Monday, May 18, 2015

The Freedom to Change

This discussion actually began amid some Facebook comment exchanges with a long time UK friend.  Actually, it started innocently enough, with my friend offering something to the effect that, "A guy from Russia sent me a message saying they had beat the US, and now Canada is next."  Hmmmmm...

Just so readers know, I don't get riled by the rah-rah or flag waving stuff, but my blood does start to boil when I think I see wrong things happening within a given sport (especially if it's MY sport).  So, my immediate reply was that, "I figured it's only a matter of time before the Russians start dominating again..."  Between the lines, I meant that The Wall coming down had an unbelievably negative impact on Soviet sports for a time, and that it would take the new Russian program time to rebound, especially economically.  They would do it, though, sooner or later.

With that, my friend kinda added to my boil, noting, "The Japanese, Koreans and China all are making their way through the ranks.  By the next Olympics they will have made headway.  Now they are putting some money into the game and paying for the best coaches."

If I had to take issue with any of that, I might just have to qualify things a bit...  I mean, the old Soviets didn't do what they did with money -- or, at least with the kind of money many other hockey playing nations had.  And, although I'm all in for paying coaches well, I will suggest that it's "the right coaches" -- or those with the right mentality -- that will make the greatest impact on their countries.

Can the Japanese do it?  Can the Koreans or Chinese?  Well, I think those questions are partly answered in the previous paragraph.  As a matter of fact, I'll suggest that there might even be some other countries out there hiding in the weeds, and working their way toward worldclass hockey acceptance.

What really got me going is the probability that the two North American federations are sitting ducks because, as I told him, "I sense that the US and Canada are too trapped in their ways, and they can't easily break from them."  Top-heavy or bloated might be better ways to describe them, or they're like a train trying to catch a chicken.  Hence, too, my title, "The Freedom to Change", because some organizations have that ability, while some clearly don't.

That theory is talked about often in business circles...  Yes, the Fortune 500 companies might be able to bowl-over some smaller firms, but it's the smaller firms that have the ability to change course on a dime -- or chicken-like.  

I know I might be a bit hard on Hockey Canada here, and I think that country is ahead of the US in numerous ways (beyond the obvious).  All I've seen AHAUS and USA Hockey do over most of my 40-ish years in the game is copy Canada (and some other nations).  Maybe Lou Vairo got to lead for awhile long ago, and maybe Herb Brooks was left alone to lead for a couple of years.  For the rest of the time, though, it seems to me that our top-heavy federation has had trouble getting out of its own way, and basically just copied what someone else was doing.

Can any reader identify a playing style that might define hockey in the US?  For the most part, I think not.    

Then, remember this old saying:  "Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it"?  Ya, well... 

When the old Soviets decided to create a hockey program, and compete at an international level, they placed a man in charge who had never before seen a hockey game.  What they must have known, however, was that Anatoli Tarasov was a 24/7 kind of worker, a truly passionate guy, and also a very creative sort.  Make no mistake about it, that Tarasov and his new hockey program were under great pressure, because USSR leaders saw success in their sports programs as translating into worldwide propaganda for the Communist system and its way of life.  Snooze, you lose, and maybe you'll find yourself on the next train to Siberia.

I think it's well documented that "The Father of Soviet Hockey" studied the Canadians and Czechs, because they were the world powers when he took charge in Moscow.  Yet, Tarasov knew darn well that, "To follow someone else is to be only second best."  (Oh, if only someone in the USA Hockey hierarchy would tattoo that last statement on his or her forehead.)  Again, he wasn't encumbered, and he had the freedom to change, if and whenever he saw that need.

No, Tarasov didn't borrow his team's style or training methods from others, but instead he developed different methods that would cause some of the best coaches in the world many sleepless nights.  Virtually overnight, he built teams that could out-skate others, out-stickhandle others, out-pass others, and attack the net differently than anyone else. And, he ultimately developed tactics and strategies that other countries would eventually borrow from him.

A little later in that Facebook conversation, I mentioned to my UK friend about almost landing a job to oversee the development of a different old Eastern Bloc country.  I wasn't saying that to claim I'm the second coming of Tarasov, but I will say that I am an incessant worker -- when I'm into something I'm passionate about, and I'm as creative at what I do as anyone in the business.  Perhaps as importantly, I'm a student of history, and I try to learn from what has and hasn't worked.

Oh, ya, I'd take all the money a federation would throw my way.  Yet, I know I'd have achieved the necessary results, no matter what resources were available.  The right equipment gets a job done, but its shininess doesn't matter.  (Someday, I'll have to tell my readers about my long ago studies in the old USSR, and how that particular theory came to me.)  The right kind of training also matters, and that's why I suggested earlier to my UK friend that, it would take the right kind of coaches to truly get the job done.

Before closing, I have a couple more impressions concerning hockey development...

For the most part, Canada is loaded with players, and their system allows for those players to beat heck out of each other until some truly outstanding young guys emerge in the end.  Just think about it:  thousands and thousand of players climbing their hockey ladder, and only a handful being needed in the end.

Maybe USA Hockey would like to do the same, but their numbers aren't nearly as deep, and their system isn't nearly as effective (which is why I draw a comparison to the way Tarasov did things).  It's also been said often by others that, "USA Hockey is a glorified insurance company," and I've waited in vain for our federation to prove them wrong.  I think private coaches and gyms do more for American kids' development through their early years, with USA Hockey capturing those kids later on for National Teams, as if they're their own home grown pride and joy.  I may not live to tell anyone "I told you so," but my guess is that the bottom could fall out for US hockey when the current crop of cross-ice and small area games trained kids reach their teens and twenties.

Again, the old Soviet system wasn't nearly as haphazard as current day North American federations.  No, Tarasov and company arrived at a plan for developing thousands upon thousands of young players -- from beginner to The Big Red Machine, with plenty of science being employed along the way.  (I'd actually seen the likes of over-speed training and plyometrics back in Moscow some 15-ish years before such things would become common knowledge in North America.)

One other thing...  I don't think the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and most other countries are driven crazy with political correctness, so their sports programs can just go about training their athletes.  At the same time, PC Police are everywhere in North America, and trying to destroy the very foundations of our sports programs.

Lastly, as I've intimated throughout this piece, I don't think we're going to see everything happen in a hurry.  The Russians may or may not win this year's World Juniors, but the arrow is likely pointing up for them, as well as for a lot of other countries.  Which way is it pointing for the North American programs?  You be the judge.  As for me, I think the freedom to change whenever necessary -- and not blindly following others -- will make the biggest difference in the end.