It’s hockey, it’s ice, but it’s not ice hockey. Welcome to one of Russia’s oldest yet least known sports at this week’s World Championship in
One of the most ancient and traditional Russian sports – bandy – takes center stage in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk this week with the start of the 35th World Championship.
The sport, which most closely resembles field hockey on ice, is said to have originated among the monks medieval Russia. As the rivers next to their monasteries froze, legend has it, the holy men took to the ice with sticks and a ball. Peter the Great was said to be an enthusiast, with the waterways of St. Petersburg offering a natural winter arena for the game, and the USSR was the driving force behind the establishment of a World Championship and an internationally agreed set of rules in the 1950s. Since then the USSR won 14 gold medals – including an unbroken winning streak from the first contest in 1957 through to Sweden’s success in Khabarovsk in 1981 – with post-Soviet Russia adding a further eight and going for a hat-trick of wins this time after winning last year’s final against the Swedes. Not surprisingly, then, fans refer to the game as ‘Russian Hockey’.
To the uninitiated there can seem little difference between bandy and ice hockey. After all, both are team sports played on ice and both involve skating around with sticks trying to direct an object into a goal. But there are several crucial factors that place bandy closer to field hockey and soccer rather than its winter cousin. First, the playing area is much larger – closer to a football field than a hockey rink – and as a result there’s room to play 11-a-side on a field bounded by a low board that, unlike the boards on a hockey rinks, isn’t fixed. The goal lines represent the end of the playing area, so it’s impossible to go behind the net but it’s common to see attacks launched from set piece corners. It’s a limited-contact sport: there’s no checking allowed, and little scope for physical power to give players an advantage. By contrast, speed is the key physical attribute – the players wear long-bladed skates more like speed-skating gear than hockey books. Using a ball that rolls true at all times, rather than a puck that can bounce unpredictably depending on whether it lands flat or on its edge, also affects the dynamics of the game.
All this has an impact on tactics. With little scope to bounce the ball off the edges of the playing area and no way of simply barrelling over opponents, passing needs to be accurate and there are greater opportunities for players to demonstrate skilful stickwork. Games between well-matched teams can combine the fast-paced, end-to-end action of ice hockey with the sophisticated passing game of a leading soccer team.
The differences between bandy and ice hockey have also helped to inform the clash of styles between Russia and North America in the small-sides game. Ice hockey in the western sense only came to the USSR after the war: Dynamo Moscow set up the first team in 1946 as Soviet sports chiefs looked for a way to take on the west in a game that, unlike bandy, was part of the Olympic movement. But the spirit of bandy, with limited contact, an emphasis on accurate passing and individual flair and no option of ‘dump-and-chase’ play down the boards left a deep legacy on how the six-a-side game was played over here. The ‘tic-tac-toe’ passing game with which the Soviets bamboozled the hockey world, and the solo flair that characterizes the best Russian players in today’s NHL both have roots that can be traced back to the mass conversion of bandy stars to hockey players after World War II.
An unfortunate side-effect of that conversion was the loss of interest in bandy across Russia. The start of the World Championship on March 29 is overshadowed by the on-going KHL play-offs. Attendances in the Russian Superleague, won last week by Yenisei Krasnoyarsk, rarely reach the numbers seen at hockey games – partly because many teams still play outside in often painfully frosty conditions, but also because media attention is often elsewhere. Russia’s big games at the 10,000-seater Yerofey Arena in Khabarovsk may well get close to a sell-out crowd, especially when the old rivalry with Sweden is renewed, but it’s hard to imagine more than a few hundred fans arriving at many of the group stage games. A long-term lift might arrive in 2022 if the Winter Olympics goes to Kazakhstan and the hosts make bandy a demonstration sport for the first time since 1952, but for now it remains a niche interest.
And that, for many Russophiles, is perhaps part of its charm. A game that is highly watchable, defiantly obscure and tied up with a set of local rituals and traditions is a far cry from the slick sporting entertainments that dominate so much of the modern mainstream.