"Nothing Has Been Forgotten"
What role does a city's history play in the DNA of a team? Each year, SKA wears the heart of Saint Petersburg on its sleeve. Literally.
The other day, I sent the following clip to Lou Vairo—coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, unsung hero of the 1980 Miracle, and a beloved friend of Anatoly Tarasov. It was a particularly pretty, Sovietesque sequence that led to Mikhail Vorobyov’s playoff-spot clincher.
“This is correct hockey,” Vairo replied, which I consider the height of praise from a discerning mind. “This was common with every Soviet team. Puck control, high tempo with great hockey sense and skill. Superb physical training year-round. Happy to see this. It has been lost.”
He added some advice, for good measure:
"Play hockey with your DNA. Never copy others. Steal some ideas and characteristics, but never copy. Tarasov told me to copy is to be second-best. There is only one Mona Lisa.”
Tarasov told me. Sigh. That never gets old.
The comment on DNA really got me thinking. What does that concept even mean in a sport where nothing ever seems to stay the same?
Hockey teams are dynamic entities. To refer to a team as a static concept is rather funny given the transience of a roster and coaching staff. The likelihood that April’s starters will convene in October is slim. And yet somehow, despite a revolving door of personalities, teams maintain strands of commonality and identity across generations. You could even say, in some cases, that playing styles linger for years after the coaches who implemented them are gone.
Maintaining both the tangibles and intangibles of a hockey organization—particularly those elusive hallmarks of success—is a Sisyphean task. You are constantly in a state of orientation, stitching new nameplates and teaching systems as they evolve. If the club is sound and generous, perhaps your staff displays less turnover than your roster—and unknown names to fans become imperative flag-bearers of culture.
With several, notable caveats,* a team’s city is usually one constant in a riptide of change. The relationship between a team and its home can become very telling—whether it is one of antagonism or mutual respect. The extent to which a city’s history embeds itself in the genetic code of a club is rather intriguing. This brings me to an exchange that took place after our last game between a local journalist and our head coach:
This year, the army team did not play in January in their Leningrad jerseys. Will this tradition continue in future seasons?
Roman Rotenberg: We will definitely keep this tradition. Moreover, we expect that this season we will still be able to play in Leningrad jerseys. Everything will depend on the schedule of matches [in light of the COVID pause]. This is a great tradition, and as a native of Saint Petersburg, I perfectly understand what the blockade means for our city. This is our heritage; this is what we build the philosophy of the club upon. Even players from other cities understand the significance of the blockade for Saint Petersburg.
“This is our heritage; this is what we build the philosophy of the club upon.”
Let’s talk about that for a minute.
The Siege of Leningrad—referred to above as the blockade—was the largest loss of life ever recorded in a modern city. Over 1 million** soldiers and civilians died in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), with as many as 1.4 million people—swaths of women and children—evacuated, many of whom died of starvation and open warfare.
The extent of the bloodshed and its graphic nature are mortifying. Innocents were bombarded to death on their desperate escape routes. Mass starvation resulted in thousands of arrests for cannibalism. Food was rationed based on your relative importance to the city’s defense, and soon everything from wallpaper to makeup was consumed. Disease quickly spread against the relentless shelling of the city, residents forced to the frozen Neva for drinking water. Dead bodies were strewn in the streets.
Eleven-year-old Tania Savicheva summarized the experience this way in her tattered diary: “Zheniya died on December 28 at midnight. Grandma died on January 25 at three in the afternoon. Leka died on March 5 at five in the morning. The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Tania is all alone.”
Although Tania was evacuated, she ultimately did not survive. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Petersburg native, was also touched by the siege. His brother Viktor passed away at the age of two during the blockade from diphtheria.
The Germans attempted to strangle Leningrad into surrender for 872 days, cutting off every line of transport save one barely viable route over Lake Ladoga, under constant threat of fire. Hitler viewed the city as much of a symbolic conquest as a strategic one. Could he make Peter the Great’s triumph on the Baltic—that glittering “window to the West”—fall to her knees?
Despite deplorable conditions and mass exodus, Leningrad did not fall. In January of 1943, Soviet forces began to penetrate the German chokehold on the city. It took until January 27, 1944, however, to drive enemy forces from the edges of the metropolitan area.
Leningrad was devastated, but she was free.
Each January, SKA sports heritage Leningrad jerseys—a favorite among fans—to commemorate the fallen and to honor the survivors. The ribbon of Saint George, striped orange and black, often features prominently on the front, a popular symbol of awareness for the Eastern Front veterans of World War II.
“Many of those who in 1946 stood at the origins of the creation of our club, defended Leningrad with weapons in their hands,” Rotenberg told reporters in 2014, when the jersey commemorated the blockade’s 70th anniversary. “On January 27th, Petersburgers celebrate an important date, and we could not stay away. Realizing that there is no future without the past, we want to once again pay tribute to the heroes who defended our city.”
[Soviet defenseman Nikolay Sologubov, a veteran of CSKA, is one example of a hockey player who fought to save Leningrad. I wrote about his story in August. But countless others who represented SKA participated courageously in defense of their city, including Nikolay Arakcheev, Dmitry Boginov and Valentin Bystrov. I’ll share their stories too, if you’d like.]
The tradition of the Leningrad jersey has remained ever since, with heroes of the siege invited to those January games to be honored by the club and its fanbase. They are always greeted with an endless, chill-inducing, standing ovation (video above). The players often present red carnations as survivors offer the ceremonial puck drop.
Due to the Olympic break, SKA will not play on or near the anniversary of Leningrad’s liberation. The fact that this point was still raised reinforces how fundamental the blockade is to the history of the city, and the expectation that SKA—as an emblem of Saint Petersburg—will honor that memory.
Soviet poet Olga Bergholz wrote the following lines for the cemetery where nearly 500,000 of the blockade’s victims are buried:
Here lie Leningraders.
Here lie citizens—men, women, children.
Next to them are Red Army soldiers.
With their very lives
they defended you, Leningrad,
cradle of the revolution.
We cannot recount their noble names here—
so many rest under the eternal protection of this granite.
But you who fix your attention on these stones, know this:
nobody, nothing has been forgotten.
That final, chilling line was written on a sign in the Ice Palace on a night that SKA honored the victims of the siege.
This heritage upon which the team’s philosophy was built, according to Rotenberg—one I interpret to signify resilience, belief in community, reverence for all that came before—might even be present in the way we play. It’s hard to crystallize the DNA of a team, but I would like to think that the spirit of Saint Petersburg, the jewel that rose again, infuses us with hope and courage. We are indebted to another generation for the privilege of simply being here, and slated to honor tradition.
I am reminded of one of Tarasov’s most famous quotes, which encapsulates how the Soviet experience influenced his brand of hockey:
In our Soviet hockey, the player possessing the puck is the servant of his teammates. Always, in any situation. Why? Above all, because this principle corresponds most fully to the idea of a collective game, to the way of life that has developed in our country.
SKA wears our city’s heart on its sleeve each January, but I would argue that the connection goes far beyond a month, a jersey, or a game. Deep in the fabric of our DNA—even as rosters change and the city evolves—nothing has been forgotten.
* If you haven’t seen the linked 30 for 30, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The Band That Wouldn’t Die—"In late March of 1984, a moving company secretly packed up the Baltimore Colts' belongings and its fleet of vans sneaked off in the darkness of the early morning. Through the eyes of members of the Colts Marching Band, Barry Levinson illustrates how a fan base copes with losing the team that it loves.”
** Casualty numbers from the Siege of Leningrad are still debated due to incomplete record keeping. Soviet figures are widely considered to be underestimated.