Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Superbowl and the Winter Olympics

Went to an absolutely lovely Superbowl Party.  Lots of folks there with creative video and graphics skills--and no one had any money on the outcome.  I used to be a pretty serious football fan, but because I live in Minnesota, the very idea of the Vikings sort of put an end to that. So I watched pretty half-heartedly while judging both the game and those legendary Superbowl commercials on their aesthetic appeal.

Veblen once wrote that team sports are primarily the way the Leisure (Predator) Classes teach the arts of force and fraud to their young.  This is especially true of football.  The forces on display are brutal enough to cripple world class athletes on a regular basis.  There is no doubt that football players are trained to seriously injure their fellow human beings.  The fraud is even easier to see.  Every play is a series of fakes, misdirections, and deceptions--and that's not counting the rule stretching and outright cheating.  Since football is so obviously a manifestation of the Predator classes, watching it for me is something of a guilty pleasure.

As nearly as I can tell, team sports are organized by coaches who reflect the management philosophies of the ownership.  Coaches come essentially two flavors--the rocket scientists who believe the best route to winning is innovation and the drill sergeants who believe the route to success is through toughness and brutality.  In that contest, of course, I always cheer for the rocket scientist.

The Winter Olympics are FAR less a manifestation of Predator Class behavior.  Few events actually pit opponents in physical confrontation.  Sports like speed skating, bobsledding, and cross country skiing are measured against the clock, ski jumping is measured with a long ruler, and figure skating is judged.  And while there are team competitions in things like biathlon, the only winter sport that resembles football is ice hockey.  So of course, that's my favorite sport (sigh).

Actually, I have pretty good reasons for being a hockey fan.  I live in a state where the sport is played at the youth, high school, and college level.  I live right next to Canada where hockey was invented.  When my family lived in North Dakota, a venture into Saskatchewan to see a junior hockey game was the highlight of my stay out there.  But my biggest single reason for being a hockey fan is the story of Herb Brooks.

The movie industry has made several attempts to portray the last USA coach to win a gold medal at the winter games--the so-called "Miracle on Ice."  Several were worse than absurd--Karl Malden as Herb Brooks may have been the worst casting mistake in history.  On the other hand, Kurt Russell's Brooks in Miracle was so good it was almost spooky.  And who am I to judge what is authentic Brooks?

The story begins on the fantail of a small cruise ship traveling between Helsinki and Leningrad.  It is late summer 1972.  I have just completed my two-year "sentence" as a surgical orderly at the University of Minnesota for the "crime" of objecting to the Vietnam War and am traveling in the company of one of the nurses I met.  The ship was nice but to be honest, after a lifetime of cold War nonsense, I was scared shitless.  I figured that if I could get into such trouble for thought-crimes in USA, I could certainly get into trouble in Brezhnev's USSR.

I discover a fellow traveler is a Canadian from Toronto. I strike up a conversation about hockey because it is the the most reliable opener with a Canadian male.  But mostly, I was curious for news about the 1972 Summit Series--a ice contest between the two dominant powers in the sport.  I have been in Finland for a week and none of my hosts were hockey people so I know nothing about what has happened to the first half of the series played in Canada.  I am almost shocked to learn that USSR hockey had just SHELLED the Canadian All-Stars.  And now we were going to USSR just as the Series moves to Moscow.

In those days, travel to USSR meant going where Intourist wanted you to go.  So the next day found me trudging through the Hermitage--the Winter Palace of the Tzars turned art museum by the Revolution.  Truth be known, I don't like art museums very much--actually most of the buildings are interesting--it's the paint on canvas part I find tedious.  After realism was displaced by photography, painting became increasingly absurd as folks tried to discover ever more novel ways to fill the void.  So sue me--I don't like pretentious "art."  Discovered my new Canadian friend didn't especially like art either.  So we fell behind our tour group as we began talking hockey.

Intourist didn't like folks wandering off--especially two young males.  So soon we were joined by this delightful old man who claimed to be a retiree who liked practicing his English on tourists.  He said he was a life-long resident of Leningrad who was 72.  Made the math pretty easy--he was 17 for the Revolution, 41-44 for the 1000 day siege, etc.  At first he thought we just didn't like the art on the official route and offered to show us some of his favorite spots not on the tour.  We went along with his plan but soon he discovered that what we really wanted to do is talk about the Summit Series.

Our new supervisor, if he was that, was quite willing to stop pointing at the extravagance of Hermitage and proceeded to lecture us on the many reasons why USSR hockey was superior in every way to the primitive way the Canadians played the game.  Hands down, he was the MOST informed hockey fan I had ever met, or ever have met since.  Two things happened to me as a result of this encounter--the Cold War ended in my head (it was pretty hard to keep hating people that included this sweet old fellow puckhead) and I became determined to learn more about Soviet Era hockey.

What I learned astonished me.  The USSR was very serious about ice hockey because it was an Olympic sport.  For them, winning in the Olympics was a way to demonstrate the superiority of their political philosophy.  So in fact, ice hockey was an arm of their international diplomacy.  And like many thing about USSR, the numbers were staggering--they had over 100,000 official hockey schools.  By official, the school was run by someone who had attained a master-level certificate in coaching and physiology. The certification took six years.

