By Jason Menard
See if this sounds familiar to you. A nation, secure in its dominance over a sport, and assured of its dominance suddenly finds itself given a rude awakening by a shift in its very foundation as – seemingly out of nowhere – multi-talented, polished athletes from overseas lay claim on to the throne.
While you may think I’m talking about the recent NBA draft and European trend, that’s not the situation I’m referring to. In fact, go back over 30 years and you’ll find the same situation with your friends north of the border. History is a great teacher – but as the old adage goes, those who forget history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them!
For many years, Canadian superiority in the game of hockey seemed to be a divine right – at least for those north of the 49 th parallel. The professional ranks were in large part populated by good ol’ rugged Canadian boys. The only stain on the Canadian resume was lack of success on the international scene. Instead of delving deeper into that, we Canadians haughtily (shocking for Canadians) chalked that up to the fact that our professionals weren’t competing in international competitions. If they were, surely we’d be skating those Europeans right off the rink!
Then can 1972 – and the series that roused a nation. The eight-game summit series between the then-Soviet national squad and a team of Canadian NHL all-stars was won by the slimmest of margins! With Foster Hewitt’s legendary “Henderson scores for Canada!” a nation breathed a collective sigh of relief – our armour dented, but not broken.
Fast forward to the past decade or so. American basketball dominance was unquestioned. The professional ranks were largely red, white, and blue in composition, with the occasional big man from overseas dotting the landscape. But slowly, international competitions between American teams and other countries became more competitive – so what to do?
That’s right – send in the pros! And for a while it worked. In fact, at times the matching up of assorted Dream Teams against weaker nations was almost comical – and certainly the end result was never in doubt. American hoops dominance was assured, life would go on, and the world would keep turning.
A sixth-place finish at the World Basketball Championships for the U.S. was just a start. NBA teams are turning their eyes more and more overseas to find the next wave of NBA stars. And in many cases, the players coming out of Europe are as good – if not better – than their brethren from the U.S. high school and collegiate ranks.
And now a nation looks inward and poses two major questions of itself. Why has this happened and how can we fix it?
“Henderson scores for Canada.” With those words, Hewitt ended one hockey era and ushered in a new one. Hockey was Canada’s game. And now these Russian upstarts – who just started playing in the 1950s! – almost snatched away our birthright. First came the excuses – our boys weren’t in shape, the Russians played as a team all year round, etc. But after that initial outburst of fury and confusion, the answers came out clear as day.
Canadian hockey hadn’t evolved. Our dominance was presumed, so where was the impetus to get better? What worked always worked, so there was no need to change. NHLers looked at training camp as a place to play themselves into shape, not refine their games. Canadian youth concentrated on playing games, not practicing and developing our skills.
By contrast, the Russians practiced far more often than they played. Fundamentals and the team concept were stressed. In fact, one of the major criticisms of the time (which persisted for many years) was that the Russians passed the puck too much! Conditioning was also paramount to their success. They took the best of the Canadian game, added to it, and created a finished product that was unlike anything before.
But the most fundamental change was that the 1972 Canadian squad was a team of stars, the Russian squad was just a team. Of course, certain names have stood the test of time, but they won as a team and executed as a team.
Now, let’s switch back to the present-day NBA. One of the main buzz-words coming out of NBA circles is that European players are better schooled in fundamentals. Their club teams stress a team concept and practice is integral to their development. Sound familiar?
In large part, the NBA of the past 15 years has been a star-driven league. Youth were peppered with images of Dominique Wilkens, Michael Jordan, and Sean Kemp soaring through the air. In fact, the term “posterized” entered the jargon of the game. But when was the last time you saw a well-made pass posterized?
So can things change for American basketball players? Well, yes – but it won’t be easy. Shortly after the 1972 Canada-Russia series, Canadian players and coaches began dissecting the reasons for the Soviet’s success. Instead of remaining an up-and-down the wings game, Canadians adopted some of the Russian’s all-ice tactics. More of a focus was placed on skill development and practice. In the end, we’ve come up with a hybrid sort of game. Canadians took the best of the Russian model and adapted it to our own game, while the Soviets took from the Canadian game to refine their own.
The process still continues to this day. The stereotypes of the rugged Canadian who wins with heart and grit contrasted to the “softer” European who plays with skill and grace continue to this day, but to a lesser degree.
In the U.S. there needs to be a fundamental change in the way the game is perceived at a youth level. The lack of polish on American players hasn’t resulted from players coming out of college early, or skipping it altogether, but rather the NBA has created this beast itself – selling images of the individual and not the team! When all you showcase are the individual artists, who do you think the youth are going to emulate?
Are things getting any better? Well, look at the recent NBA draft – everyone knows LeBron James, but how many people know what school he played for?
High schools need to stress fundamentals in their development, but where’s the motivation for a young player to buy into the team game, when it’s still all about the “Me”? So perhaps it’s going to take a few years of more fundamentally sound imports filling out NBA rosters before we see a shift in the way the game is presented.
Speaking from experience, making change is hard when it comes to a game you have always considered your own. However, without change there may come a time when you’re on the outside looking in, just remembering the good ol’ days.
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