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Interview with Bruce Berglund: The Fastest Game in the World

For this episode of The Slavic Connexion, I spoke with Dr. Bruce Berglund, who is a historian and author, as well as a three-time Fulbright scholar and a former faculty member at Calvin University and University of Kansas. Dr. Berglund has authored several books for a variety of audiences, and today I have the pleasure of talking to Dr. Berglund about his 2020 book, The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports.


Eliza: So, Dr. Berglund, to start out, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you got into hockey -- not just as a researcher, but also personally. In your book, you talked about how important hockey was to you, and I know that some of the best research can be things that you're really passionate about, so I would love to hear about your background with hockey.


Bruce Berglund: Yeah, so I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. I grew up about a block away from an outdoor hockey rink and back then, the skating season — it's changed dramatically since the time I was a kid back in the 70s in terms of the skating season, but back then I would be on skates on outdoor rinks already in November, and the skating season would run until March. My dad had been a college hockey player. He was a high school and college referee actually, and so I learned the game from him and I played throughout my youth. Duluth had this robust park system with hockey teams in all of these different neighborhoods, so I played in that and I just really enjoyed playing the game, and I was also fascinated by the lore and history of the game. So I I had different periodicals that I subscribed to as a kid, and learned all the records and learned all the stories and so forth and by the time I was in high school, I was pretty much a mediocre player, so my career ended, and as I've traveled around in the course of my life, in my professional stops, I had kind of lost connection with the sport, certainly in terms of playing it, but also really in following it. Then, later in my career, as I made the turn into doing sports history — and this came actually as a result, I used to work on the New Books Network podcast, related to recent publications in sports history and sociology — and so I made a turn at that point in my career into sports studies and sports history, and as I was looking around in terms of topics to study, I thought, you know, why not return to the sport that was kind of my original love in terms of sports and the sport that I knew the lore and the history of? And also, you know, given the work I'd been doing in Prague and in Russian and East European history, I knew the connection of hockey to culture and society and politics in that region, and so, yeah, that's how I made the move into, you know, writing, the history of world hockey.


Eliza: That's really cool, thank you. Sports can be a representation of political interaction, international interaction that people don't often think about, but people put so much emotion and passion into sporting events, because they feel, on some level, that their team is a representation or an extension of their country, or themselves. I know that hockey came to Eastern Europe a little bit later than it came to some other parts of the world as the sport developed — could you give me an overview of the history of hockey in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union?


Berglund: Sure! Yes, we can do the thumbnail sketch, the history of hockey in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and Russia. So the first thing we have to talk about is, what kind of hockey? There were various forms of hockey that developed in the 19th century, in Europe as well as in North America, and so the type of hockey that we're familiar with today originated in eastern Canada in the 1870s and 1880s, the kind of hockey we see that's played with the puck on a smaller indoor rink. There was another kind of hockey that was played, that developed in England and spread throughout Europe at a similar time in the 1800s, and this was played on an outdoor rink about the size of a soccer field, and it's played with a ball rather than a puck. So, there were these two different kinds of hockey. The Canadian version of the game, because it was played with fewer players and in a smaller space and could be played indoors, is the game that really spread throughout the world. It takes off in Canada, of course, it spreads into the United States, and then, at about the turn of the century, it reaches Europe — so, through England, onto the continent.


One of the places where this Canadian version of the game first catches on is in Prague, and so for my research I did quite a bit of research in the National Museum in Prague, in the department related to Czech sports history, and it was fascinating to look back at the old newspaper accounts of this new variation of the game. So, the Czechs had already been playing the European style of hockey, on the larger rink with the ball, and then to be introduced to the Canadian version of the game, with a puck and on a smaller rink, and to see how they would debate, you know, “Which is the better form of the game? Which one should we adopt?” and so forth. And in the first decade of the 20th century, in Prague, in Berlin, in Budapest, in Vienna, this Canadian version of hockey begins to take root, and it's popular at skating clubs. So, you'll have players on teams who are figure skaters, male figure skaters who in the summer are soccer players, and then in the winter they play this new version of hockey.


