Why hockey needs to appreciate the Red Army

normalAt the height of the Cold War, one could say that everything in the public was scrutinized more than necessary. There was a hint of secrecy and in other words a terrifying sense of immediate nuclear destruction that could tear the world apart in an instant.

Sport had its own Cold War and in particular, hockey.

And if there’s two things on this planet that really turn my crank, it’s history and hockey.

In the 1980s, Communism in the Soviet Union was in full swing yet slowly starting to die. A win in the sporting world equaled a win for the whole country and in extreme aspects, a win for Communism. Sport was used as propaganda for the nation and the Red Army team were the country’s main idols. It came as no surprise when former Soviet Army general Viktor Tikhonov lead one of the best and one of the most feared hockey teams in the game. Feared because they had the Iron Curtain hanging over their shoulder and the KGB watching every move.

Without beating around the bush, Tikhonov was hard. One could point out that on the ice and behind the bench, he ruled his team like a Dictator would his country. After all, maybe he did see his team as a country looking to invade and capture foreign land. His time as a general led him to create very unorthodox coaching styles. Players would have to train 11 months out of the year, away from their familiars and live in

Tikhonov in 2010.
Tikhonov in 2010.

the provided barracks; no doubt a salute to life in the army. Slava Fetisov, who captained the Red Army squad, was trained so hard that it has been said he could skate backwards as fast as any Western player could forward. How’s that for conditioning.

Former Soviet Union coach and credited as the god-father of Russian hockey, Anatoli Tarasov was once quoted as saying: A hockey player must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.”  You could, quite frankly, describe Tikhonov’s team in that exact way. Of course, playing together for 11 months out of the year will definitely bring talent together at outrageous circumstances but the stickhandling, skating, and overall look of hockey the Soviets gave to it pushed the sport ahead 20 years in time.

Tikhonov’s methods were built around the strategies of the game. Working down angles. Being able to have that Gretzky instinct of knowing exactly where your teammates were with the puck. God forbid if you didn’t have a clue. He learned his ways of course pig-backing from tactics that were put in place by Tarasov. Practices would leave you barely making it back to the locker rooms and passing out from exhaustion on the ice. They both expected everything from you.

While they demanded your best, Tikhonov and in a much broader sense, the Soviet Union would give their stars players nothing in return. Most didn’t receive big cheques; they were a pittance at best and then shunned after their big wins. After all, it wasn’t a win for the team, it was a win for Communism and the country! Every game was an Olympic style event with less fanfare.

That’s where the defection of Russian players started to take place. The players knew deep down how they were being treated wasn’t right but they couldn’t speak up for fear of being sent to isolation in Siberia to put it bluntly. Nobody in their right mind liked the coaching style but they did what had to be done.

downloadThen the Soviet Union collapsed.

Tikhonov had some of the BEST players under his wing. However with the threat of the NHL coming in and making offers now that they could entice players to the West, Tikhonov cut Pavel BureValeri ZelepukinEvgeny Davydov, and Vladimir Konstantinov in 1991 because he knew they’d be gone in an instant. It would save him the trouble. Those names should be familiar to you by now.

While Tarasov and Tikhonov were hockey dictators in their coaching ways, we would not have the style or innovation of the game that we do today. As I mentioned earlier, they helped push the game 20 years ahead of its time. Nobody had seen what they did with stick on these shores before. Some players described it as ballet on ice.

Sony Pictures is releasing a documentary on the entire squad entitled “Red Army”. I urge you to check it out and give it a watch. I can’t wait to see it myself.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey or on facebook, www.facebook.com/marchhockey and drop me a line!

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Remembering Lokomotiv Yaroslavl

Lokomotiv_Yaroslavl_memorial_at_Arena-2000Summer and early fall of 2011 was not kind to the hockey world. In the span of four months we lost Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien. As tragic as these players stories are, little did we know that the worst was yet to come.

September 7, 2011.

As 26 players, 11 coaches and a handful of flight crew boarded their plane to Minsk, Belarus, it seemed like any old start to a hockey season. The KHL was starting up their third season after evolving from the Russian Superleague. It is seen as one of the best hockey leagues in the world – second only to the NHL – and the best in Europe and Asia.

