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Hockey guru was ahead of the game
Date: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
Source: by Douglas Fisher, Toronto Sun


Hockey is our common denominator. The long-awaited Olympic victories renew our collective spirit. Great!

Yet notwithstanding this joy all around, mine is incomplete. Why? It goes back 50 years.

In 1951, I was a hockey fan, an ex-rink rat and a regular “snowbanker” at the nearest ice when I fell upon The Hockey Handbook. Its author was Lloyd Percival, then 38, a Torontonian, a superb cricketer, a renowned track and field coach and a national figure among kids since the early 1940s as the creator and host of Sport College, a CBC radio program for youth on fitness and skills for sports. Lloyd and his “how to” pamphlets were must reading from coast to coast. The Hockey Handbook came out because hockey was the top interest of his listeners.

Percival tended to the clinical and jesuitical, rather than to “homespun” wisdom as a coach. He wrote clearly and was big on charts and diagrams. He revelled in “blue- skying” about the potentials in strategy and tactics in team games like hockey and soccer.

To illustrate his hockey analysis, he had exemplar actions in the six-team NHL of the time and – heresy of heresies – his critique cast doubts on some aspects in Maple Leaf play he thought aimless and useless.

A few years after reading his book, I was working up a magazine article on Conn Smythe, creator of the Leaf franchise, and I found both Conn and Hap Day, then the Leaf coach, scornful about the hockey vision in the handbook. Indeed, only Jack Adams of the NHL (then manager of the Red Wings) took any interest in the book.

It didn’t really catch on in either the National Hockey League or the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. But the book found a fan and sponsor far away in the USSR in Anatoli Tarasov, then emerging as a coach of a newish endeavour for Russians – the widespread playing of hockey.

Coach Tarasov developed what was later called the Russian hockey system based on such Percival emphases as puck control marrying passing and skating dexterity. Who had the puck was more important than where the puck was on the ice. Developing control of it had to be founded on continual passing on the move.

Not for Percival or Tarasov the firing of the puck into the enemy zone and piling in for goalmouth scrambles and screened shots. There was no stress on rough stuff: the rubbing out along the boards, grabbing, hooking, slashing and punching.

The Percival hockey line touted better conditioning through weights and dry-land training for each player, and drills on passing, shooting, kicking the puck and using all the ice space. Training hours should never be wasted on practice games and scrimmaging.

Percival’s aim was for players and teams with more speed and finesse and less violence than the norm in North America. To me, the book was a revelation of what hockey might be.

In a few years, I learned the Russians were into Lloyd’s handbook; so were the Czech phys-ed professors at the university in Prague; so were several university coaches in the U.S. But the years went by and nothing much changed in coaching and play in the NHL or in the expanding Canadian “Junior A” hockey leagues in Canada (which so quickly became the basic farm supply for NHL franchises).

By the time I got a chance to stick my stick into the game of hockey in 1969 as a director of Hockey Canada, Canadians en masse were seething because the USSR was consistently both world and Olympic hockey champions. We couldn’t match them using amateurs and retired pros.

The plan of Father David Bauer to create a winner for Canada from well-trained “amateurs” was failing. His teams were excellent as such, but short of the Russians in both system and basic talents. As a federally appointed director of Hockey Canada, along with six or seven other men, I got into negotiating a new deal. We set out to entice both the USSR to take part in, and the NHL owners to permit, a Canada-USSR series in which Canada could use the best Canadians in the NHL. It took just over two years to line up the eight-game, home-and-home series of 1972.

Simply put, the crucial impetus of both sides was to prove their superiority. The vital catalyst for the deal was the backing of the NHL Players’ Association.

I kept it to myself, but I was probably the only Canadian negotiator who thought the USSR an even or better bet to win. It almost was so.

As sport pages since 1972 keep stating: “The ’72 series changed hockey forever.” It certainly put hockey on the world map. It brought much emphasis on player fitness and strength. It even encouraged analysis of the Percival sort wherever the game was played.

So what’s my point? Why the shortfall in my joy from the victory last Sunday?

Because we ought to be better. We’ve a superior base in facilities and the numbers playing the game, plus the huge national and local commitment to it. We waste or snuff out early so many prospects. The violent are still prevalent and honoured. There are fewer players like Lemieux, Lafleur and Sakic than there should be. We still ignore the hockey bible Lloyd Percival wrote so long ago. He died rather young in 1974.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 1997, SunMedia Corp.