Sochi Olympics: Before there was detente, there was Fred Shero and a fascination with winning hockey

SOCHI, Russia — Fred Shero would tell his son all the stories, of the extraordinary skill of the players in the Soviet Union, of their finesse and diligence in becoming the most dominant hockey powerhouse the planet had seen.

It was the 1970s. Fred was the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, and little Ray Shero was happy to follow his father everywhere. At the rink, in his office, on the car rides home, he soaked up Fred’s passion for the game, and that meant learning about the Soviets.

Which was kind of crazy, looking back. This was not a period of our nation’s history, in hockey or otherwise, when openness with the Soviet Union was common. But there was Fred Shero, traveling to the Soviet Union for extended stays, one time for a three-week symposium. The man was captivated. How were they doing it? He won the Stanley Cup in 1974, so he could have easily been convinced he had it all figured out, yet he couldn’t stay away from the Soviet Union. Then he won the Cup again in 1975.

“Back then, no one exchanged ideas,” Ray says. “For him back in ’74 to go over to learn from the Russians, to share information, I think that was great. There was a mystique around them, you know? You’d only see them when playing in the Olympics, and they win all these gold medals. The Red Army was fascinating and intriguing stuff back then.”

Ray lost his father too early, to stomach cancer at age 65. And as he has walked the grounds of Sochi’s Olympic Park and reveled in the experience of being Team USA’s acting general manager for this tournament, Ray, who has been the general manager for the Penguins since 2006, has often thought of Fred.

Memories of his father were already fresh in his mind after Shero gave an eight-minute speech when Fred was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November. But being in a country that his father loved so much, with a titanic clash set for today between the Americans and the Russians in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the reminders have been ever-present.

Like when Ray ran into famous Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, now the head of the Russian Hockey Federation, earlier this week and had a conversation with him. Tretiak was the goalie on the Soviet team that fell to the group of American college players in 1980 in the “Miracle on Ice.” Fred would have eaten that up.

“Anytime your child is involved in something, whether it’s a school play or a sporting event, I think you’re proud of them,” Ray says. “And I just think the camaraderie of being a part of something like this, it’s special. For him, it was about the team. When he coached the Flyers in particular, it was about the team. Every day there’s something special here, something going on in the village, or the locker room. It’s a great experience. I think he’d be real happy I was here.”

The Shero family’s connection to Russia is deep and mysterious. Fred’s parents grew up in Russia but moved to Winnipeg, Canada, in the years after the October Revolution of 1917. Fred, who was born in 1925, told Ray that they left to escape religious persecution. Both of his Russian grandparents died before Ray was born, so he does not know much, only the few things his father relayed.

Ray is of Russian descent, but has never identified as that. His mother’s parents were French Canadian, and his father was a Canadian, and Ray was born in the United States.

“That’s who I am,” Ray says proudly.

That said, Ray appears to know more about Russian hockey history, at least post-1970, than most Americans. He can tell you about the 1972 Canada-USSR series, when eight games were played between a team of Canada’s best NHL players and the Soviet Union’s finest (the Canadians took the series 4-3-1), and the 1979 Challenge Cup, when a three-game series pitted the Soviets against another NHL All-Star team (the Soviets took this series, 2-1, winning the deciding game by a score of 6-0).

The Soviets at that time just played differently than North Americans. They were graceful, possessing the puck for long periods of time, much more fluid than the dump-the-puck-and-chase style of the NHL.

“Russia has made us better, has made Canada better, has made hockey better in general,” Ray says.

Having that respect for the Russians at a young age, you can imagine how Ray felt watching the 1980 Team USA-USSR game in Lake Placid from prep school. He knew full well that the NHL’s best hadn’t been able to beat the Soviets, and now a bunch of college kids were doing it?

“Al Michaels could not have summed it up better with ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ ” Ray says. “That was absolutely, positively a miracle. That’s what made it so special. Because the Russians were that good. It was just an incredible thing, and it still is so many years later.”

So much time has passed, enough time for Ray Shero to work his way up to general manager of the Penguins and win a Stanley Cup, and to help put together this group of Americans that should challenge for gold. Shero, Team USA’s associate general manager under David Poile, took over as acting general manager because Poile was hit with a puck in the face at a practice and had to stay stateside.

The players on this team, all of whom had not been born when “Miracle on Ice” happened, will not feel the same kind of goose bumps today as Shero. And certainly, his father would have felt it, too.

J. Brady McCollough: and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 14, 2014 11:40 PM

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