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Soviet Hockey: the Beautiful Game

Stashed in: Sharks!, Hockey, Practice, Stories, Russia and Friends, Hockey, Shawshank Redemption

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In all the hoopla about the anniversary of the "miracle on ice" game this week, here's a nice view of the Soviet side from one of the first stars to join the NHL, Igor Larionov.

Ha, I like the comparison to Whiplash.

saw the movie Whiplash on a plane back from Finland a few weeks ago. People kept telling me I had to see it. I didn’t understand how a film about a jazz band had anything to do with me. Then the drummer student in the movie messes up a rhythm and his crazy conductor throws a chair at his head. A little later on, he messes up the rhythm again and the conductor makes him repeat it over and over again for hours. The kid is sweating and his hands are bleeding and when he finally gets it right, he collapses on the drum kit. Then the teacher just walks out of the room without saying anything.

People kept asking me, “Is this what life was like as a hockey player in the Soviet Union?”

“No, not at all,” I tell them. “In the movie, the student eventually gets to go back to his nice apartment and take his girlfriend out on a date. We did not have it so lucky. They sent us right back to the barracks.”

Though I never had a chair thrown at me. A puck or two maybe.

"My fear when I arrived was that I would lose my identity as a human being."

At Red Army, you were a hockey player. That was your entire existence. We trained for 11 months straight and lived in simple barracks-style housing. The furniture was like a Motel 6, but after a few months it started to feel like Shawshank prison. There was one telephone for 25 players and you would have to stand in line to wait your turn to call your family or your girlfriend (you had to pick). We would practice on the ice for four hours a day and then lift weights, run, and do off-ice training for another five to six hours. We might watch film for two hours after that. Off days? That’s funny. No off days. You skated every single day. I remember before and after the 1984 Olympics, we were given six “nights off” the entire year. This meant that if the game ended at 9:30 p.m., you could leave the facility and go see your family until practice the next morning.

The only thing we did for fun was play pool. Oh, and we had a set of dominos.

Whenever my kids see documentaries about this, they think it’s crazy. But in Cold War times we really did not have any exposure whatsoever to the Western world. We had no idea what life was like in America. To us, this was all normal. Everybody knew that when you hit age 30, you’re done. Washed up. That was it for your life. You had to go work in a factory or something because you spent 12 years in a sports facility. So this was it.

It might seem impossible that the creative style of hockey that we were known for was born out of this military system. But you have to understand what happened to us when we laced up our skates and stepped out onto the ice — it was like breathing fresh air. We found a way to express ourselves. It could be 5 a.m. It could be 11 p.m. When we were on the ice, nothing mattered. We were in our own world. This atmosphere lead to so much creativity. To call it “fun” is much too simple. It was freedom.

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