Every now and then, someone accuses me of over-intellectualizing hockey. They wander into my posts from God-knows-where and turn around and around, strewing befuddled comments every which way. “Why are you talking about Arabic poetry? What the fuck is up with this Taoism? This isn’t some fancypants French salon, my girl, this is hockey. It’s about sweat and facepunching and manly grunts, not ideas.”
This is, of course, completely wrong. Everything people do, certain reflexive bodily functions aside, is ideas. EVERY-F*#KING-THING. Just because many of those ideas are seldom or never fully articulated, laid out bare on a page for all to see, doesn’t mean they’re not there. They’re embodied ideas, ideas of practice and discipline rather than pen and paper, but ideas they are.
The evolution of hockey is also the evolution of ideas about hockey, and as such it bears a certain resemblance to the evolution of other kinds of ideas. And when one is talking about the evolution of ideas in the 21st century Western world, one eventually has to talk about Hegel.
For the record, I do not especially want to talk about Hegel, because Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher, and there is no more certain path to madness than nineteenth century German philosophy. It’s the gateway drug of insanity: people always insist they’re just going to try it once or twice, then ten years and two advanced degrees later you find them curled up in a corner of the library muttering untranslatable 35-letter-words with random capitalization, like Tim Thomas on ketamine.
So we are not going to actually talk about real Hegel, because I do not want to go mad nor drive any of my readership down that path. No, what we’re going to talk about Hegelian dialectics, which is the idea most deeply associated with Hegel, despite the fact that he apparently didn’t use it much and when he did, attributed it to Kant. Nevertheless, the ongoing misnomer persists, presumably due to a shortage of advanced Hegel scholars still capable of communicating with the sane.
Anyway, the Hegelian dialectic says this: ideas proceed according to a particular pattern, which might be described as thesis → antithesis → synthesis. You begin with one consensus position (thesis), which then, because people are contrary motherf*#kers, naturally gives rise to an opposing position (antithesis), and the two battle it out until resolving into some third position that takes account of both but fully conforms to neither (synthesis). This synthesis then becomes the new thesis, against which a new antithesis will eventually arise, and on and on and on.
Not every lineage of ideas can be understood according to this pattern, but many- particularly Westerny Euroidy ones- can be usefully examined in this light, and hockey is no exception. In fact, hockey (and sports generally) might be a better case study of Hegelian dialectics than many other things, as the explicitly competitive nature of a game should make it ripe for the development of antitheses. Teams are always looking for an edge, which means they should be not just open to new and contradictory ideas, but actively seeking them. The game of hockey ought to be, on an ideological level, an ongoing quest for the next great antithesis. As, sometimes, it has been.
The historical dynamic between Canadian and Russian hockey is a gorgeous, elegant, nearly-perfect example of a Hegelian dialectic in action. Consider Canadian hockey, as it existed in the heart of the Accidental Six era, as a thesis. This thesis is, itself, a synthesis of a synthesis of a synthesis, the result of many different debates in structure and tactics that happened during the early era. However, by the early fifties, many of these debates had been settled and a certain theory of game play had crystallized, which went something like this: hockey is an exchange of scoring chances, in which great players attempt brilliant individual rushes while their opponents try to decapitate them with sticks, until everyone gets really f*#king pissed, there’s a big fight and we all go home. This is a bit of a crass characterization, but only a bit- although forward passing had been legalized nearly two decades before, Canadian hockey values still carried the legacy of a game that relied heavily on the idiosyncratic genius of the puck carrier for its offense and the annihilation of said puck carrier for its defense. Therefore, building the best team meant assembling the most brilliant puck-carriers in one place, which led to a certain ideal vision of the hockey player as a man who, within himself, embodied every necessary characteristic of a good team. The goal, which persists to this day, was to create players who were both skilled and tough, equally capable of attempting to decapitate and withstanding attempted decapitations, two-way guys who could do it all and then a little bit more.
What Anatoli Tarasov sets out to create in Russia through the 50s and 60s was the deliberate antithesis of this Canadian thesis. The stark contrast between his ideas about hockey and the traditional Canadian ones was no accident, not just collateral damage wrought by the Iron Curtain. It was completely intentional contrarianism on several different levels, some of it driven by ideology and the rest by necessity.
When Phil Esposito characterized the differences between Canadian and Russian hockey as reflecting differences between capitalist and communist values, he was exaggerating, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. Tarasov explicitly links many of his ideas about hockey to Soviet principles. If Canadian hockey was the quest for the complete player, Soviet hockey would be the quest for the complete team. This meant that, paradoxically, Tarasov developed the distinctive traits of his players both more and less than Canadian coaches. More, in that he believed that chasing “all-around” skill was a waste of time. Every player has his own natural gifts, and the best use of players is the one that allows them to develop their gifts to the highest level, even if that means allowing for gaps in other areas of the game. In Tarasov’s system, no player was expected to do everything equally well. Let the offensive wizard have his defensive lapses- just play him with linemates whose defensive instincts are superior. Less, because the emphasis was on the team and the system, so every player, no matter how many points he piled up, was viewed as a role-player, and everything, from the fanciest stickhandling to the most dutiful grinding, was no more than one role among many. Everyone brings their individual greatnesses and then meshes them together for the common good- you could not ask for a more communist sporting vision than that.