So in the pre-war period, pre-World War One, the sport is slowly gaining participants in Central and Eastern Europe, and then, after the war, what really gives it a boost is international competition, and in particular, the Olympics. When the Winter Olympics begin , the International Olympic Committee selects the Canadian version of the game to be one of the sports in the Winter Olympics, as opposed to the version that's played in Europe, which we know of as bandy today, the version that's played with the ball.


So, by introducing Canadian hockey into the Olympics, that gives it kind of this stamp of legitimacy and it becomes a venue, as you were talking about before, of sports and politics in the way that people express their national identity at sporting events. So now that hockey is an international event, now that it's in the Olympics in the 1930s, there will be an annual world championship tournament, hockey becomes an expression for these different nations — a way to compete, a way to express rivalries and so forth through hockey, as with soccer and other international sports. And the place where hockey really becomes popular is interwar Czechoslovakia and, right away, the Czechs and Slovaks become very good at hockey. They beat the Germans, they beat the Swiss, they beat other national teams and club teams. One of the stories I wish I could write more about in the book is just how Prague becomes a hub of world hockey in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s really a fascinating story. So, that's the picture in the pre World War Two period: the sport develops mainly in Prague, but also in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. And then in the post war period, the big story is hockey developing in the Soviet Union.


Prior to World War II, the Russians had played this version of the game, bandy, on the larger outdoor ice with the ball. They called this Russian hockey. But then it's after the war, when the Soviet Union becomes involved in international competitions and looks to be involved in the Olympics, that they decide to make the switch to the international game, Canadian hockey. And so, the Soviet Union has its first domestic season of Canadian hockey in 1946 to 1947, and they worked to quickly develop a world class hockey program that competes in international tournaments, and already — so, they began playing the sport in 1946 — and already in 1954, they win the World Championship. In 1956, they win the Olympic gold medal, and then the Soviets, of course, become the dominant team in international hockey during the Cold War.


Eliza: In your book, you talked about how the Soviet leadership and how the Soviet team committed so much more time and energy to their training, and that really granted them an edge that allowed them to truly compete with teams or countries that had been playing hockey for so much longer. My understanding was that hockey was, again, very much a reflection of the national intent, of the national character. Would you mind talking a little bit about how the Russian style of play and style of training was meant to be a representation of the Soviet way of life?


Berglund: Other historians who've done work on Soviet sports, and I think in particular of the work of Bob Edelman on Soviet sports, they’ve talked about how, in the post World War II Soviet Union, right after the war, the Soviets are now a world power, and they seek to express their new standing internationally through the forum of international sports — so, they're going to be engaged in international competition, they look to participate in in the Olympics, and so in this period, sports has a political aim for the Soviet leadership. They want to have their teams and athletes compete in international events, compete in the Olympics, but it's also with the ideological purpose of demonstrating the superiority of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the Soviet team, Soviet athletes, must win, and they put a great deal of effort into figuring out, “how are we going to be able to, in a sport such as Canadian hockey, which the Soviets are adopting anew, how are we going to be able to compete internationally, not be embarrassed, and win?” So, there was a great deal of effort among hockey officials and coaches — and many of these early Soviet hockey coaches had been soccer coaches, had been soccer players, or had been coaches or players in this other form of hockey, Russian hockey or bandy, so they were great athletes. The interesting thing about Soviet hockey, especially early on, is that you have these coaches and players who bring the skills and strategies and ideas about player development that they’ve gained from other sports, particularly soccer, and they apply it to this new game of Canadian hockey. So, people who write about hockey and write about Soviet hockey make a point of how, when the Soviets become involved in the sport in the late 1940s and 1950s, they bring about these dramatic changes, not only in player development but also in strategy, and in large part it’s due to people coming from other sports, in particular the emphasis on soccer or drawing from soccer, and introducing that into Canadian hockey.


