Lloyd Percival’s ‘hockey bible’ was instrumental to the Soviet training that stunned Team Canada
By Darryl Webster
On Sept. 2, 1972, Canadians were stunned when the Soviet Union defeated Team Canada 7-3 in Game 1 of the Summit Series on hallowed Montreal Forum ice. The story is told in Summit 72, a four-part documentary series.
A Canadian hockey visionary named Lloyd Percival was one of the few who saw the defeat coming. He knew how good the Soviet team was — and why.
Growing up in Toronto in the 1920s, Percival excelled at cricket, tennis, boxing and, of course, hockey. A head coach at just 18 years old, Percival led Toronto’s National Sea Fleas midget team to an undefeated season in 1932. He travelled extensively throughout the United States and Great Britain, seeking all the coaching wisdom and fitness instruction he could garner from professionals outside of Canada. By 1944, Percival had a hit CBC radio program called Sports College, where he’d share what he’d learned with his fellow Canadians. The success of the radio program led him to write two very important books: How to Play Better Hockey, and Percival’s most famous work, The Hockey Handbook.
Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was focused on finding success at the highest level of international sport, believing that if the world saw they had the best athletes, it would prove their way of life was superior to the West’s. One of the main sports the Soviet Union targeted was hockey. Their cold climate and a popular game called bandy — which resembles hockey, but with soccer nets and field hockey sticks — meant there was an existing foundation they could build on.
Tasked with building the hockey program was Anatoly Tarasov, a man who would become known as the “father of Russian hockey.” Tarasov was just as passionate a student as he was a teacher, reading any literature on sport and fitness he could find, including The Hockey Handbook, which he reportedly referred to as “the hockey bible.”
We can never know exactly how much Percival’s instructional book influenced Tarasov and Russian hockey, but there were many striking similarities between the two men’s approaches. Percival believed that hate and anger had no place in hockey and would detract from the player’s skill. “The best competitive attitude is a cheerful, ‘happy warrior’ who tries his best, plays with full abandon,” he wrote.
Tarasov seems to have translated that into his own coaching style. Early black-and-white Soviet film shows him shouting playfully at his young players, “Where’s the smile? You’re playing hockey!”
But it wasn’t just player attitude, Percival was also a visionary about conditioning. As early as the 1950s, he had the audacity to suggest athletes consume light pre-game meals, such as fruit and yogurt, instead of the traditional steak and potatoes still popular in 1972. The fitness maverick was even so bold as to suggest that smoking was bad for you. Rather than explore Percival’s method, the Canadians are said to have mocked the Soviets for things such as drinking mineral water and getting up at 6 a.m. to run around their hotel.
By August of 1972, when training camps opened for the team of Canadian NHLers, the Soviets were miles ahead. They’d even begun practising on eastern standard time one month before flying to Montreal.
The Soviets adopted an inventive style of play with a heavy emphasis on passing — shooting only if you had a good chance to score. They played as five-man units, circling back to regroup, which left Canadian players, coaches, fans and media mystified. All but Percival, that is. He recognized their style as it closely resembled his own teachings in both How to Play Better Hockey and The Hockey Handbook.
After the Game 1 loss in Montreal, it was clear that Canada’s tactics needed to evolve. By Game 6 in Moscow, Canada’s head coach Harry Sinden had already begun to adapt his team’s play against the attacking Soviets.
“Harry improvised the last three games, he changed the whole style that we played in North America and went to a different zone thing,” said 1972 Team Canada defenceman Dale Tallon in the Summit 72 documentary series. “Instead of the wingers checking the D, he brought the two wingers down and had the centreman up high because we couldn’t control them on the big ice down low when they out-manned us. It was Harry who came up with that solution and it really worked.”
Less than two months earlier, Sinden had replied to Percival’s offer to help with, “leave it to the pros.” But Sinden deserves credit for recognizing the pros needed new tactics. Twenty-six days after a stunning home defeat, Team Canada pulled out a miraculous win in Moscow with just 34 seconds remaining on the clock. But it would be decades before Canadian sport caught on to Percival’s renegade ideas about fitness testing and nutrition, many of which are now standard practice across all sports.
In the Cold War years, while many nations focused inward, trying to best their opponents, Percival and Tarasov stood apart because they dared to look outward, to keep learning from what the world could teach them. In the Canadian’s writings and in the Russian’s coaching, we see open minds and an insatiable curiosity about how to play a better game of hockey, with lessons that would benefit generations of players to come.