In the 1970s and ’80s, the NHL looked a lot different than it does today. Fighting was more commonplace. Goalies were shorter, wore smaller pads and rarely dropped down to stop low shots; perhaps relatedly, goals were easier to come by.
But one of the biggest differences had to do with who played. In the 1975-76 season, 98 percent of NHL playing time1 went to North Americans. And although some Europeans chipped away at that figure over the next decade-plus, the league’s rate of outsiders barely budged as the ’90s loomed.
This is part of our new podcast series “Ahead Of Their Time,” profiling players and managers in various sports who were underappreciated in their era.
As a result, the NHL game was still rooted in the rigid, physical tradition of North American hockey, with little sign of the free-flowing style found in Europe. (Some teams, such as Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, played a wide-open style reminiscent of the European game, but they were the exception.) And forget about the possession-based style that grew in Soviet Russia under coach Anatoly Tarasov; aside from sporadic clashes with the Red Army at the Olympics and Canada Cups, North Americans seldom saw the game’s evolution behind the Iron Curtain.
That changed as the fall of the Soviet Union approached. In 1989, the Soviet hockey federation gave mid-level winger Sergei Priakin permission to pursue an NHL career. Other players soon followed (with or without government consent). From Fedorov to Mogilny and Bure, electrifying talent was up for grabs.
“I don’t know that this has ever happened [before] in any other sport, where the floodgates were opened to a new talent base,” hockey writer Gabriel Desjardins told me. “Teams jumped on it immediately.”
Chief among them was the Winnipeg Jets, led by a contrarian general manager who did not play professional hockey and held a doctorate in Russian studies: Mike Smith. Smith thought he could get Russian players under other teams’ radar (appealing for an American who felt excluded from what he described in an interview as the “boys club” of Canadian GMs) and believed more in Soviet-style possession hockey than the North American dump-and-chase strategy.
“You would ask a player who played for a coach that said ‘dump it in,’ [and] the player would say to his teammate, ‘We worked like hell to get the puck and then he wants to dump it in,’” Smith told me. “It just didn’t make any [sense], particularly if you had skilled players. … Why would you take a Rolls-Royce and make it into a battering ram?”
In an effort to build a team like Tarasov’s speedy, skilled Red Army squads, Smith drafted a ton of players from the former Soviet Union. In 1989, he used his final two draft picks on them. In 1990, he drafted three more; in 1991, four; and in 1992, he tapped them for nine of his 12 picks.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really work.
Maybe Smith was intoxicated with mediocre Soviet talent, or maybe culture shock derailed the players’ transitions to Canadian life. But the Jets went backward: After making the playoffs seven straight seasons before Smith became GM, from 1981-82 to 1987-88, Winnipeg did it only three times in Smith’s six seasons there. Midway through the 1993-94 season, he was fired as GM; a few years later, the team left town for Phoenix. (Many Jets fans still blame Smith even though they got another team in 2011.)
But even though he failed with the Jets, Smith wasn’t wrong to eschew dump-and-chase hockey for speed and puck control. Statistical analysis has shown that possession — as measured by funny-sounding stats like Corsi and Fenwick — is one of the best indicators of team quality because it filters out the effects of luck. Data also indicates that carrying the puck into the offensive zone generates twice as many chances as dumping it in. Smith intuited this, although his plan lacked execution.
Meanwhile, one team did realize Smith’s vision of Russians skating circles around the NHL. In the early-to-mid-1990s, the Detroit Red Wings acquired five Soviet products: Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Known collectively as the “Russian Five,” they brought with them the principles and skills they learned while playing for the Red Army — and under the watchful gaze of coach Scotty Bowman, the results were spectacular. Detroit set the NHL record for wins in a season (62) in 1995-96, during a block of years2 dominated by the team’s Russian players in which the Red Wings won two Stanley Cups. And as Detroit rose, the team got greater and greater contributions3 from the Russian Five:
Flash forward to 2016, and the NHL’s prevailing style of play looks like the finesse game of those Red Wings, the same one Mike Smith envisioned for his own roster of Russians in Winnipeg. Analytics hirings have spread the gospel of possession hockey, with teams adjusting their rosters accordingly. Goons are being phased out; role players now have speed and skill. Stars are measured as much on possession statistics as points. None of these developments came in time to salvage Smith’s legacy with Winnipeg, but his hunch that the Soviet style would take the league by storm was right, eventually.
For more, check out our podcast series “Ahead Of Their Time.” We’re publishing a new audio documentary each Thursday this month. Find it in the Hot Takedown feed in iTunes or your favorite podcast player.