So, you know, to your question in terms of asking about player development, you really see this strong Soviet thread, you know, for people who know the history of the Soviet Union, there’s the idea of the five-year plans [piatiletka] and this emphasis during the Stalin period on these heroic efforts at labor and not only meeting quotas, but overcoming quotas. In looking at records from the Soviet Hockey Committee — of course, the Soviet Union had a committee dedicated to overseeing and planning hockey, and looking at their records, there would be page after page of quotas — “How many hockey players are we going to have in this city, in this region and so forth?” There were quotas to hit, there were markers in terms of fitness and exercise that each player had to meet. Hockey was part of the planned Soviet economy and this is how they aim to be the best team in the world, right? They believed in the Soviet method — “if you set a plan and if you meet your markers and exceed your markers, success will come” — and so this was the system that was really set down in the 1950s, and this was carried forward, really all the way until the end of the Soviet Union.


Eliza: I have a sense that this drive to win and to excel at all times had a detrimental effect on the personal lives of the players in question, who were separated from their families for weeks, right?


Berglund: Yeah. So this was the case in the late Soviet period by the 1980s. This system of training and preparing was just so demanding, and I should explain to your listeners what this involved. So, the system that was established in the 1950s for hockey was that hockey players were expected to train year round, so, you know, one of the advances in terms of player development that the Soviets introduced to hockey, as well as to other sports, is that when the ice goes away in the spring, this isn’t the end of hockey season. Hockey training continues through the spring, through the summer, into the fall, and there were very few indoor rinks functioning in the summer. I think there was one in Moscow throughout the 50s and 60s, so there were no rinks available. That meant that hockey players would go off ice, and they’d do strength training, they’d do conditioning. There was one club that was connected with an airplane factory, and they would put down sheets of aircraft metal on the ground to replicate ice, and the players would do shooting drills off of aircraft metal. So, the Soviet coaches were quite innovative in developing these methods of off-ice training, but the aim was for the athletes to train all year round for the hockey season.


This continues, you know, throughout the 1960s as the Soviets are gaining success in international tournaments. They won the World Championships throughout the 1960s, throughout the 1970s, and other national hockey programs, in Czechoslovakia, in Sweden, in Finland, began to copy in many ways what the Soviets had done. They also start to emphasize year-round training and conditioning and strength training and so forth, and so athletes in other countries are reaching the level of Soviet athletes in terms of their overall fitness and conditioning. The Soviets recognize that other countries are catching up, and what they do is again, in the Soviet way, we need to ramp up, we need to be more intensive in our inputs, to continue to maintain our standing at the top in terms of world hockey.


By the 1980s, players who are on the Soviet national team would be in barracks, they would live in barracks for 11 months of the year, they would be at the barracks for six days a week. On Sundays they could see their families, so during the summer they trained. Their days would begin during the summer at 7:00 AM. The days would finish at 7:00 PM. So it was really just an onerous rigid system of discipline and training, and by the mid to late 1980s, so the Soviet national team that was winning Olympic medals, it was winning the World Championship year after year, but the players – and I talk about this in the book — one particular player, Igor :, who ended up playing in the NHL in the 1990s, published an open letter to to the coach of the Soviet team, Victor Tikhonov, and he says, “you know what, the Soviet Union is changing, the world is changing. This is a dictatorship. This is a tyranny. We never see our families. This system has to end.” And so, with the breakdown in the 1980s, you have players actually rebelling against their coach, and recognizing, “you know, we’re the best hockey team in the world, we’re the best players in the world, but what does it mean if I can’t enjoy my family? What does it mean if fans expect perfection and they don’t appreciate a good play, or a good performance?”

