heaven knows, I don’t want to go all Jesse Jackson here, but I think we should at least be a bit more circumspect on why we talk the way we do and not find ourselves tumbling down a slippery slope. And as Carolina Hurricanes fans, it turns out we’re in a unique position to respond in a way that may turn the conversation to a less predictable direction.

This week in hockey

Last Tuesday night, the twitterverse of puck talk exploded at 9:15pm, with the announcement that the NHL would reject the New Jersey Devils' X-treme contract with homeless hockeystar Ilya Kovalchuk. Most of this has been (and will be) analyzed and argued ad nauseum by those far smarter than I. But there were two moments in those first hours of knee-jerk reactions that caught me totally by surprise.

One moment came with a few less-than-kind tweets about Kovalchuk's quandary that were intended to be funny but led to the demise of Coyote Paul Bissonnette’s account @PaulBizNasty due presumably his use of the S-word to poke at the player's future. I referred to the story in last week’s Clicks and Clippings, and then there was one more take on it Friday. When "everyone's favorite" < /sarcasm> Ryan Lambert (formerly known as Two Line Pass) over at Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy blog says

And that's when the PC Police fired up the engines and came a-roarin' down the street. Racism, they said. Russians everywhere were outraged for some reason.

Ding ding ding ding ding. My Hockeyfan-in-North-Carolina antennae went up, and I somehow instantly could feel for those who are taking offense. Been there enough. United against a common enemy. Are you with me? (Herb Brooks would be proud.)

The other message of note, which was not picked up anywhere that I saw, came from one of my favorite hockey journalists/tweeters who is based in the US and covers with great depth the insider's view of Russian happenings in the NHL for, among others, the Puck Daddy blog (Lambert called him out too). Dmitry Chesnokov, within minutes of the announcement, tweeted the following question, which for me, was totally out of left field. 

@dchesnokov: What is Kovalchuk's last name was...hmm...Smith? Or Doe? *conspiracy*

9:32 PM July 20th via web

Wow. Never occurred to me. "Hossa" isn’t exactly Smith or Doe either, so I don’t buy his argument, but he’s a smart and rational guy. If that’s his raw reflex reaction, I think it’s worth paying a little more attention.

Again, not to read too much into this as the defining issue of the NHL, but I think like anything, it’s healthy to be aware of what might underlie some of the more pervasive opinions that we take for granted and then decide what’s fair and true.

In other words, are we still feeling the residuals of the Cold War or whatever the simplistic hockey equivalent is, that still sells book and DVD’s thirty years later, because it’s such a great feeling? Is the North American need to prove this is Our Game still expressed as an underlying antipathy to the talented Russians, who I think, like every hockey player ever born, really do just want to play in the best league in the world. "Sports" is supposed to be the great equalizer, right? That’s the American way.

Think about how we treat draft prospects whose names end with "ov" and dwell on the Russian Factor as if they’re a homogeneous group of kids who, to a man, are ready to flee to the KHL when their feelings get hurt? (No one seems to use Justin Krueger as an excuse to stay away from Germans – maybe if he was more talented?) Chesnokov again stepped up trying to refute these stereo-types the week prior to the draft in LA. and explain the KHL is an equal-opportunity hockey league to all those looking for an alternative. Or: it ain't just for just Russians.

Think about the winks implied in commentary when a player (Russian, Canadian, whatever) decides to sign in the KHL, and comments about paper bags of money as metaphors for bribery and corruption like those are the only things we need to know about their choice. Part of it is that we really don't know much about KHL Hockey in Russia 2010 other than what a few have written about the most extreme situations, and most of those are mired in the easy jokes and rolled eyes. And why should we care anyway?

After all, when’s the last time an American hockey team played over there in Russia, right? Like, forever? NOW, you see where I'm going, right?

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So around 1:30 Monday afternoon, in the midst of "Kovalchuk contract headed to arbitrator: NHLPA announces it will grieve the league's rejection of Russian sniper's contract" and the "'Canes reveal 2011 NHL All-Star game logo" including plans for a urban-scale poster which will be on display in downtown Raleigh by the end of the week, this link appeared in my twitter feed. Hockey news mashup.

KHL launched a site dedicated to the upcoming exhibition games between KHL and NHL clubs. http://www.khlnhl.ru/en/

You have checked it out, right? You should; it's about our team, now, the Hurricanes. How weird is it to see a url of khlnhl.ru posting PR stories about Justin Pogge and Ray Whitney (his new club Phoenix Coyotes are the other team playing in Riga in October) next to stories about all these players with weird Russian names like...um....Chris Holt or Tony Mårtensson? Oh - there's an Anton Babchuk story - that's Russian!..Oh, wait...

So, to answer my question, it’s been twenty years since an American team played hockey in Russia, so long it ago it was still the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. And Rod Brind`Amour was a teenager.

When the announcement was made in May that the Hurricanes would be playing an exhibition game in St Petersburg Russia against the SKA team of the KHL, how did you feel about it? For about five minutes I thought it was cool, but the more I considered the details, the less I liked it. So far away, exotic, unknown, more travel, and lord knows we don't need more opportunities to have the players get hurt. Why bother? Why risk it? 

Luckily I found one person who answered my concerns with a basic, and I believe sincere, message of good will, within which I can’t find any cynical reason to say this is actually self-serving and really about putting money in the coffers of the NHL. If you spot something ulterior underneath this effort to simply, and with an open hand, introduce the players of these two leagues with less than cordial relations for years, I want to hear it. 

"It should be a great experience for our players to take that trip, to go into Russia and play that game," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said recently. "There could be a little more at stake, going into Russia to play a KHL team. It will be good for us and the league."

Among hockey players, what better way to begin the conversation than with a hockey game? I’m going to follow Mr Rutherford’s lead here. Why are we bothering to play this game? Because it’s good for our team and the league, and maybe as the unwanted stepchild of the hockey purists of the Great White North, we Caniacs can empathize a bit more with those who feel scorned when we try to take a spot at the official table of hockeydom, the greatest sport on Earth.

And while I’m talking about sunshine and rainbows, I’m gonna vote that those of us (I'll admit to being one) who just don't get Anton Babchuk give him a break, a fresh start. If the NHL hockey can learn to embrace, even showcase, tailgating, twang and BBQ, I’ll put up with his enigmatic scowl and inscrutable English, and cheer him on, even when he's not perfect, just the same as if his name was Sutter, Gleason or Ruutu.

After all, I'm a huge hockey fan. If it's hockey, what else matters?