Any short list of the most influential figures in the history of hockey, or its most brilliant minds, would simply not be complete if it did not include Anatoly Vladimirovich Tarasov. The father of Soviet hockey was born 100 years ago on Dec. 10, 1918, in Moscow, but his fingerprints remain on the game’s DNA in almost every corner of the world.
Think of two of the most significant events in the history of the game – the Summit Series in 1972 and the Miracle on Ice in 1980. There’s no way either of those happens if not for Tarasov. The hockey world would be even smaller than it is if not for Tarasov and all those epic confrontations between Canada and Russia/Soviet Union at the NHL and junior levels would never have materialized. Every Russian-born player who has made millions of dollars playing in the NHL owes a huge debt to Tarasov. His reach has touched every aspect of the game worldwide, including much of what we see in the NHL today. Think back to the World Cup of Hockey two years ago. Despite having arguably the most talented team in the tournament, Sweden was a huge disappointment. Why? Because they stubbornly played a style of game that goes back more than 50 years that was based on the days when Sweden didn’t have a chance against Tarasov-coached teams unless they played conservative and defensively.
“Tarasov came up with a style of play that was so innovative and spectacular and they executed it so well, you just couldn’t compete with it,” said hockey historian Greg Franke, the author of Epic Confrontation: Canada vs. Russia on Ice, the Greatest Sports Drama of All-Time. “So you had to find some other way to somehow stay competitive and you still see some of that today.”
When Tarasov took over the burgeoning Soviet program in 1946, he did so from scratch, with the most rudimentary equipment and almost no resources. But that didn’t stop him from building a program that would win its first World Championship within eight years and dominate every world competition from 1963 to 1972, promoting both individual brilliance while demanding a team-first approach. “And they did it in style,” said journalist Igor Kuperman, who collaborated on one of Tarasov’s many coaching books. “It was fun to watch for anyone who loves hockey.” He was the architect of the Big Red Machine, building the Soviet Red Army into a domestic and international powerhouse. And he did it with the most unconventional methods, right down to having his players take ballet lessons. In fact, the one-sport specialization that we’re seeing with so many young hockey players today would have driven Tarasov absolutely bonkers.
“He always thought that to become a great hockey player, you had to become a great athlete,” Franke said. “All the things we talk about today about cross-training and the elements you learn from one sport to be taken to another were all things he came up with on his own. The physical conditioning drills he did and all the exercises he did that even people in Russia did not understand, he understood the value of it and the players who played for him were sort of like the football players who played for Vince Lombardi. He instilled all the things in them that made them champions.”
Franke, who interviewed a number of Tarasov’s former players and had access to much of his work, said when he first took over the Soviet program just after World War II, he was encouraged to copy much of what Canada was doing, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But he received some counsel from one of his mentors, Mikhail Tovorovsky, who was the chair of the soccer and hockey programs at the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture, which changed the course of history. “(Tovorovsky) told him, ‘If you do that, you’ll be reliant upon what you learned there,’ ” Franke said. “ ‘And if you try to pattern what you’re doing based on what somebody else is already the best at, you’ll never exceed at what you do. You will always be second-best at best.’ He took that to heart and decided to focus on all the things he had gathered as an athlete and a coach.”
It’s a shame Tarasov was not behind the Soviet bench for the Summit Series, having been replaced by Vsevolod Bobrov after losing a power struggle. Who knows? He may have inspired his team enough to win one more game, which would have altered hockey history even more. But even without that, Tarasov would at the very least be a serious candidate for any Mount Rushmore of great coaches in the game’s history.