In the 50s, there was this definite enthusiasm among players and coaches, as you see in Soviet society in general, right? There was this belief, “we are building something new. We are building communism.” By the 1980s, there was a weariness. There was a sense of “we're just simply following the script of what is expected from us,” and the enthusiasm is gone.


Eliza: As I was reading The Fastest Game, that’s a thread I saw appear in at least one other country as well — well, it was a few decades earlier, actually, but there was a pretty big… conflict, scandal, I’m not exactly sure what I would call it… with the Czechoslovakian ice hockey team in 1950. That was a fascinating story, I was completely blown away. Would you, uh, share with the listener what happened with the Czechoslovakian ice hockey team in 1950?


Berglund: Yeah, yeah, that is a terrific story. You know, when you asked earlier, how did I get interested in researching hockey and writing this history? A big part of this is when I was a graduate student, I was in Prague working on my dissertation, you know, when I was doing a project on 20th century Czechoslovak political history and I met a guy in the archive — he was Czech, he had been an emigre in Canada, he was in Prague doing research on his dissertation, and he had played hockey at the professional level in Czechoslovakia before he emigrated in the 1980s. I learned from him this story about the 1950 Czechoslovak national team, and it was just such a fascinating story, and I always held onto the thought that someday I would like to write about this story because it's just so remarkable.


So, what were the circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the war? As I said, before World War II, Prague had been a center of hockey in Europe. There were Czech club teams, and the Czechoslovak national team had been very successful internationally before the war and then after the war, when you had a coalition government in charge in Czechoslovakia right after the war, the Czechoslovak national team picked up with its success. It won the silver medal at the 1948 Winter Olympics, it won the World Championship in 1949 and in 1950 the Czechoslovak team was at the airport in Prague, and they were preparing to fly to London to defend their world championship, and they were prevented from flying by státní bezpečnost, the state police, the StB. So, a bunch of the players went to the pub, and they were grumbling about the fact that they weren't allowed to leave and that the state police said that for various reasons that they couldn't go to London to defend their title, and they were, you know, cursing the government, cursing the StB, and cursing Klement Gottwald, the leader, and of course, the police came and arrested them.


In the course of the interrogations, the players were stunned to learn that the police hadn’t arrested them simply because they were cursing the government in the pub. They were interrogated for treason and what the government was looking into, and what the government did in fact find in the course of these interrogations, is that there were players on the Czechoslovak team who had had contact with people at the American Embassy, and there had been conversations — the Americans would support the creation of a Czechoslovak hockey team in exile.


So, the idea would be that some of these hockey players would emigrate, and the US would fund this hockey team in exile. And in the summer of 1949 and then in the winter from 1949 to 1950, a few high-profile Czech athletes had emigrated while competing abroad, so the government did fear having the hockey team go to London, and then go into exile and create this team in exile. That would then be bad publicity for the Czechoslovak government, and so, players were arrested. 12 players were eventually convicted and put on trial, and a number of players were sentenced to hard labor in the uranium mines of western Bohemia. Again, this was in 1950 — and then when [Joseph] Stalin, and Klement Gottwald, die in 1953, these players are released. None of the players are allowed to play again for the Czechoslovak national team, but they are able to resume their careers playing for club teams, and some of them go into coaching and so forth. But, you know, it's a striking story of how these men are the national hockey team, the world champions, Olympic silver medalists and yet the government, the StB, you know… certainly word would have had to come from higher up in the Communist government directing that this team essentially be wiped out. In fact, Czechoslovakia did not participate in in the World Championships for two years, because the the national program, the national team was essentially eliminated for fear that they would emigrate.


Eliza: It's really a heart-wrenching story.