But not all of the differences in values were reflective of political difference. There were also more basic cultural differences. For example, Tarasov- like, I should note, pretty much everyone from any non-Canadian culture when first exposed to Canadian hockey- was utterly baffled by the level of superfluous, performative violence in the North American game. He looked at the scarred, toothless visages of Canadian pros and saw something horrific and bizarre, a country willing to sacrifice the health of its athletes for absolutely no good reason. This is not to say Tarasov was anti-violence. He knew that the ability to endure and inflict pain was essential to hockey, insofar as it concerned the battle for space in the scoring chance area. This was a sport, he believed, with no room for cowardice. But much of Canadian hockey violence had nothing to do with scoring, happening at random intervals in the neutral zone, or even when the clock was stopped. Not even considering the traditional beliefs about intimidation, he attributed the Canadian romance with brutality to the country’s embarrassment of hockey riches: Canada had so many players of such a high level that it was able to convince itself that completely different secondary and tertiary skills- like facepunching- were far more important then they were. Canada was, in his view, so rich in talent that it had become talent-blind.
Which brings us to another reason for Tarasov’s antithesis-system: resources. Even had he wanted to imitate Canada, it’s doubtful he could have done so successfully. Starting with virtually no facilities, few experienced players, and a neonate development system, Tarasov didn’t have the option of finding talent the way Canadian teams did, by going out to rural lumber towns and picking it off ponds. He had to craft it through rigorous training. At a time when North American players lived on steak and whisky and took intermissions as smoke breaks, Russian players were eating nutritionally-regulated meals and were forbidden cigarettes on pain of expulsion. NHL pros spent their off-seasons fishing and golfing; Russians spent theirs playing soccer and doing gymnastics. Practices in Canada consisted largely of a few basic drills and a light skate; in Russia they were a complex system of continuous, high-speed, full-team routines, constantly reinvented by the coaches to keep players from complacency. Beneath the pleasant fiction that hockey skill is born out of childish passion and good clean fun, Tarasov discerned the truth: hockey skill is born of constant, intensive, excruciating repetition sustained for years on end.
These factors- ideological difference, cultural difference, and difference in resources- combined to create a new vision of hockey-playing that was distinct in both principle and practice from the Canadian version of its day. But look at those principles- the love of teamwork, systems and role-playing, the suspicion of needless violence and desire to protect stars from having to engage in it, the emphasis on constant training, conditioning, and drilling- and you see the values of the contemporary NHL. The game that is played today, in North America, on all of our television screens, is a lovely synthesis of the Accidental Six thesis and Tarasov’s antithesis. The two strains have been so thoroughly blended that many of Tarasov’s strategies and values, alien to Canada in the 60s, are now indistinguishable from Don Cherry-approved Good Canadian Boy hockey. In the great conflict between the two systems, neither won. They fused, and a new thesis was born.
A true hockey antithesis- a completely, radically new approach to the game- isn’t something you can develop casually in a six-month experiment. It needs a contrary spirit and a scorn for customary ways that’s stronger than the desire to win right now. It needs to grow in a hothouse environment, nourished by the soil of proud difference, watered by bitter resentment, converting the intransigent carbon dioxide of f*#k all y’all into the glorious oxygen of a bold new style*. A national program like Tarasov had is, in some ways, the ideal place for such a project, as it can draw on tremendous resources over long periods, control something of the player-development process, and resonate with a sense of cultural pride. It is doubtful that anything less than the full weight of the Soviet system could have produced as brilliant and distinctive of a hockey antithesis as what Tarasov created. But, within the NHL, certain franchises have been able to do it in a smaller way. Think of the Flyers’ bullying in the 70s or the Devils’ trap in the 90s- styles of play that were contradictory to the accepted values of the surrounding League, but were able to develop through a strong team culture and a durable franchise commitment.
I look around the hockey landscape and wonder: where could the next great antithesis come from? The one that will push the game forward- or hell, even backward, or maybe just a little bit to the left and up slightly? What currently operating team has the gonadal fortitude to invest its time and resources in a radical new system? I can’t see one. For all modern hockey speaks of courage, it is often conservative to the point of cowardice, far more comfortable recycling the same coaches, the same GMs, and the same systems over and over and over again, replacing each predictable failure with equally predictable changes. Sometimes I fear that we have reached the end of hockey history and Sidney Crosby is, in fact, the last man, the bland lord of a bland country.
But, then again, that’s what Gordie Howe looked like in 1960.
*It also needs overwrought metaphors.