The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) web site has interesting information about a popular winter sport. Below is a breakdown of the number of male ice hockey players in each of the leading ice hockey playing countries (the women's numbers are listed as well at the site).
|Male Players Age 20 & Over||Junior Players||Population (million)|
The USSR always lagged behind Canada in the number of people playing ice hockey. For connoisseurs of the sport, this makes perfect sense.
During the 1970s and 80s, when these 2 nations were often considered the best, Canada was thought to have the deeper talent pool; while it was generally believed that the USSR's top players were on par with Canada's. Around the late 1960s, the number of ice hockey playing Americans began to skyrocket to its present standing. This corresponds with the 1967 NHL (National Hockey League) expansion, which saw the addition of 6 American teams. Compared to the other leading ice hockey nations, note the number of players in the relatively tiny nation of Finland. Finnish national teams have been top contenders in recent years. Slovakia is another honorable mention in per capita performance.
Ice hockey in the USSR began to develop after World War II. Czechoslovakian ice hockey influenced Soviet development in the sport. Prior to World War II, ice hockey was played in Czechoslovakia. The USSR shortly developed its own unique program of physical conditioning and precision plays. Czechoslovakia and the USSR dominated much of the Cold War era Olympic and World Championship play. Their rivalry reached an intense climax about the time of the 1968 Soviet led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the ensuing 15-20 years. The 1976 Soviet-Czechoslovak Olympic final was an all time classic. The Soviets were down by 1 goal late in that game. Thereafter, 2 Soviet goals resulted in a thrilling 4 to 3 Soviet win and disappointing Czechoslovak loss.
North American ice hockey observers watched with interesting introspection. A short time before that Olympic gold medal game, two Soviet teams teams performed admirably against NHL clubs in a series of hard fought exhibition games. I have fond memories of one of those games played between the New York Islanders and the Moscow based Krylya Sovetov (also known as the Soviet Wings) at the Nassau Coliseum. Despite the Islanders' loss, at game's end, the sellout crowd gave a very appreciative ovation for the entertaining performance they witnessed. At the end of 1979, I saw another such encounter at the Nassau Coliseum between the Islanders and CSKA Moscow (the Moscow Central Army Sports Club, which in Soviet times was often referred to as the Red Army team). That game marked another Islanders' loss to a Soviet team. Through the years, CSKA players made up anywhere between 20% to a little over 50% of the Soviet national team. Shortly after the Islanders-CSKA game, the Soviets lost the gold medal to a young group of American upstarts at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. A revamped Soviet national team redeemed itself with a convincing 8 to 1 championship win over Canadian NHL and WHA (World Hockey Association) all stars at the 1981 Canada Cup.
Much has changed since then. The once overwhelmingly Canadian NHL now has a plethora of players from the United States and Europe. Many Czechs and Slovaks do not associate present day Russia with the 1968 invasion. A good number of Czech and Slovak players have played for Russian teams. On their respective NHL clubs, Russians are generally known to be on the best of terms with Czechs and Slovaks.
Unlike some other sports (like soccer and basketball), the Soviet breakup did not drain the Russian national ice hockey team of many top players. The best Soviet ice hockey players typically came from Russia. While still a perennial ice hockey power, post-Soviet Russian teams have not faired as well as Soviet ones. Soviet national teams had more time to play and practice as a single unit than post-Soviet Russian ones. At the time of the Soviet breakup, most of Russia's top players started playing in the NHL; resulting in less time for them to practice as a national unit. As American basketball fans were made painfully aware of at recent international competitions (the Olympics and World Championships), team sports require practicing as a unit. When this becomes limited, the lesser talented team that has effectively lengthy training sessions, stands a greater chance of winning over the more skilled squad. In Olympic and World Championship competitions, the USSR typically played against teams that did not spend as much time together as their Soviet opponent. Canada's best players were bogged down with the NHL schedule. In the middle to late 1970s, Czechoslovakia started losing some key players due to defections to the West. Soviet defections were significantly minimal and happened in the late 1980s. Due to an adjustment in the NHL season, the last three Olympics have seen each major ice hockey playing country putting together teams that better reflect the best available players. Unlike in Soviet times, a number of top Russian players have opted not to play in international competitions. The NHL season is a grueling. Whether Russian or not, some top ice hockey players prefer taking a break, instead of playing in international competitions.