Berglund: Yes, one of the people — the heart-wrenching part I do talk about in the book is one of the players, the goalie, Bohumil Modry, who is such a fascinating character. There’s a common saying in hockey and hockey circles that that goalies tend to be more cerebral. They tend to be loners, and with Modry, this was the case. He was an intelligent, smart, fascinating character, and he becomes more and more dissatisfied with the government, with sports officials, in terms of how they handle the national team. He had actually requested to be allowed to play in the National Hockey League, and initially the government had said yes, that would be good to have a Czech player in the National Hockey League, and then when they pull back permission, he gets more upset and he does actually make plans to emigrate. The authorities, the StB, recognized him as the principal target, and kind of the person at the center of this plan to emigrate, so he was sent to work in the uranium mines, and when he was released, the imprisonment and hard labor had really affected his health, and he died at the age of 43. So, he's the one person who you know, has the most tragic outcome in terms of this imprisonment.


Eliza: I'd like to draw, certainly not a parallel, maybe a risky connection, but I'd like to talk a little bit about current events and Russian hockey players today and how they're being affected by the actions of their government, you know, perhaps they're being restricted by the actions of their government. I was reading an article today about Ivan Fedotov, who was — I believe he had signed a contract with the NHL, isn't that right? Then he was detained in Russia, and then he, under circumstances that were not entirely clear to me, signed a contract with the Kontinental Hockey League.


Berglund: Yeah, so this was the episode that happened in the summer. Fedotov was a goalie, he played for the Central Army Team in Moscow, and they had actually won the championship in the KHL last year, the Gagarin Cup. So, he had played in the KHL, had success in the KHL, then he was signed to a contract by the Philadelphia Flyers and it was a minor league contract. He wasn't going to go and play for the team in Philadelphia. He was going to play for their minor league affiliates in… wherever. He was making plans to go to North America to play in the minor leagues, to perhaps get a chance to play in the NHL for the Flyers. And, what happened — I did do quite a bit of reading about this back in the summer, but like you were saying, it's hard to pull the threads apart — what got him into trouble is that he had not fulfilled his military obligation, and so there were concerns as to whether he would be able to get a visa to leave. From my understanding, and I did read in the Russian sports sites in terms of what happened, he was arrested for having a falsified military certification, which indicated that he'd fulfilled his obligation, he wasn't obliged to serve in the military. And the way the story unfolded is, when he had been playing in the KHL, and I think it was with the team at Ufa, he had gotten one of these falsified military documents from a supporter of the hockey team there. The police had cracked down on this person who was producing fake military documents for Russian athletes, as well as for other people. As part of this sting operation against the person who's making the falsified documents, Fedotov was recognized as holding one of these falsified documents as well. And so, in part, he was arrested for having this falsified document as part of this larger operation, but it also served well to show that we're even making KHL players, professional hockey players, fulfill their military obligation. So, he was arrested, and he was sent up to the far north, to the military base, so I think this year he's slated to play for a military team at a far northern naval base. But, you know, the message was clear, “even if you are the goalie for the KHL champion Central Army team, you're still expected to fulfill your military obligation — and oh, by the way, don't go buying falsified documents.”


Now, the interesting part of the story is that there was another NHL player who plays actually in Minnesota (I live in Minnesota), he’s the star from the Minnesota Wild, Kirill Kaprizov, and he was also involved, he had played in Ufa when he was in the KHL, and he was also involved in the questions as to whether he had one of these falsified documents. Now, he's a star. He's one of the top scorers in the NHL. He's not a goalie who would be a minor league player in North America. And so, you know, whether or not he did or did not have a falsified document, he was able to leave Russia and he's back in North America right now playing for the Wild.


Eliza: I fear that I may have asked you two questions in the wrong order — we've talked about the NHL and the KHL, but we have not really talked about the KHL. We've not talked about the history and formation of the Kontinental Hockey League, and before reading your wonderful book, I had no idea that the KHL existed, and I expect that there are also listeners who will not have known that. Can we talk about the history of the Kontinental Hockey League?


Berglund: Sure, yes. You know, this is fascinating, it's a fascinating story. In your early comments, you talked about international politics and how they mix with sports, in this case hockey, and this is one area in particular where it's really a fascinating instance of how Putin's program for international politics and building Russia’s status in Europe and in Asia connected with hockey and sports diplomacy.


