Lloyd Percival and Soviet Hockey (Part 1)

Posted on Behind the Boards (SIHR Blog). In his biography Lloyd Percival: Coach and Visionary, Gary Mossman reports the following: The late...
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    In his biography Lloyd Percival: Coach and Visionary, Gary Mossman reports the following:

    The late Canadian sportswriter, Jim Coleman, frequently related a story told to him by Lethbridge Maple Leaf hockey player Stan Obodiac, who was of Ukrainian decent, spoke fluent Russian and sent regular dispatches back to the Lethbridge Herald while the Lethbridge team was in Europe for the 1951 World Hockey Championships. According to Coleman, Obodiac described a meeting with Tarasov at the World Hockey Championships in Paris in 1951, where Tarasov inquired about Canadian hockey instruction and Obodiac handed the Russian coach a copy of Pericval's book How to Play Better Hockey. Obodiac did not mention the meeting with Tarasov in any of his dispatches. He was a fervent anti- communist, and Coleman later wrote that Obodiac admitted to having given the book to Tarasov "impulsively" and "never forgave himself." [1]​

    Mossman expands on the background of the reported meeting:

    ...Tarasov was dissuaded from looking outside of Russia by his mentor, Mikhail Davidovich Tovarovsky, who told Tarasov that he was „not mature enough to see foreign hockey“. Tovarovsky instructed Tarasov, „first you need to invent, to make up your own things. And when you are able to firmly stand on your own two feet, you will go and see.“ (…) There is no evidence that Tarasov was in Paris in 1951. In numerous interviews and writings for Russian audiences, he referred to the 1953 World Championship in Switzerland as his first exposure to international hockey. Throughout his lifetime, Tarasov was reluctant to publicly admit to any outside influence on the formation of his coaching philosophy, and he never wrote about Percival or any of his books; however, in his last book, Tarasov – published posthumously and only in the United States – Tarasov discussed the influence of Tovarovsky, and how Tovarovsky informed him in 1951 that he was ready to see international hockey firsthand, „even the Canadians.“ Tarasov described a trip to Sweden and how he followed the Lethbridge Maple Leafs from town to town, attending practices and watching each of the exhibition games the Canadians played as they prepared for the World Championships in Paris. The exchange of a hockey instruction book between a Canadian hockey player and a Russian hockey coach in Sweden in 1951 – an exchange which neither man liked to talk about – may sound improbable; however, Obodiac's ability to speak Russian and the unique nature of Percival's pocket-sized book lends credence to the claim that Percival's book was the first printed material on hockey instructions that Tarasov read.“ [2]​

    Recently, Mossman's report has been criticized by Tobias Stark and Hart Cantelon in a paper titled Guru or Court Jester? The Lloyd Percival Paradox. [3] Stark and Cantelon rightly complain that Mossman has not included „comprehensive reference details as to his source material“ and they question the alleged exchange between Obodiac and Tarasov, arguing – among other things – that the book mentioned by Mossman „appears impossible to find“ and that Mikhail Tovarovsky didn't have a position in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that would have given him the power to invite Tarasov abroad.

    Image1.jpg
    1951 Lethbridge Maple Leafs with Stan Obodiac (third row, sixth
    from left). Copyright: Jim Sinclair​

    However, the book Mossman is pointing (albeit not properly referring) to was indeed published in the USA in 1997, two years after the death of Tarasov, and is titled Tarasov: The Father of Russian Hockey. It contains an English translation of writings Tarasov had been working on during his last years. The Russian original papers remained unpublished for a long time, but in 2015 they were finally made public under the title Khokkey. Rodonachalniki i novichki („Hockey. Founders and novices“). Mossman's portrayal is confirmed by Tarasov's own account from the posthumous papers:

    A Canadian amateur hockey club was on tour in Scandinavia and I was asked to see its performance. Joyful and inspired, I called Mikhail Davidovich Tovarovsky to share this wonderful news with him. He asked me to come to his place to see him. He gave me a surprisingly cold reception. „Well, young man, where did you say you were going to?“ he asked in his usual ironic manner. I told him there was a possibility to see Swedes and Finns on a hockey court and – what was more important – the legendary Canadians. „You should not go anywhere,“ my tutor surprised me. „Why?“, I asked, puzzled. „You are not mature enough to see foreign hockey,“ said Tovarovsky. „If you see foreigners, then you will not think of anything yourself – that is in human nature. But you need to invent, to make up your own things. And when you are able to firmly stand on your own feet, you will go and see!“ And I did not go abroad. I could only refuse, the authority of Tavorousky [sic] was too big. [4]​

    Tarasov had considered Tovarovsky, a renowned soccer coach, his mentor ever since he had been his teacher at the Institute of Physical Culture in 1938/1939. True, Tovarovsky wasn't in the position to invite his protégé abroad, but he didn't need to be: Tarasov had already received permission from the Soviet authorities.

