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Adams: From Knowing Little to Becoming the Best in the World

As I share the back story of Lake Placid and the Miracle on Ice, there are so many powerful examples for all of us on how to reach our dreams and goals, no matter what we do. I want to share with you the story of a man who took something and made not only the best in the world but something that was breathtaking to watch in its creativity. When Herb Brooks and his fresh faced group of youngsters took on Goliath in 1980, they were facing something that had been developed years ago by a man that would be called genius.

To set the stage, we go back to World War II where the Soviet Union fought alongside the United States and its allies. The Soviets lost ten million soldiers and fourteen million civilians. After the war the USA USSR alliance fell apart and the Cold War began.

The Soviet winter sport at the time was known as Bandy, which was like soccer with a field hockey stick. The problem was hardly anyone played it. Ice hockey was the winter international sport, and the sport in the Winter Olympics. When Joseph Stalin’s son Vasily learned of ice hockey, he liked it and in 1946 called for the creation of a team. He assigned a young man to do it that had never even seen an ice hockey game.

Anatoly Tarasov.

unnamed-1What he would do would become the stuff of legend and can inspire you no matter what you do.

“I started by asking for film,” Tarasov would say years later. “They said, ‘No film! Work on your own. Do not copy any other style!'”

Tarasov would later say they were right. He would take the approach that he would never be able to beat the world leaders in the sport, Canada, by learning their style. To him, if you followed someone else’s road, you would never get ahead.

He was always working, coming up with ideas. He would wake up at 4 in the morning and write, eventually writing forty books on the subject.

He saw an Igor Moiseev production, a choreography genius. In Moiseev’s ballet everyone worked ingeniously. He took ideas from them. He studied the Bolshoi Ballet and met with chess masters, including Gary Kasparov for strategy. He developed a philosophy where his players would have the accuracy of a sniper, the wisdom of a chess player, and the rhythm of a musician.

unnamed-2“He made it more of a magical thing to watch, a deep expression of human creativity,” said documentary maker Gabe Polsky. “It was a very fluid style, improvisational. They were playing jazz on the ice.”

“It was not just about winning and losing,” said Polsky. “It was artistry, a beautiful religious experience.

The Soviets made Tarasov coach of the Red Army team, which doubled as the national team. All of his players were under 25 year contracts, but on the ice Tarasov believed in freedom. He was extremely positive in practices and was always saying uplifting things. “Why are you playing with such sour demeanors?” he would ask, if he felt they needed a pep. “Why aren’t there more smiles? You should be happy. You are playing hockey!”

unnamed-3Polsky says they revolutionized sport to a whole new creative level. They were a finely tuned symphony with their passing, weaving an improvisation. Their passing was like artistic tapestry. They were a sight to behold, skating in great intersecting arcs, winding and unwinding like a Swiss timepiece.

“It is one of the fundamentals of a coach or a leader,” said his daughter Tatiana Tarasov, who would later be the Soviet figure skating coach. “You must speak from your soul to bring out the best of each athlete or person.”

He was everything to them. Psychologist. Coach. Father. Mother. They were like his sons, and he coached them to defend their hockey goal like they would defend the motherland.

“Above all he knew how to unify the team,” said his legendary goalie, Vladislav Tretiak. “Go out on the ice and treat your teammate like the love of your life. It’s got to be true love.”

“Because love is the strongest of feelings,” his daughter said. “And the most true. If everything is done with love, it can never be destroyed.”

Before WWII Tarasov worked as a watchmaker It could be that is where he learned to make multiple pieces work as one. While Canadians played the sport going up and down in straight lines, Tarasov imagined a game where his skaters would flow diagonally across the rink. If the Canadians had invented the game, Tarasov would reinvent it. His new vision was not about where the puck was, but where it was going. The player with the puck was the servant to the others.

They would train six to eight hours a day during the winter. It was during the summer that Tarasov would put them through even more grueling workouts. They would start the day by throwing boulders in a lake and going down to retrieve them, and then from 7 to 8 AM toss boulders to one another before breakfast.

unnamed-4Their heart rates would get up to 220 beats a minute. They would do jumping push ups with long jump ropes endlessly going round and round.

He was trying to create his own Sparta. His gladiators were to be the best-conditioned, the most technically superior. Tarasov desired quiet courage, imperturbable efficiency.

“Tarasov was a maximalist in life,” said Vladimir Petrov. “He set the highest standards for us to become champions, and that is what we did.”

From 1963 to 1972 – get this – the Soviet hockey team won every major international tournament including nine World Championships and three Olympic gold medals.

“I love my guys very much,” Tarasov said. “That’s why I demand so much from them, as no one else would do.”

Tarasov is sometimes characterized as a taskmaster and dictator who was hated by his players. This is incorrect. He was a pensive man who used all the skills he had at his disposal: fatherly qualities, humour, intelligence, encouragement, creativity, and discipline. There is no doubt that not everyone liked Tarasov, but everyone respected him.

Tarasov developed a system where potential talent would be discovered at eight or nine years of age. Every first Sunday in September there would be tryouts for the CSKA sports youth school,” recalls Slava Fetisov. “If you could imagine, I would get in line at 10 AM and didn’t step on the ice until 8 PM. The line for the tryouts would be three miles long, to get out in front of the great Tarasov.”

unnamed-5Had Tarasov still been the coach in 1980, the Miracle on Ice might not have happened.

“I know that in the 1972 Olympics in Sapparo,” said his grandson Alex Tarasov, “in order to improve relations with our Czechoslovakian ‘friends’ they told my grandfather not to win and to arrange a tie. He could never do that.”

“He was sent into retirement at age 54,” said his daughter Tatiana, “because he could not be controlled. He was scarred in his heart and in his soul.”

A visiting American coach asked him in 1974 to reveal his coaching secrets. “Do you think we have secrets?” he replied. “Today’s secret is tomorrow’s common knowledge. All you have to do is look. There is no secret in hockey. There is imagination, hard work, discipline and dedication to achieving whatever the goal is. But there are no secrets, none at all.”

“I think that nobody was ever like him and never will be like him,” said Tretiak recently.

When the Miracle on Ice happened in 1980 Viktor Tikhonov was the Soviet coach. Appointed by the KGB, he never showed the love for his players that Tarasov had shown. While the 1980 Soviet team was possibly the greatest team ever in that sport, they lost to Herb Brooks’ boys, partly because Brooks had studied Tarasov’s methods over the years and partly because Tikhonov’s relentless ways had the Soviets ripe for the upset in Lake Placid.

Tarasov died in 1995 after a long illness at the age of 76.

I have put in a video clip below from the documentary Red Army that shows you a visual glimpse of the brilliance of Tarasov, yet another fascinating character in the back story of Lake Placid and the Miracle on Ice.

The creativity of Tarasov


Peak Performance speaker Charlie Adams is a 1980 grad of Lafayette High who is an Ole Miss alum. His new motivational keynote More Than a Miracle is a powerful description of the greatest moment in United Sports history. He shares how a group of college kids upset the best team in hockey history in Lake Placid in the winter of 1980, and galvanized America along the way.

“I literally had to choke back tears about 5 times during this Talk. Now I now feel as if I can do anything! ANYTHING!!” – Christopher Pataro, lawyer

“As powerful a motivational talk as I have heard in 40 years.” – Bob Bayliss, former tennis coach at Notre Dame and Navy

Charlie can be reached at charlie@stokethefirewithin.com

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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