The KHL, the Kontinental Hockey League, was founded in 2008. So what had been the case in Russia before — so after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, through the 1990s into the 2000s — is, you did have a professional domestic league that, you know, basically was successor to the old league, the Soviet league of club teams. The club teams became professional teams, and the quality of these — well, for one thing, there was little funding for these club teams, and so the top players would go to the National Hockey League in North America, where they would earn more money, or else they would go to the Swiss league or the German league, the Swedish or the Finnish league. So, there was a drain of talent in hockey, as there was in other areas of life during the 1990s and into the 2000s, as Russian players would leave the country, and so the quality of domestic professional hockey, of club teams in Russia steadily declined as the best teams left the country, and along with that, the quality of the national team also declined. The national team was not performing as well in international tournaments, in the Olympics and in the annual World Championships. This was a cause for concern among hockey officials and hockey fans in Russia, and it was also a cause of concern for Putin.


I mention in the book, there's this episode, if I'm remembering the year right it was in 2006, when Putin calls the former goalie for the Soviet Olympic team, who is one of the greats of Soviet hockey, one of the great figures in Soviet sports, period. Vladislav Tretiak is called into the Kremlin. Tretiak has just been named the president of the Russian Hockey Federation, and Putin says to him, “So when will we start winning?” Tretiak kind of, you know, dodges the questions, says, “Well, we've got a winning spirit with our team now, I think, you know, we've got success, and,” and Putin cuts him off, says, “No, no, no you, you're, you're dodging the question. It sounds like you haven't played hockey in a while. I'm asking, when are we going to win?” And the implication was clear that Putin wanted the Russian hockey team to follow the legacy of the Soviet hockey team and to start winning international tournaments again, to start winning at the Olympics and the World Championships. So, Putin did comment regularly about hockey, and this desire to have Russian hockey again be competitive with North American and North European hockey. So, the KHL develops out of this sense that Russian hockey has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we want to keep our players from leaving and going to other leagues.


There are really three people involved in the creation of the league. One is Putin, of course. Another is a former Soviet player, who played with the Soviet team in the 1980s, then played in the NHL in the 1990s and 2000s, Slava Fetisov, who became Minister of Sport during Putin’s presidency, so he’s been very closely connected with Putin. And the other person is Alexander Medvedev, who had been a top executive at Gazprom. So, Medvedev becomes the president of this league, and he brings the involvement of Gazprom and other major oil resource companies. These companies agree that they're going to basically underwrite the teams in the KHL, allowing them to pay high enough salaries to keep Russian players in Russia, as well as potentially draw some European players, even North American players, to play in this league that plays in Russia. One of their top signings is the Czech star Jaromir Jagr, who comes and plays in Russia.


So, the story of this league is the story of an attempt to both create a rival league to offset the power of the National Hockey League in world hockey — so, Medvedev, Putin, Fetisov, they all see the KHL as keeping European players and Russian players in Eurasia, and North American players, Americans and Canadians will be the only players in the NHL — and as a project in, basically, Russian soft power projection, in that they envision a league that will go all the way from from the Far East, from Asia, to Europe. They see the league as having dozens of teams, teams in Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Italy, who will all play in this Continental League based in Russia. The problem, of course, is that you know, as with the Russian economy, as with Russia, it's all based on the fluctuations in oil and gas prices, so as gas prices go down, this really harms the teams. There are American and Canadian players who played in the KHL and they tell stories, I've interviewed them — they didn’t get paychecks, facilities were broken down, it’s difficult to get equipment — stories similar to what you hear from sports during the Soviet period, so the KHL has really been a house of cards. It has not been a significant challenger to the NHL. They did, for a time, have teams in other countries — a team in Finland, a team in Slovakia, a team in Prague, but there's really no presence any longer in Europe.


