Chasing the Dream Game
Posted by Dean Holden at February 27th, 2015
by Jack Blatherwick, 18 February 2015
As I watched the movie “Red Army” twice this weekend, I was reminded of the Soviet “dream games,” featuring deceptive passing, puck control, weaving, regrouping and non-stop highlight plays.
Anatoli Tarasov invented this style of play (actually, it had been played this way on the ponds for a half-century), and he installed a training philosophy to complement the style and ensure that skating was an off-ice priority. Sadly, in North America, we let pressure to “win at all costs” dictate our style of play. And we gave football strength coaches the platform to determine our priorities for training off-ice, as if skating was not that important.
Perhaps if there were a hundred Patrick Kanes and Sidney Crosbys – and the referees called the game by the book – we’d see hockey at its best in the NHL and college. But while the players are fast and skillful at those levels, the game is not what it could be, because the referees are in cahoots with the defense.
“Dump-and-chase” works in this environment, and coaches insist on it. Throw it in, skate 100 feet and crush the D into the end boards. Hope for a turnover, and call it an offensive “system.” Coaches in other sports wouldn’t last one season if they paid so little attention to offensive attack.
I appreciate that many readers don’t share my far-out dream, and I know there’s a lucrative market for hits, fights and concussions. That’s OK. I’m not on a mission to change anyone else’s dreams for NHL or college hockey. But I’m old enough to have watched the Soviets play a game that was so artful, you’d see nothing but highlight pass plays all night, and this experience implanted a dream that youth hockey might copy the model.
The Soviets played as a coordinated unit of five players on the attack, and even Wayne Gretzky said, “They’re too good.” Bobby Clark decided the only way to beat them was to break the ankle of their best player. Yet there is no doubt NHLers have the skills and desire to play a wide-open style that is not reined in by coaches. As Herb Brooks put it, “We sell their talents short when we tell them to ‘keep it simple.’” He and Tarasov urged us to make the attack so complex the defense couldn’t tell where the pressure was coming from. Modern football offenses use that same philosophy.
So I decided to search elsewhere for the dream game, and watched the top two PeeWee AA teams face off at Braemar Arena. Minneapolis and Edina played the best game I’ve seen in years – nothing but creative playmaking the whole game. The no-check rule makes a big difference, of course, but so does coaching.
The coaching staffs of both teams have done a tremendous job, encouraging talent and creativity to flourish. After all, that’s the fun of hockey. It’s not about wins, losses, trophies, tournaments and rankings. It’s all about sticks, pucks, shots to the top shelf, dekes and cool plays. When kids sign up to play, they want to imitate Pavel Datsyuk. No one would register if they were told their role will be limited to forechecking, backchecking and hustling off the ice.
The game was brilliant. There were subtle, safe passes in the defensive zone and plays with no limits attacking the offensive zone. Besides that, there were fringe benefits to this dream game. Because of the no-check rule, parents were not yelling, as they do at Bantam games, “Play the body,” or complaining to the refs when the other team does. Actually, there was no yelling at all, just appreciation for a beautiful contest of skill and creativity.
These two rivals have tied several times this year, and one goal separated them that night. Parents on both sides seemed to understand the special level of skill, and as I talked with some, it seemed like just another tie game. Maybe the scoreboard becomes irrelevant when we return the game to the kids and let their creativity take over.