The 2011 roster of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was made up of young lads and NHL veterans. Some winding down on their careers; others just getting started. The team had an impressive season the year before finishing 1st in the Tarasov division with 108 points and losing in the conference finals to Moscow. The team’s top scorer, former NHLer Pavel Demitra, seemed to be on a tear and was eager to build on his formidable play.

The day started off like any other. Conditions were clear at Yaroslavl’s Tunoshna Airport and it was a great day to be flying. Driving to Minsk would take 12 or 13 hours by bus or train so flying was most welcome. Loading the gear up onto the plane then getting comfortable in their seats were names that people from North America would recognize. Canadian and Stanley Cup champion Brad McCrimmon was excited to coach his first KHL squad. It was a new and exciting opportunity to continue his career in a country like Russia. His assistant coaches were also former NHLers Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.

Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, and Josef Vasicek joined Demitra with this team to start the winding down of their careers. Each daunting players in their own right, you could easily see how much of a force Yaroslavl was going to be for this upcoming season. Sadly, we’ll never find out.

As the plane rushed off down the stretch of paved road, it overran the runway. The nose briefly went airborne before stalling and running into a tower mast. When it came back and hit the ground, the plane broke up and immediately caught fire near the Volga River. From the wreckage, all but two perished including the flight crew. Young Alexander Galimov survived the crash but died five days later in hospital. The avionics flight engineer, Alexander Sizov was the only survivor.

As the crash began to be investigated, there were a few shocking revelations that started to come to fruition. The plane overran the runway because of pilot error. The pilot put on the brakes as it began taking off thus skidding along the runway. What’s even more worry some was what came to light after. Both pilots had falsified documents to be able to fly the plane. They were flying illegally and the co-pilot was suffering from a nerve disease. He wasn’t even allowed to fly.

Upon hearing the news, the KHL canceled all of their home openers. The season was delayed by a week or so. Former NHL teams of those players who died paid tribute by wearing honorary patches. The German Ice Hockey Federation retired Robert Dietrich’s number and the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation did the same for Karlis Skrastins. Tributes upon tributes were poured out from hockey fans across the world for a senseless tragedy.

Yaroslavl did not compete that season but did rebuild for the next one. It’s sad and downright scary to think that everything could be taken away from you in an instant of time. However, life and death doesn’t stop for anyone. Not even in the hockey world; the show must go on.

September 7th will always be a dark cloud and reminder to the end of the chilling offseason of 2011. They may be gone but certainly not forgotten.

Rest In Peace…

lokomotiv-yaroslavl

Vitaly Anikeyenko, Mikhail Balandin, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimulin, Alexander Kalyanin, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Sergei Ostapchuk, Karel Rachůnek, Ruslan Salei, Maxim Shuvalov, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Josef Vašíček, Alexander Vasyunov, Alexander Vyukhin, Artem Yarchuk.

Yuri Bakhvlov, Aleksandr Belyaev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Brad McCrimon, Vladimir Piskunov, Yevgeni Sidorov, Andrei Zimin.

Q&A With Former KHL Enforcer Jon Mirasty

mirasty-yablonski-590x445Jon “Nasty” Mirasty is one player you’d rather have on your team then to be playing against him. In his 10 year professional career which has seen him play all over the globe, he has racked up a total of 2571 penalty minutes.

Case in point: He’s not one to be messed with.

Jon Mirasty is a native of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan and got his start in the WHL. He turned pro in 2003 with the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL and the legend was born. I was intrigued by his style and his brief foray into the MMA world.

March Hockey: You’ve played in numerous leagues but the one I’m most intrigued by is the KHL. How does the game over in Russia compare to that of North America?? Different atmosphere??

Jon Mirasty: Russia was a great experience. The game is a lot different. You play on a bigger ice surface which opens things up. On the physical aspect, guys there shy away from the rough stuff. Instead of booing, fans whistle. You don’t know if they are cheering for you or against you. It was very hard for me because I love to fight, and there I’d get into only 4 or 5 fights a season. All in all, it was a great time!

MH: I’ll ask right off the bat too, who’s the toughest guy you’ve ever fought?

JM: The toughest guy I ever fought is a pretty hard question to ask. I’ve fought so many guys that were very tough in different ways. Memorable guys that stand out to me would be guys like Steve MacIntyre, Derek Boogard, Jeremy Yablonski. I have to admit, Steve Bosse hit pretty hard too! But like I said, all the guys I fought were pretty tough and I respect them for doing one of the harder jobs in the game.

