Ken Dryden discusses Russia's Olympic gold medal drought
Within the culture of hockey, retired Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden has always been a transcendent figure.
Dryden first became one of the most prominent figures in the sport when he broke into the NHL in 1971 and led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup as the team’s playoff MVP. He continued to build his legend by leading the Canadian national team to a watershed victory over the Soviet Union at the 1972 Summit Series, before going on to win five more Stanley Cups in a career that last just over seven seasons.
But as much as he earned recognition for his on-ice abilities, his intellect and interest in things outside of hockey also attracted attention. This attention became more substantial when he once sat out an NHL season during the prime of his career to finish his law degree at McGill, and when he abruptly retired at age 31 in 1979 to pursue other interests.
Dryden pursued a wide variety of activities following his playing career. First, he became an accomplished lawyer in the 1980s. He also worked as a TV commentator, serving as Al Michaels’ color commentator during the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Dryden has also enjoyed careers as the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Liberal politician who served seven years in Canadian parliament and even an accomplished author. He has written about everything from his own hockey career, to education in public schools and Canada’s identity and place in the world in the 21st century.
Photo: Triumph Books
NBCOlympics.com: Perhaps the biggest hockey storyline at these Olympics is the Russian team’s attempt to win gold medals on its home soil, after not having won gold since the 1992 Olympics. The ’92 Olympics finished a stretch where the Russians won seven of eight Olympic hockey gold medals, while they’re now zero for their last five. Why do you think the Russian hockey team has gone so long without winning Olympic gold medals?
Dryden: I think at least part of it is in those early years after 1992 and after the (Berlin) Wall fell, that the nature of Russian teams changed hugely.
That before that time -- and the prototype was the Central Army Team from Moscow -- this team won every year. These players made up a great majority of their national and Olympic teams. And they had coaches that really ‘ruled’, and ruled every aspect of that player’s life.
When the (Berlin) Wall came down and the Russian players came to the NHL, the Army team became less dominant and more choices were there for players, the way Russian teams functioned became quite different.
The overwhelming power hand of the coach was less present. I think in part what happened was that there was less focus on a central drive towards something collective that evolved.
NBCOlympics.com: To follow up off that, you seem to be suggesting that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have had a tremendous impact on the country’s hockey program. How could something political so radically affect something that in theory is not connected to politics?
Dryden: In this broader society, it’s always said about the Russians that they need kind of a singular leader that they don’t have with their teams.
To some extent, that difference (the level of difference of control of the system during and after the Cold War) may have be exaggerated, but it was understood as being very central, and that it meant that those who had the experience before and after could tell a difference (between Cold War and post-Cold War systems).
And those who came later that didn’t have that ( Cold War) experience had heard of that time and experience and heard of the differences, that they may have taken on those as to reasons things that are different.
NBCOlympics.com: Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, what can the Russian hockey team do to perhaps buck its recent trend of losing in the Olympics to get back on top? What would have to happen for the Russians to get back to winning Olympic gold medals again?
Dryden: The question now is for an Olympics that is going to be played in Russia, with the kinds of expectations and demands of performance and achievement that comes out of that, is whether those things will tighten up the organization up of the team to give them a better chance of winning.
NBCOlympics.com: Along with a lack of Olympic success, a major stereotype that Russian hockey players have picked up over the last 20 years or so is that of being ‘enigmatic’. This is often referred to in the terms of a very talented Russian hockey player who, in some eyes, is either not a consistently passionate performer, or is not capable of matching the intensity of North American players with high-stakes games on the line. Where do you think this ‘enigmatic Russian’ stereotype comes from?
Dryden: As with most places or people that are understood as enigmatic, it just starts with being different.
Usually, that can mean that certain countries are understood as enigmatic, where they have a different history, a different culture and there’s not much interaction between them and you, so you don’t quite ‘get’ them.
I think it probably very much started that way.
NBCOlympics.com: Hockey is a global sport, where players from many nations play professionally in North America. How come we never hear about the ‘enigmatic Swedish player’ or the ‘enigmatic Finnish player’? Those players come from different cultures, too, no?
Dryden: It’s not like Sweden, in particular, or Finland, where the players arrive in North America with a great capacity to speak English, almost without accent.
They arrive very well versed in their new surroundings and fit in with their North American teammates and cities.
Eastern Europeans and Russians, in particular, arrive speaking not much English, heavily accented and not understanding all the things that are going on around them.
And the circumstances from which someone came will just make those that are different seem even more different.
NBCOlympics.com: Lastly, Alexander Ovechkin will be a major figure in these Olympics. Despite his talent and recognition as one of the best hockey players in the world, part of the phenomenon of him is that he is a Russian who has come to North America, adapted almost seamlessly and eliminated traditional stereotypes of Russians. However, as his career has progressed and he hasn’t won an Olympic gold medal or a Stanley Cup, even he has started to be labeled with that ‘enigmatic Russian’ tag by some. If he won Olympic gold in Sochi, do you think that would be enough for him to shed that ‘enigmatic’ label?
Dryden: What made Ovechkin such a phenomenon in his early years in the NHL was that he seemed to blow apart all of those things of being different and enigmatic.
He played in a style that it was like he was a Canadian kid, where he’d run around and bash and crash and do it with a huge grin on his face. And he was also scoring goals like crazy, and with such a joy.
That was the other part of it. Historically, the Russian way of expressing themselves culturally is being less demonstrative, which made North Americans think even more that they were enigmatic.
But here you’ve got Ovechkin who just blew that apart. Not only did he show emotion, he showed it ‘more’ than almost anybody.
Then he kind of got into that time in his career where he seemingly went totally against that in the other way. Where, what happened to him? This was the guy that was so different, and now he seemed less happy and less joyous. I have no idea what happened.
Then the team (the Washington Capitals) wasn’t evolving and developing the way it seemed that it would. They seemed to be moving towards being real Stanley Cup contenders and a possible winner. Then they flattened out.
If he wins a gold medal, I don’t know? I think to really blow it away would be a Stanley Cup.
A gold medal, depending on what role he played, it might have some impact. But I think what would really do it is winning a Stanley Cup.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Alex Ovechkin's Hart Trophy winning 2013 NHL season
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