Jack Blatherwick

Olympic hockey is the skill development model

By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

An e-mail from a 16-year-old defenseman who is playing in Austria for Team USA said virtually the same thing after the Russian game that I’ve heard for 40 years. The international game is really different … and a lot of fun. The Russian skills (individual and team skills) are so good it feels like they have eight players on the ice.

Why is international hockey so different?  Because the officials call the game as it is written in the rulebook. Hockey Canada prepares their national junior and Olympic teams for international play by showing a video of ‘strange calls’ made by referees. These are penalties as clearly defined in the rules, but infractions that are not called in North American hockey.

Why are Russian and European skills so good that the first time you play them you think they have extra players on the ice? Because their adults can read. They have decided that winning depends on playing as effectively as possible within the rules.

It’s a novel idea, really – one that works for every other sport in the world. The rules protect and promote the skills in those other sports, just as they do in international hockey.

However, in North America, we’ve replaced the written rules with a set of unwritten ones. Basically, they all amount to one thing: If you’re not as skillful as your opponent, use your stick to slow him down – intimidate opponents with illegal checks – drop the gloves and go at it when you’re frustrated.

Listen to TV color commentators, and you’ll hear them encourage retaliation one moment, but if someone takes a penalty for retaliating, they’re quick to say, “That was a dumb penalty.”

“Let the players decide the game,” they say, meaning the refs should not call penalties by the rulebook. Then they show their expert analysis a while later by pointing out where the officials should have called a penalty. It’s not that these commentators are a bunch of knuckleheads; it’s that when you toss the rulebook out and play by unwritten traditions and unspoken rules, no one knows how much you’re allowed to cheat.

Olympic games are won by the most skillful team, because the rules-enforcement clearly punishes cheating and rewards skill. As a result, European and Russian development programs emphasize skill at all ages.

This is the point. Stricter enforcement of the rules at all levels is the greatest catalyst for skill development. Coaching seminars and the American Development Model can be valuable resources, but they mean absolutely nothing if rules enforcement rewards cheating, not skill. Watch a USHL junior game to see how the USA Hockey philosophy of rules non-enforcement can tip the scale in favor of illegal boarding and use of sticks for players without the puck.

If Minnesota Hockey enforces the rules permanently as they will in these next weeks, coaches will have to go back to the drawing board and teach offensive skills like passing and playmaking. Minnesota would become the leader in North America, and perhaps someday a visiting team would say, “It seems like they are using eight players on the ice.”

Is Olympic hockey the ultimate skill competition? I’d have to rank it second. Pond hockey is the winner. In a neighborhood pond hockey game, cheating is not allowed by agreement of the competitors. Games are won by skill.

It is only when adults teach children that illegal hits can win hockey games that they would consider running an opponent into the boards.

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.