MH: You’ve spent some time in the LNAH. How does that league compare to other ones you’ve played in? Do you think it’s changed since you’ve left?

42JM: I had a great time playing in the LNAH. Obviously the skill level wasn’t on par with the KHL or AHL, but I feel that a lot of people under estimate the league. From what I remember, there were some very good players, along with some very tough men. I love old school hockey but sometimes the fights/brawls got a little carried away. It was a very exciting league where fans got a little bit of everything. I haven’t played there in over 6 years so things may have changed.

MH: Growing up as a kid, who was your biggest influence on your game and why?

JM: A lot of people helped me get to where I got, but the biggest influence would have been my dad, Gary.

MH: Any chance will see you in an MMA ring again?? What was that experience like??

JM: MMA was awesome. I have a lot of respect for those athletes. It is completely different than fighting on skates. I did not prepare properly and was not ready to compete. It takes a lot of devotion and time to train. With my new business adventures, I doubt I’ll have the time to ever attempt to compete again. I will train though.

Jon-Mirasty

MH: If you could play (or fight haha) against anyone, past or present, who would it be and why??

JM: I’ve had great battles against many guys and would look forward to doing it again against any one of them. Let my son put a few years on, and maybe I’ll try him.

LNAH 2013 Draft: Sorel-Tracy HC Carvena

HC_Carvena_de_Sorel-Tracy_2011The team who hosted the draft is up next on our look at the team’s faired.

HC Carvena wasted no time and drafted a player who is well known in LNAH and hockey circles, Jon Mirasty. “Nasty” Mirasty has been with Sorel-Tracy years ago when it was know as the Sorel-Tracy Mission. He then made it to the show with the Columbus Blue Jackets and spent sometime in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen and Syracuse Crunch before making his way over to the KHL.

Yes. The KHL.

Mirasty was signed by Vityaz Chekhov and played a total of 30 games. He was suspended for 15 of them for things like this:

And this:

Yes, that’s minor for North American standards but I guess they don’t take fighting in the KHL too lightly.

Anyway, HC Carvena did draft a couple other guys, like Danny Masse and Steve Label but…..Mirasty is the only one you should be worried about. I am.

Patten’s Take On Jokerit And The KHL

The Finnish team has decided to cut ties with SM-Liiga and join the KHL.

I feel this is possibly bigger news than it is being downplayed as the KHL will be in nine or ten different countries across eastern Europe.

NHL beware?

Many would consider a move like this a concern for the NHL. Finland and Scandinavia have been some what of an NHL hotbed, seeing as they have opened their season every year since 08 (baring the this years late start due to the lock out).

Although again one can argue that their slower, spread out game is not as attractive as the NHLs. In addition to this they have done very little and seem to have no interest in attracting non-Russian speaking markets. Perhaps that is an intentional move there.

Jokerit have had a fair history of success; winning SM-Liigas Kanada-malja trophy several times over the 90s and early 2000s.
They also have accommodated players such as Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and Several of the Ruutu family to name a few.

This move will definitely turn a few heads in Scandinavia the K’s way this coming season, and Its clear the KHL expansion is not slowing down. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out!!

Finnish Team Jokerit Helsinki To Leave SM-Liga And Join KHL

Jarkko Ruutu.
Jarkko Ruutu.

In what seems as a shocking move, Finnish based team Jokerit Helsinki has announced it will leave the very respectable SM-Liga (Finnish Elite League) for the KHL starting in the 2014-2015 season. Jokerit is one of the more established teams in SM-Liga with quite the following. This proves the KHL is adding one more step to become an international competitor to the National Hockey League.

The KHL is currently comprised of 29 teams based out of 8 countries. Jokerit Helsinki will become the ninth representing Finland. Croatia is slated to enter the league this coming season.

KHL_logo_2012All 29 teams are spread out throughout Euro-asia with the far east being newly HC Admiral Vladivostok which plays on the east coast of Russia across from Japan. Spearheaded by Alexander Mogilny, Vladivostok is hoping to turn itself into a contender within it’s first year and play for the Gagarin Cup.

Jokerit has had several stars breakout over the years including Esa Tikkanen, Teemu Selanne, Ville Laino, Erik Karlsson and currently Valtteri Filppula’s older brother Ilari and Jarkko Ruutu. It will be interesting to see how this team of Finnish faithful will adapt to the Russian style and league.