Now, in the wake of Putin's war [in Ukraine], a number of countries, for instance, the Swedes and the Finns, their hockey federations have said if any Swedish or Finnish player plays for a KHL team, they're not playing for the national teams, they won't be able to play in the Olympics or World Championships.


Eliza: There are a few, I would say mythical, international hockey events associated with Eastern Europe. There's the Summit Series, which is a kind of “clash of the Titans,” and then there's the “Miracle on Ice,” which is a kind of underdog story. I would say one of the last times that the US was really an underdog in any sporting arena. I would love to hear from you about both of these.


Berglund: Oh, that’s a good question, yeah. Well, let me just say a word about each of them. So, this is the 50th anniversary this year of the Summit Series. So, the Summit Series was this hockey series, obviously. Four games in Canada, four games in the Soviet Union, and this was the first time that Soviet players, who were technically amateurs, right, because they competed in the Olympics and the World Championships, this was the first time that they were playing against professional Canadian players who played in the NHL, and everybody assumed, even the Soviets, that the NHL players would win handily. Instead, right in the first game, in the Montreal Forum, the home of the Montreal Canadiens, the Soviet team wins seven to two and just shocks the hockey world, shocks the Canadians. So, even though over the course of the eight game series, in the final game, Canada wins, and even though Canada wins the series in terms of total games, the Soviets win 2 games in Canada, both the first game in Montreal and the 4th game in Vancouver. Those losses were really a shock to Canadian hockey, and prompted a lot of soul searching in Canadian hockey circles, asking, “why have we fallen so far behind?” So, that’s a fascinating event, you know, particularly looking at Canadian hockey.


The event that you know, most of our listeners would be familiar with is the Miracle on Ice in 1980. Many people have, you know, seen the film Miracle and that's — I write about that in the opening pages of the book. That's one of my all time favorite experiences as a sports fan. And as you mentioned, you know, what was interesting to me, the question for me, was how do I write about something that's so familiar, such a salient memory. Even for people who aren't hockey fans, they know of the Miracle on Ice, and what was fascinating to me is, as you brought up, is that this was a rare instance when Americans were underdogs in international sports.


A big part of that was that the Soviets by this time, as they had been since the 1940s and 50s, were paid to be athletes. They would compete in the Olympics as amateurs, but a player who played for the Red Army team would write down that his job was “soldier.” I've seen these these registration forms in archives. They would write, “My job is a soldier. My job is not a hockey player,” even though year round they trained and prepared and competed in hockey, their livelihood was hockey and they were paid well for it. So, this was essentially a team of professional all-stars competing in the Olympics, representing the Soviet Union, claiming to be amateurs, who were playing against actual amateurs, American college students. It's a fascinating story, and I think part of the reason it still has resonance in American culture is because it is the last true instance of the Americans being underdogs in international competition. You know, we all get excited to watch the US women's soccer team in the World Cup, it's a great story we all cheer for, but the US women, they’re not underdogs. We expect the US women to win the World Cup every year. I think that’s why the Miracle on Ice still holds resonance, especially given the background of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was just — it was so stunning when that team defeated this, you know, juggernaut. That’s the best way to describe Soviet hockey in the 1970s and 1980s. And it was a professional juggernaut, we could call it that.


Eliza: And you got to experience that yourself, right? You talked about listening to the radio broadcast with your father?


Berglund: Yes, yes, so when I used to teach courses in sports history — and I've done lectures, you know, on sports history — I typically find a way to work that in. Actually, this would be something I'd pose to your listeners out there: what is your most dearly held sports memory? Watching a game in person, or watching a game on television, it might be that your favorite team won, right? So, you remember it fondly because it was a big win by your favorite team. And that was the case with me, listening to the US beat the Soviets in 1980, but it’s also the case that our favorite sports memories are usually caught up with who we were with when we experienced then, and I have fond memories of sitting with my dad in the kitchen in this winter evening in February, listening to this game, both of us in disbelief that the Americans could actually win this game. However many years later, I still treasure that.


