Reviews | What Putin the Hockey Player Doesn’t Understand

It’s no surprise that Putin feels the way he does. Russians love hockey for the same reason Canadians do. It comes straight from their landscape, from the winter, from the cold. He punishes us, but at the same time absorbs us, so we hardly feel his pain. To play hockey, you have to be tough, in many ways. And the Russians are tough. Strong enough to survive their history. To survive Leningrad.

But there are some things Putin doesn’t understand about hockey. The first is that when he puts on his hockey gear and skates with real players, and those players let it skate intact and the keepers wade to one side, let it mark five, six, seven times — real hockey players, real goalies, don’t do that. Except maybe once in a while, and not for people over 5 years old. A real hockey player would never ask for it, expect it, or allow it.

Putin also doesn’t seem to understand something in hockey that could relate to this moment: the tough guys are initiators, they deliver hard, devastating blows, but the really hard to take those hits… and keep going, only to win in the end. Like in Leningrad. Wiping out the Ukrainian city of Mariupol doesn’t make you hard.

There’s something else Putin doesn’t understand about hockey and sports in general. I thought about it because September will mark the 50th anniversary of the eight games series in which Canada’s best hockey players faced Russia’s best for the first time.

Russia had only started playing hockey in 1946; Canada originated the game more than 70 years earlier and its players were undeniably considered the best in the world. Yet, because the professionals couldn’t compete with the amateurs, the Russians (technically, the Soviets) won the “world championships” of hockey. year after year and were called world champions.

Finally, in 1972, Canada had its chance. The result would be a landslide, landslide victory and celebration for the nation that invented the sport.

Except in Game 1 in Montreal, the Russians won 7-3. The series wasn’t decided until Game 8, when Canadian Paul Henderson scored with 34 seconds left. I was one of Canada’s goaltenders. Putin, then a 19-year-old law student in Leningrad, surely watched.

The series, as he would have seen it, was the most passionate and fierce in both countries’ hockey history. It had to do with nationalism and Cold War politics. It had to do with the games themselves. The Russian players didn’t like what we were doing to them, and we didn’t like what they were doing to us. It was We vs. Their.

Yet, surprising to players on both sides, these feelings of hatred gradually waned, until another, deeper feeling set in. others. It was born from the realization that each pushes the other beyond what they think is possible, forcing them to be better than they have ever been. Hate and blind partisanship give way to respect and appreciation – a sense of shared humanity is revealed. Us versus them becomes we.

Until a few weeks ago, Canadians and Russians planned to celebrate the 1972 series together, with Canadian players traveling to Russia and Russian players coming to Canada. Such a shared celebration, we players have come to understand, would only be fair.

Now the meeting will probably not take place. That’s a shame. Too bad for the players, too bad for the Canadians and Russians who experienced this historic competition. And too bad for Putin, who surely would have been there, part of those celebrations, and could have observed firsthand how nationalism can give way to something more enduring.

He will regret seeing his great players, proud Russians, and his Canadian players, proud Canadians, feeling proud of something that has nothing to do with being Russian or Canadian. Taking all this into account, Putin might have finally understood what it is to be a real gamer. He might have understood that no matter how geopolitics divide us, humanity lies below.

Catherine J. Martinez