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USA Hockey honors father of Russian hockey

by Bill Meltzer

"The real work lies in the players and coaches have the commitment to move past selfish ambitions to work together toward a common purpose. The tools and tactics taught in practice are what matters. The results of games will take care of themselves."
-- Anatoli Tarasov

The first images that leap to mind when one thinks of the relationship between North American hockey and the program from the former Soviet Union are often ones of conflict. But there's another side to the coin: one of cooperation and even friendship between the architect of the classic Russian program and coaches in both Canada and the United States.

When USA Hockey holds its Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Denver on Oct. 10, one of the honorees will be the late Anatoli Tarasov. Known as "the father of Russian hockey," in his later years, Tarasov could accurately be described as a wise old uncle of American hockey. It's this legacy that will be celebrated when Tarasov, who died June 23, 1995, posthumously receives the Wayne Gretzky International Award for his contributions to the advancement of hockey in the USA.

At his core, Tarasov cared more about the game itself than about political ideologies. While he was extremely proud of the Red Army program he created and delighted in the successes of the national team, he was also a fiercely independent thinker. He believed that the relationship between a coach and his team can only function properly without interference from off-ice officials (be they powerful political leaders or team owners).

Tarasov also believed that, over time, the differences between Russian and North American hockey would blur and a better game would emerge from the interaction of the various North American and European schools. He practiced what he preached by traveling extensively to conduct coaching seminars, visiting coaches from around the world and also hosting them in Russia.

Over the course of his life, Tarasov formed bonds with many coaches who would seem at first blush to be unlikely confidants. Their ranks included Lou Vairo, a former Team USA Olympic head coach (1984), World Junior championship head coach, New Jersey Devils assistant coach and European club team coach. 

"He was eager to familiarize coaches with his methods and made many trips to the United States to do so," said Vairo.

Shortly before his death, Tarasov willed the manuscript of his final book on hockey to Vairo and the USA Hockey program. USA Hockey hired a translator and, in 1997, published the book for all English-speaking hockey lovers to enjoy.

The book, entitled Tarasov, is an intensive study of both classic Russian and Canadian hockey through Tarasov's eyes. His central theme: both can learn from each other, and it's up to the game's teachers to move beyond nationality and the crest on a team sweater to become better ambassadors for the sport itself.

Maverick thinker
In 1946, Tarasov was a young Central Soviet Army player/coach. At the time, Russia had no ice hockey tradition to speak of, although bandy was an established sport. Without any prior warning, Tarasov received an order from the communist government's Committee on Physical Education and Sports to prepare a team in what it deemed "Canadian hockey" to play the first USSR championship matches.

Tarasov later admitted that in the early days, he had no idea whether he was on the right track when he started organizing the squad. The team lacked proper training tools -- no hockey gloves and crude equipment. For coaching guidance, Tarasov toted around a tattered pamphlet, explaining the rules of ice hockey.

In the earliest sessions, Tarasov didn't have access to real pucks. Chasing a ball along the asphalt paths of the park at the Central Soviet Army Home in warmer months, the team soon took up playing with a homemade puck (a frozen plastic ring) on a flooded tennis court when winter arrived.

What the early Soviet players lacked in experience they made up for in dedication and work ethic. The players made hockey their 24-hour-a-day obsession.

Early on, Tarasov made a brave stand that nearly ended his coaching career as abruptly as it started. Major General Vasily Stalin, son of infamous Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, often interfered in sports matters, berating coaches and players after losses. He insisted on telling the coach which players to use during games.

"He called me out to his apartment," wrote Tarasov. "We had sharp words with each other, and I asked him to relieve me of my post as the coach. The general did not give his consent. … I believed, and still believe that selecting a staff, planning practices and defining their content are sole prerogatives of the coach. No interference is admissible."

Stalin reluctantly relented, letting Tarasov run the team under his own discretion. The rest was history.

In 1953, the Soviets won their first IIHF World Championship. Three years later, they won their first Olympic gold medal, outscoring their opponents 40-9 in seven games. But Tarasov continued to clash with Soviet officials over his insistence that he be allowed to run his team as he saw fit. For a short period of time, he was removed from his post only to be brought back in conjunction with coaching colleague Arkady Chernyshev.

Starting with the 1963 IIHF World Championships, Tarasov's team with the CCCP (USSR) crest -- largely comprised of his Red Army (CSKA Moscow) players -- swept every championship for the next 10 years, reaching a pinnacle with the 1972 Olympic gold medal. But Tarasov's legend in North America was born of the Soviet team that opposed Team Canada in the classic Summit Series.

"The real work lies in the players and coaches have the commitment to move past selfish ambitions to work together toward a common purpose. The tools and tactics taught in practice are what matters. The results of games will take care of themselves." -- Anatoli Tarasov

Moving beyond wins and losses

Throughout these years, Tarasov befriended Canadian and American coaches and freely shared his own philosophies on the game while studying theirs. His generosity in sharing his knowledge knew no international boundaries -- regardless of whether the Russian government approved. 

Tarasov spoke and wrote often of his admiration for North American hockey, while never being shy to point out what he viewed as its weaknesses. On the flip side, he also chastised those who said Russian hockey had nothing to learn from the game played in the NHL. As he wound down his CSKA career, Tarasov dedicated the rest of his life to compiling as much knowledge as possible on the game as a whole.

That thirst for knowledge and passion for teaching led Tarasov to become one of the sport's true ambassadors in his "second career" as a hockey author, team consultant, and coaching clinic director.  It was in this capacity that Tarasov's influence spread to USA Hockey and other national programs.

"I am no longer concerned with wins and losses, but rather with the architecture of advancing this team sport," he wrote in 1982. "The real work lies in the players and coaches have the commitment to move past selfish ambitions to work together toward a common purpose. The tools and tactics taught in practice are what matters. The results of games will take care of themselves."

For this reason, Tarasov was one of the few Russian hockey leaders who did not consider Team USA's "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Olympics to be a travesty. He likened it to his own experiences in elevating the Soviet program decades earlier.

In his coaching seminars, Tarasov often cited the job that Herb Brooks did in getting a collection of college players to win the gold medal to be a shining example of what can be accomplished when a coach gets players to cast aside personal goals and embrace the team's system.

Still an influence

Although Tarasov died 13 years ago, his influence can still be seen today. One of the most prominent areas his teachings took root was in the USA Hockey national team development program. He was not the architect of the program, of course, but he was a profound influence over many of the people who made the program what it is today.

Young players from around the USA are trained under now a unified system, practicing and playing together extensively through their crucial developmental years. The results have been dramatic, both in the emergence of Team USA as a perennial medal contender at both the Under-18 and Under-20 World Junior Championships, and in the exponential rise in the number of American players selected in the NHL Entry Draft.

"One only has to watch today's game, played at a high tempo by multitudes of highly skilled and well-trained athletes, for testimony of his impact," Vairo said.

Tarasov, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974 and IIHF Hall of Fame in 1997, will be the 10th recipient of USA Hockey's Gretzky International Award. The award's namesake was the first honoree. Other honorees include the Howe family (2000), Scotty Bowman (2002), Bobby Hull (2003) and Herb Brooks (2004).

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