A 2012 Jess Myers article titled Memories of a Silver Feat Still Shine (USA Hockey Magazine) supports the idea that the 1956 Olympics marked the global unveiling of the most influential advancement in hockey that profoundly changed how the the game was played throughout the world. It was a counter to the dump and chase style, which is eloquently described by sports writer Cam Charron: “Hockey's analogue is the dump-and-chase, a strategy rooted in the idea that a team will be more successful if you give it back to the opposition, and then try to hit them.” In 1956, the silver medal USA Olympic team lost their only game 4-0 to the undefeated gold medalists from Russia. Myers writes: “In their game with the Soviets, the Americans saw a team that, under the tutelage of legendary coach Anatoly Tarasov, had taken the skating – and checking-based game and made it into one of puck control, crisp passing and mistake-free defense.” Intentional puck possession was the at the core of this dominating style of play. For his article, Myers was fortunate to interview the late John Matchefts, an NCAA player and coaching legend, and USA Hockey Hall of Famer who played against the eventual gold medalist Soviet team. “It’s amazing how clever they were. They passed and passed and passed, then tip the puck in. That was the game right there. To this day I can draw on a board exactly what they did to score their first goal.” As a famous and influential coach, Matchefts incorporated Tarasov’s approach into his philosophy- that hockey is a game of keep away. Although coaches still opt for the strategy of dumping the puck and chasing, as the Soviets success has proven since their first gold medal in 1956, the puck possession strategy is arguably superior.
According to Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) Youth Manager Kalle Valiaho, in Finland, the puck possession game is part of the hockey culture, and the dump and chase coaches are the outliers. “Players twelve and younger play games in small areas because they get more puck possession and passing attempts.” Congruent to Tarasov’s approach, Valiaho says simply, “if your team has the puck, then you are controlling the game and have more of a chance to score a goal. The team who controls the puck more usually wins.” Teaching puck possession at young ages is important; Valiaho explains: “The things you promote early is relevant for the development. The easiest thing to learn is to give the puck away- dump the puck, get it out of the zone. It’s harder to teach and more demanding to learn how to support the puck and maintain possession.” Unlike in the United States, in Finland all of the highest-level professional teams play a possession game, providing a powerful example for youth coaches and players to replicate, and reinforce. Finland’s puck possession approach has led to enormous international success; summed up best in the 2016 (Sports Illustrated: The Hockey News) article Why Finland is the Best Hockey Country in the World.
Although the NHL still has coaches who embrace the dump and chase strategy, analytics and statistics arguably favor the puck possession method of play. With metrics playing an integral role managing NHL teams, one of the most commonly used is the Corsi and Fenwick method, which measures puck possession. Under the premise that possession leads to shots, Corsi is the sum total of shots on goal, missed shots, and shots blocked. Fenwick is the sum total of shots on goal and missed shots. Last season in the NHL, Colorado and Las Vegas finished first and second in the final regular season standings. Evaluating the Corsi For statistic, Las Vegas ranked first and Colorado ranked third. Conversely Buffalo finished last and Columbus fourth from last in the NHL standings; evaluating the Corsi Against statistic, Columbus finished first Buffalo finished third. The Fenwick For statistic revealed that the top four of five teams finished in the top five of the NHL standings (Colorado, Las Vegas, Carolina, and Florida). Out of the five of the worst ranked teams in the NHL, three were in the top five of the Fenwick Against statistic (Buffalo, Columbus, and Detroit). The Fenwick method is considered a better measurement over a longer period of time. With this data, although perhaps not statistically significant collectively, strong assumptions can be made about the importance of possessing the puck.
Evaluating international success coupled with basic analytics, it’s easy to argue that focusing on playing the puck possession game is superior to the dump and chase style. Comparing hockey to other team sports where the most goals/points win (basketball, soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse, etc.) only strengthens the puck possession superiority argument. Encouraging young players to play with the same creativity and teamwork that Anatoly Tarasov introduced to the hockey world in 1956 is crucial for youth development. Coaches should be incorporating small area games into every practice, including keep away games both even and out-numbered, both with and without a net and goaltender. The more creative a coach becomes in designing situations where players are forced to learn how to play at full speed in traffic and constantly changing conditions, the more players develop creativity with passing, receiving and possession skills. At the youth level, all coaches should strive to teach what John Matchefts witnessed representing Team USA against Tarasov’s system at the 1956 Olympics, and his quote should echo throughout the hockey world: “It’s amazing how clever they were.”
Shaun Hathaway is the ADM Coordinator for the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association