Eliza: That's a lovely story. Thank you. And that’s a great question, too — what’s our personal big sports memory? So, I understand that the 2022 NHL season is starting pretty soon, is it not?


Berglund: Correct. Yes. Yeah.


Eliza: Before I read this book, the extent of my hockey watching experience was walking by the TV, because my dad is an avid hockey viewer, and I was wondering if you had any recommendations for me, for the listener. Who should we be watching this season? What do you think?


Berglund: Oh, good grief.

Eliza: I thought it would be a softball!


Berglund: Ah, well, I would like to say first, in having you just confess that you are not a hockey fan, that you're not interested, I really appreciate the kind words you've had for my book, the fact that you read it, because that's what I tried to do with this book. I tried to write a work on hockey, and a work on sports history, that people who are not hockey fans, and people who are not even sports fans, will read, enjoy, and get something out of. I have a friend who read the book, and she said, you know, “I got it for the hockey, but it ended up being just a great history book,” and so that's what I hoped to get across in terms of reading. In terms of, you know, who your listeners should support, of course they should support the Minnesota Wild, because that is my team and by rights, the state of Minnesota, at some point, needs to have the Stanley Cup here.


Last year — you know, the NHL has these outdoor games — and last year the game was held in Minneapolis at the baseball stadium outside. I think it was 20 below, and it was just the most, one of the most remarkable Minnesota experiences, right? All of these people all bundled up outside to watch a hockey game?


Eliza: You know I'm recording this from Texas, right? I cannot process the concept of 20 degrees below zero.


Berglund: You know, the Wild was playing Saint Louis, and there were a lot of fans who came up from Saint Louis who clearly did not get the memo about how to properly dress for a game at 20 below zero.


Eliza: In reading your book, I was really interested in some of the names that you mentioned. I know you talked about Anatoly Tarasov, who tried very hard to present himself as one of the most influential people in the development of hockey — now, not to challenge Tarasov’s influence, but I was wondering, after all your research, who do you think is the most influential person in the development of hockey?


Berglund: Yeah, that's a terrific question. Something I write about in the book is Tarasov’s role — so, he was the coach of the Soviet national team in their great years, the 1960s and 1970s, and he really built his own reputation in his memoirs, but he kind of downplayed his rivals and his colleagues and took a lot of credit for building Soviet hockey — so, what I write about in the book is that we can’t necessarily call Tarasov the “father” of Russian, or Soviet, hockey, as he’s usually termed, but he is indeed the most influential person in hockey history in terms of what he brought to the sport, particularly in terms of player development, and as I talked about earlier, this year-round program of off-ice training and conditioning and weight training. This was something that was really, more than anyone, his idea, and this is universal in hockey today. More than that, this is universal in sports today, right? The idea that to be an athlete, even a youth athlete, is a year round demand. You know, that you need to train in your sport in the off season. So this is something that comes from the Soviets and, in particular, comes from Tarasov.

Eliza: Dr. Berglund, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure, and there’s so much of your book we didn’t even get into.


Berglund: Yeah, Eliza, that’s something I appreciate — so, I’ve done a number of podcasts, I’ve done radio interviews, and each interview, you know, somebody picks out a different part. So, I know I did my job well, in that someone like you, who’s not a fan, has enjoyed the book, and in that people can find different, you know, whether it’s Soviet hockey, or Swedish hockey, or hockey in the United States, or women’s hockey, people have found different pieces that resonated with them.


Eliza: I just want to say again, the book was absolutely captivating. I loved reading it, I would highly recommend it to anyone. Yes, it's a book about sports, and I have enough experience with team sports that it did tug on those heartstrings for me, but I think even if I didn't, I would recommend it to anybody.


Berglund: Thank you. I appreciate that.

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