Hockey is a sport that requires expensive equipment including an ice sheet that must be groomed, and if indoors, probably refrigerated.  USSR was staggering to rebuild after the devastation of the German invasion when the hockey programs were being set up, so among the innovations of their hockey programs were the "dry-land" exercises invented to make a hockey player better when constant access to the expensive hockey gear was economically impossible.

The genius who invented those dry land exercises and much, much more was named Anatoli Tarasov.  He taught many things but central to his thinking was the idea that if you must build a hockey program from nothing, you simply must borrow from sports your athletes already know.  In Tarasov's case, the sports were bandy and soccer.

Meanwhile, I had returned to the University of Minnesota and one day, I read this story about our new hockey coach named Brooks.  It seems he was as impressed by USSR hockey as were most sentient beings who saw it in action during the Summit series.  He announced he was going to use as many Tarasov methods as he could incorporate into a college program.  And sure enough, his team started skating drills never before seen in North America.

But Brooks was truly USA's Tarasov because he understood that even though he could not borrow from bandy and soccer, he could borrow.  From football, he borrowed the hitting styles of middle linebackers,  From basketball, he borrowed techniques from the various fast beaks.  Just remember, the Big Ten plays a pretty serious brand of basketball and their coaches were just down the hall from Brooks.  And because the University of Minnesota came with a world-class research hospital, he could clear all his training methods with persons trained in physiology.

Not surprisingly, the USA Tarasov came to dominate college hockey.  He would win three NCAA titles in six years.  Herbie Hockey, as it was called by Gopher fans, required a special type of player--he had to be coachable.  Most kids in Minnesota were growing up learning the Canadian game.  Brooks wanted them to play Tarasov hockey.  Each fall, the new team would struggle to gel with the new style but by Christmas, they would start shelling even good teams by scores like 15-2.  And by 1979, Brooks' methods for coaching great talent into playing the complex systems brought on by USSR hockey was down to a science.  He was ready to challenge the masters at their own game--and maybe even prove that football and basketball can contribute more than bandy and soccer to the great game of ice hockey.

And thanks to the fact that I was hanging out with an employee of the University of Minnesota, we got to see every home game that Brooks would coach with an employee's discount.  We were part of a tiny group that actually thought Brooks had a VERY good chance of winning a Gold Medal at the 1980 games in Lake Placid because we had watched him perfect his methods over six seasons.

So at this point, I probably should go out on a limb and pick my favorite hockey teams for the 2010 games in Vancouver.

Canada play an increasingly irrelevant game of hockey.  But they are the hosts and they have gotten the Olympic committee to agree they will use NHL (Canadian) officials.  And after the debacle in Torino where the Canadian team lost to Switzerland and didn't even make the medal round, they insisted on the North American-sized rink (200 x 85) as opposed to the international rink (200 x 100). The Canadians believe (correctly) that the narrow rink favors their style of play.  They may be right.  Canada could win gold because of this homerism but they could also fail to get into the medal round like in Torino.

Finland-Sweden.  The Tarasovs of these Nordic counties borrow from soccer and bandy but also from their countries' excellent standing in the science of pedagogy. They believe that coaching is about discovering the best methods of maximizing a kid's potential.  These countries were the finalists in Torino.  Teams filled with players who are excellently trained in every tiny detail of the game have done well in recent Olympics.

Russian hockey has not done well in international hockey since the breakup of USSR.  But Russia is doing a LOT better economically these days, thanks to expensive crude oil, and their institutional base is sound.  One of these days, they may win one of these tournaments again simply because they still have the best players.

Without any doubt, the best hockey game I have ever seen was the Slovak-Russia tilt in the Torino games.  Two teams filled with speed-demons attempted to skate each other into the ice.  The play was breath-taking to simply watch.  And Slovakia won.  Czechoslovakia was a reluctant satellite of USSR but did get the benefit of their state-sponsored sports programs.  For many years, their program was arguably the second-best on earth.  But the Czech Republic and Slovakia split a small program so while both are excellent, neither is likely to succeed at winning gold.

The USA has reverted back to being Canada's junior partner in snowplow hockey.  This means they might do as well as Canada in this tournament and could knock them off in the big game.  That is what just happened in the World Junior tournament recently held in Saskatoon.

So my wild-assed guess is Finland.  They came within a whisker of winning gold in Torino and have the largest pool of world-class goalies to choose from.  They have never won Olympic gold but because this is sort of Finland's golden age, maybe their time has come.

1 comment:

  1. Playing on a north American sized ice sheet is nothing to do with Canada pressuring anyone after Torino. The convention is that when the games are held in North America it is always on North American sized ice.

    I do not care for your prediction, but then that's Canadian homerism. In partial backup, though, I have heard the claim that Canada is at a disadvantage in international play because European countries teach a national system, so their players are often quick to gel, whereas Canada had thousands of individual coaches all teaching their individual styles, so our players don't have a built in system to rely on together.