Vladimir Putin and Me, Souls on Ice

Vladimir Putin and Me, Souls on Ice

Russian President Vladimir Putin and I have something in common: we both play senior hockey. I hasten to note that the similarities end there.

I have been smacking a vulcanized rubber disc around for 60 of my 65 years. Putin, 61, took it up several years ago. He’s skating all over You Tube; I’m not. There are no holes or rips in his fetching red uniform. He recently played in an exhibition game with former Russian stars and scored six goals and had five assists. That would be my point total for several seasons.

Despite his incredible performance on the ice, Putin is not yet in the same league with Kim Jong il. In his very first round of golf, the late North Korean strongman reported scoring 11 holes-in-one.

You can tell a lot about a person by how he or she plays hockey. Do they hog the puck or pass it quickly to a teammate who is in a better position on the ice? Do they skate back and play defense, or do they “float” at center ice waiting for someone else to get the puck out of there? Will they shoot on goal from an obtuse angle when a teammate is wide open right in front of the net?

Putin doesn’t skate badly, but there is a robotic quality to his stride. Clearly, he doesn’t want to fall down, ass over teakettle like a toddler on double runners – that would be bad for business. But I suspect there is more to it than that. Here skates a man without grace or poetry, someone who is known in hockey parlance as a “grinder” or perchance (try saying this in Mother Russia) a goon. Whether Putin is also a goon on the ice is speculation because in the videos none of the former hockey stars came close enough to their leader to test the supposition.

If Putin joined our Friday night pickup league in Norwich, Connecticut, we, too, would cede him some breathing room. Senior hockey etiquette dictates that stronger players allow the least of their brethren to handle the puck now and again. It’s a subtle ballet on ice. One doesn’t want to show up the neophyte by flagrantly indifferent defense.

But we don’t part like the Red Sea, as the Russian stars did for Putin – not once, but time and again – while he slogged toward the goalie, who pretended (badly) to be beaten by his mechanical shot. Falling flat on his freshly pressed uniform, it seems to me, would be less embarrassing. Is the self-esteem of Russia’s new Czar so fragile that he requires the same treatment accorded five-year-olds? There would be other culture shocks over here, too: we don’t have referees (we self-police); there are no fans or videographers; and no one (except large Frank) keeps score.

I don’t begrudge Putin his new pastime. Dictators, too, just want to have fun. Wielding absolute power is not exactly a team sport. Besides, Russia has had a dramatic impact on how hockey is played worldwide and this must appeal to the man who longs to see his country become a geopolitical all-star again. In the middle of the last century North American hockey was rigid and doctrinaire: you stayed in your lane as you charged relentlessly forward toward the enemy, shooting at the first opportunity and knocking over anyone who got in the way, like a Greek phalanx.

The Russians, who came late to the good old hockey game, developed a more fluid and subtle style that emphasized speed and passing, and even strategic retreats, much like soccer. At their best, Russians personified poetry on ice. There was no need to hit anyone if you had the puck most of the time. Indeed, Soviet players were appalled at the violence of the Canadian professionals they battled in the 1970s. It turns out that losing an empire, whether geopolitical or athletic, can inspire desperate behavior.

I hope Putin is learning something from his time on the ice. To play hockey right you have to respect your teammates as well as your opponents – and respect the game. Come to Norwich, Vladimir: we’ll let you stickhandle, for a spell.