    A few years of „persistent, hard work“ passed, in which Tarasov – among other things – wrote the first Russian book on hockey, titled Khokkey s shayboy („Hockey with the puck“). It was published in January 1950 and contained 221 pages covering techniques and tactics of the game.


    Image2_1.jpg
    Anatoli Tarasov's first book (1950). Copyright: Marcel Lang​

    In 1951, Tovarovsky finally told Tarasov that he was mature enough to see the Canadians. Tarasov went abroad:

    And there I was in Scandinavia, where, in the winter of 1951, a Canadian amateur team was on tour. Not only did I attend all matches and practices of the Canadian hockey players, I thought it was important for me to watch them from outside the hockey stadium. (…) The hockey players traveled from one city to the another by train. To while away the time on the train, some of them were playing cards, others were catching up on their sleep after a hectic night, or dozing at the corner of the compartment. But the goaltender most of the time was either reading books or newspapers or making notes into his writing pad. Occasionally he struck up a conversation with his friends. Alas, I did not understand the language, I could only guess that the question was one of hockey. For so many times in my life I rebuked myself for not speaking foreign languages. And here now I am sitting with the Canadians and cannot participate in discussion. How the conversation was developing was a matter of pure conjecture... [5]​

    Tarasov didn't attend the 1951 World Championship in Paris, but he did indeed follow the Lethbridge Maple Leafs on their tour through Sweden just prior to the 1951 World Championship. It was his first encounter with a hockey team from Canada. However, the exchange with Stan Obodiac didn't actually happen until two years later. The following story on Obodiac by Regina Leader-Post writer Steve Newman reveals the actual time and place:

    While player coach with a Zurich, Switzerland team in the 1952-1953 season he met Anatoli Tarasov, then a Soviet player and later to become the much-talked-about Soviet national hockey coach. Tarasov later credited some of the Soviets' hockey successes to a book he received from Obodiac. It was called 'Hockey Handbook', written by the late Lloyd Percival. (…) „We'd read through the book, but it wasn't staying around as text for practice,“ remembered Obodiac Saturday afternoon before the official Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. „So,“ Obodiac jested, „maybe, since Canada hasn't won a world title since 1961, you can blame the debacle on us.“ [6]​

    Tarasov attended the 1953 World Championship in Switzerland and it was on this occasion that he met Stan Obodiac. It is evident that Jim Coleman got the year and location wrong when he recalled the events by memory:

    Percival wrote the first widely accepted textbook on our winter sport: How To Play Winning [sic] Hockey. In 1951, Stan Obodiac was a player with the Lethbridge Maple Leafs when they went to Paris to win the world tournament. Tarasov was in Paris as an observer. The Russians still were in the hockey learning stage – they weren't ready to compete internationally. Seeking information about Canadian methods, Tarasov latched on to Obodiac, who could speak Ukrainian. Impulsively, Stan gave his personal copy of Percival's book to Tarasov, who took it home to Moscow and studied it. Three years later, the Russians were ready for their debute in a world tournament. In their very first appearance, they won the championship, beating Canada (Toronto Lyndhursts) in the final. Obodiac, an ardent Canadian chauvinist, never forgave himself for giving Percival's book to Tarasov. [7]​

    Mossman's portrayal has to be corrected accordingly. The question that remains is which book by Percival it was that Obodiac handed Tarasov: How to Play Better Hockey (1946) as claimed by Jim Coleman or The Hockey Handbook (1951) as assumed by Steve Newman. Tarasov himself never acknowledged the meeting with Obodiac in any of his numerous writings and thus we are reduced to assumptions.

    Acknowledgment: Thanks to Stephen Smith for his help.

    [1] Gary Mossman, Lloyd Percival: Coach and Visionary (2013), 69
    [2] Mossman 2013, 68-69
    [3] Available online: https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2020.1696540
    [4] Anatoli Tarasov, Tarasov: The Father of Russian Hockey (1997), 11
    [5] Tarasov 1997, 11
    [6] The Leader-Post (March 24, 1980, 22)
    [7] The Province (June 26, 1995, 28)

    Posted on Behind the Boards (SIHR Blog)

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