The qualitative improvement of how ice hockey is played can be traced back to the dramatic 1972 "Summit Series" between Canada and the Soviet Union. It marked the first time that most of the best players from the 2 countries faced each other. Going into that series, Canada was forecast as the heavy favorite. After the final game, the Canadians felt fortunate in coming out ahead of a closely contested series. Prior to that event, Canadian players did not typically engage in an all around physical conditioning program like the Soviets. The Canadians tended to play a rather boring "north-south" dump and chase game (shooting the puck at the opposing team's end and chasing it). This contrasted to the crisp "east-west" (side to side) passing plays of the Soviets. The Canadian dump and chase tact periodically included rough physical play.
Since 1972, the North American dump and chase style has added more sophisticated plays and better conditioned athletes. In turn, some Russian and other European players have utilized the North American style of not being shy at physically challenging their opponents. Russian forward Alexander Ovechkin is the most talented hybrid example of a punishing body checker and finesse player.
Besides the 1972 Summit Series, Soviet national teams faced stiff Canadian opposition in the 1974 Summit Series (won by the Soviets against Canadian WHA all stars) and the Canada Cup (renamed the World Cup of Hockey, this tournament has been dominated by the Canadians). The 3 game 1987 Canada Cup final between the Soviet Union and the winning Canadian team is considered by many ice hockey fans to be the best series ever between national teams. At the junior level, Canadian and Soviet/Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)/Russian teams have had a very competitive rivalry. For a brief period following the Soviet breakup, the CIS represented the former Soviet Union minus Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (which are not CIS members) at some major sporting events. The CIS won the 1992 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship. At the 1992 Summer and Winter Olympics, the CIS competed under the name "Unified Team". That year, its overwhelmingly Russian ice hockey team beat Canada in the Olympic final.
Soviet teams squared off against multinational (North American and European) NHL all stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup (won by the Soviets) and 1987 Rendez-Vous (considered a draw, with the Soviets having a better goal differential over the 2 games played).
At present, the Russian Super League (RSL) is considered by many to be the second best ice hockey league after the NHL. The improved Russian economy has allowed RSL teams to acquire NHL caliber players. Non-Russians are among the stars in the RSL. Russia's second best ice hockey league is known as the High League (it has also been referred to as the Premier League). It includes teams from Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
In the post-Soviet era, the national ice hockey teams from the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia have qualified for Olympic competition. After Russia: Belarus and Latvia have the best former Soviet ice hockey programs. The Belarusian national team has been coached by Canadian Glen Hanlon. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a big ice hockey fan. Vladimir Krikunov, the coach of the 2002 Belarusian Olympic team which upset Sweden, coached the 2006 Russian Olympic team. Reflecting its country's demographic makeup, Latvia's team is a blend of ethnic Latvians and Russians. On the other hand, Kazakhstan's squad has a decidedly Slavic makeup. In recent years, Ukraine's ice hockey program has noticeably progressed. Ukrainian born Nikolai Zherdev, Oleg Tverdovsky and Alexei Zhitnik have represented Russia in international competition. Players born during the Soviet period have been able to choose to play for Russia, or the former Soviet republic of their birth.
At the national team and club league levels, there is a new world order among global sports like basketball, ice hockey and soccer. The days of year by year dominance of one team is no longer the norm. Parity is clearly more evident. Compare the past and more recent records of the once overwhelmingly dominant Boston Celtics in basketball and the Montreal Canadians and CSKA Moscow in ice hockey. With Russia always in contention, the last 3 Olympic and World Championship tournaments have seen a different country finishing first. Led by young superstars Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeny Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, Russia's ice hockey program continues to produce outstanding talent.
Women's ice hockey has gained in popularity. Canada and the United States have been the big 2, followed by Sweden. Russia has yet to make a significant mark for itself on the women's side of the sport.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. In addition to Russia Blog, his commentary has appeared in the Action Ukraine Report, Eurasian Home, Intelligent.ru, Johnson's Russia List, Reuters, Serbianna, Siberian Light, The New York Times, The Russia Journal and The Tiraspol Times.