Tarasov’s life lessons

When I heard – or most likely read – somebody talk about the “five-hole” for the first time, I had no idea what it meant. I knew it was a hockey term, and I did know it was the goalie’s weak spot, but since the five-hole isn’t called “five-hole” in Finnish, I had to figure it out on my own.

And to me, the goalie’s weak spot number five was not between his legs, but instead, next to the post on the [left-catching] goalie’s glove side.

Not top shelf, and not under the glove, either, either, but next to the post, just stroking it on the way in. Top shelf was number 4, a low shot to the glove-side number 6. I had those numbers memorized, because I had seen a photo in a book, and the caption under it said that “scientific research has revealed goaltenders’ weak spots.” It even says, “hard shots to spot number five are difficult to stop even if the goalie has a quick glove hand.”

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The book was called “Jääkiekon tekniikkaa” in Finnish, and it was a translation of a book called “Tarasov’s ishockeyskola” which, in turn, was a Swedish translation of “Tarasov’s Hockey Technique”. Even more important to me was what it says on the inside cover of the book: “To Risto, for Xmas”, in my father’s neatest writing, which was very neat.

I had just joined my first real hockey team that fall, and the Tarasov book became my hockey bible, and by extension, Tarasov, the most famous coach in the world at the time – in our world at least – became our house guru. A year later, Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over the book, and a half a dozen others, and my mother’s old travel typewriter, putting together a hockey book of his own, which he then handed out to all the players on my team at the start of our summer camp.

In the three years it had taken the book to get translated first into Swedish, and then into Finnish, the name of one of the original authors – Brian McFarlane – was no longer on the cover, but the Canadian influence shows on the page, as Tarasov, for example, compares Russian skating styles with the Canadian style. Also, these are the first pictures of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr I ever saw:

Gordie and Bobby.

The Tarasov book taught me everything about hockey. The goalies’ weak spots, the importance of a backhand shot, how to keep your eye on the goal and the puck at the same time, and it was Tarasov, who in the voice of my father, reminded me to always see the game from the puck’s perspective. Even if I didn’t see an opening to slip the puck through, the puck did, and so in practice, and playing shinny with buddies, I’d sometimes stop the play, get on my stomach, close my one eye, and have a look at what the puck saw.

And sometimes I saw a player at the far post, and I’d fake a shot and send a hard pass to him, making it impossible for the goalie to make a save – especially if my teammate hit number 1, or 2 with his shot.

Look!

Backhander!

Easy.

And whenever I got bodychecked on the ice, I thought about Vitali Davidov, a Soviet defenseman, who Tarasov used as an example of a solid skater who was impossible to knock down, thanks to his wide stance and a low center of gravity. Davidov also had something else that made him a favorite of mine even if I never saw him play: He was short.

Davidov is also in another photo in the book, but in that one he’s in the background, admiring – like I did – Igor Romishevski blocking a shot. I don’t think I ever blocked a shot, but had I done it, I would have tried to do it just like Romishevski. With style.

Davidov.

Blocking the shot.

Every once in a while, I pick up the Tarasov book from the shelf, and read a chapter or two, look at the photos, and smile. But I never put it back without turning to page 94, partly because I just want to see it, and partly because it’s impossible not to, as that’s where the book opens naturally when you just flip it open.

That spread has been opened more than any other in the book. I’ve looked at the photo for hours, started at it, and read the caption over and over again.

See, on page 94, there’s a photo of Valeri Kharlamov, the tiny Soviet superstar, or “one of the most colorful players in the world today”, as Tarasov wrote – and my biggest idol. Number 17.

Page 94.

I wanted to be like Kharlamov, and a Dad probably wanted to be like Tarasov, so we both were pretty excited when we got to meet Tarasov a few years later. He was on a Finnish tour, came to our hometown and ran a practice for my team. His drills were just as crazy as we thought, as he made us do somersaults on grass – when we didn’t know how to do them – and run up a tree.

The book ends with some life lessons from the legend himself. Tarasov lists five things young players should remember:
1. Work hard. (“Who wouldn’t want to be the next Kharlamov?”)
2. Learn to skate.
3. Pay attention to everything around you when you have the puck. (“Can you see your friends in the stands?”)
4. Be honest about your own play. (“Be critical”)
5. Get fearless by working on it. (“Fear nothing, but don’t play like a villain!”, “Don’t hit back, it’s brave not to.”)

And then the book comes to an end:

“I wish all friends of hockey the best of success in life and on the ice. Don’t be sad if you don’t become the best in the world, or if your team loses a game. There can be only one winner.”

The man himself.

How does that make you feel?