By now I hope you've seen the piece put up by Igor Larionov: "The Beautiful Game" over at The Players' Tribune. In his piece, Larionov talks about what it was like growing up in a completely closed-off hockey system where the Miracle on Ice was simply an outlier to a period of great dominance created in a culture of very little room for personal expression. The rigid structure of military training squeezed the personal need for expression to the only place it could comfortably go for hockey players.
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.
Larionov could have expanded on a few points and cut off the story right there and I'd be clamoring for him to write as much as he possibly could on just this topic, but there's a reason we called Larionov the Professor. One of the greatest hockey minds I've ever had the pleasure of watching play went on to explain where that game has gone.
I played. I was 5'10", 165 pounds. If I was just coming into the league today, I would probably be considered too small. I would be sent down to the minors after my first or second neutral zone turnover.
I am not exaggerating. There's a reason why Pavel Datsyuk went undrafted in 1996 and 1997.
Then he explained why:
The problem is more philosophical and starts way before players get to the NHL. It's easier to destroy than to create. As a coach, it's easier to tell your players to suffocate the opposing team and not turn the puck over. There are still players whose imagination and creativity capture the Soviet spirit - Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago just to name a few. However, they are becoming exceptions to the rule. Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued. They're told "simple, simple, simple."
These are but three small samples of an overall wonderful piece, but I want to expand on why Larionov's beautiful game is so limited in today's NHL. I think he's absolutely right in that there's a push to have a "simpler" game in the NHL. I don't think it's a calculated change in hockey culture, but rather one that is results-driven. The culture of hockey and the spirit of the game is going to follow the path of what is most-effective in creating sustainable wins.
The game is "simple, simple, simple" because that's what wins games. When the Russian five got a chance to dominate hockey in the mid-90s, Larionov's idea of destruction over creation was in full-force, as the neutral zone trap defense developed to stifle, slow down, and otherwise obstruct the kind of backwards pass-resetting and offensively-creative transition rush.
Nowadays, you can still see hybrids of both systems. Good teams are still comfortable with turning away at the offensive blue line if their zone entry gets disrupted, but "chipping and chasing" is still a part of just about every hockey game. It's kind of like hockey's version of "establishing the ground game" in football. Some teams don't particularly stray from it while others use it as a way to soften up the defense in order to create opportunities for a more varied attacking style. Even in a parity hockey league, there are teams who are better at sustaining the kind of play that doesn't require the boring simple game, but it's by-and-large a "necessary evil" as far as I'm concerned.
The Rule Changes
Three other major changes to the way hockey is played in North America have come about since the Russian style of hockey made its mark on the NHL as well.
The Two-Line Pass
Directly out of the 2004 lockout, the two-line pass rule was eliminated, meaning passes from within a player's defensive zone could meet a player skating on his opponent's side of the center ice line without the puck having to cross that line before its recipient. This change is largely looked at as a positive because it limited the number of transition-killing whistles and allowed more stretch-passing.
On the flip-side, there have been numerous complaints that this change simply allows teams to start a dump-in play much quicker, stifling both creativity and turnovers in the neutral zone, which in turn stifles transition goals. A team in trouble can rifle the puck up to a player positioned on the opposite side of center and he can simply tip the puck in to prevent an icing. The battle for the puck moves from center ice to the corners behind the net.
The Blue Line Changes
Also directly out of the season-killing lockout (not to be confused with the two OTHER lockouts the NHL has created in my lifetime), the NHL decided to shorten the neutral zone from 54 feet down to 50. This change gave an extra two feet in each offensive zone. The thought on this change was that it would create more space for teams to work in the offensive zone without having to clear out and dump it back in to fight for possession.
The alternate argument here is that this change puts a premium on crossing your opponent's blue line and never letting the puck out again until you score. Dumping the puck in to forecheck and extending low-board cycles hoping that your opponent will screw up and give you a shot from the dangerous home plate area in front of the net have become the key. More space in the offensive zone hasn't stretched out defenses like it's supposed to, it has simply let offensive players take up more space in non-dangerous areas which the defense is all too happy to give.
Finally, the NHL introduced two little lines to the area behind the net which dictated that goaltenders were no longer allowed to play the puck in the corner of their own zone. This change was intended to limit a goalie's ability to essentially play as a third defender against a two-man forechecking system. With goalies less-able to help defeat a dump-and-chase, there would be more space for creation in the offensive zone.
Opponents of the trapezoid look at the results of this rule and say that the change not only creates more dangerous plays for defensemen, who regularly get crushed by forecheckers now, but it simply creates more board battles along the corners. Where a goalie could previously be used to create transition against lazy dump-ins, now he's locked in waiting to see if a 20-second scrum along the boards is going to result in an easy pass to a non-dangerous area to create a boring in-zone cycle or if it will turn into a stifled transition play the other way which creates a lazy dump-in and a 20-second board battle in the other zone.
As a result of these three changes, the league has naturally continued to drive to the more north/south chip & chase game that Larionov talks about. Simple plays get the pucks to better areas and eventually random variation drives a finish. Otherwise skilled creative players are punished for inability to fit into a mold designed to create more random chances at the expense of the organic ones that they're more-capable of producing. Size plays into how much of a chance a player gets to develop because a bigger player is more likely to create larger areas of advantage or longer times in advantageous spots, but smaller and/or smarter players are pushed out because their benefits aren't immediately obvious.
Exceptional players will always stand out. Larionov speaks of Johnny Gaudreau, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews (and hints at a much larger number). However, these players are the ones learning to overcome a system that primarily focuses on stifling them. They're simply too good to be held back.
Personally, I feel that changing the blue lines back and removing the trapezoid, combined with a commitment to continuing to call penalties at a more-sensible rate than the NHL did during the Dead Puck Era would do wonders to make more room for creative players to thrive. I admit that it would also bring back the dreaded neutral zone trap (although that scheme didn't actually disappear in the first place anyway). However, I think that penalties designed to prevent obstruction will always make up for schemes designed to cause it. I also believe that without the trapezoid, the issues brought up by people complaining about the end of the two-line pass would be solved. Goalies could get to those hastily tipped-in pucks and start transition immediately.
I owe much of my hockey fandom to the style of play brought to North American by defected Soviet players. Pavel Datsyuk's artistry helped me transition into a new age for the Red Wings. I'd love to see that kind of skill continued to be allowed to thrive. I'd like to see a bit more of the beautiful game that Larionov describes and I think the league needs to take a hard look into how to make it happen.