ICE AND FLAME
Jacob Smushkin, a trainer of figure skating and hockey, a Ph.D, an author of six books, the founder and the head of a network of Children Schools of Hockey in the USA, Canada and Sweden, and in the past - the scientific and technical consultant to the Soviet Skating Federation and Vice-President of the Federation's Sport Technical Committee is now marking by celebration the sixtieth anniversary of his career.
When describing a person marking sixty years of work, our imagination draws us a picture of a quiet and measured old age: a cozy house, an armchair facing the TV, a game of bridge in the company of friends of the same age, a local senior's party or, to be more exact, an ordinary set of stereotypes.
Jacob Smushkin, the hero of our sketch, hated stereotypes all of his life. He spent his life destroying them, constantly surprising those around him. And that is exactly why, now, in the days approaching his anniversary, there will be no armchair in front of the TV, no bridge and no retirement club party. Instead, there will be a story about tremendous cheerfulness, never-ending energy and a secret of eternal youth, in which Jacob, however, sees nothing supernatural.
A entry made in his record of employment, which turned yellow since, dated the year of 1947 states: "... Jacob Smushkin is taken on as the senior trainer of figure skating..."- at that time he was only 16. Shortly before that he won a prize at the All-Union Championship of figure skaters.
- You may say I got into figure skating by chance. Because of an infatuation. One time I was skating on coarse running skates through Gorky Park. There was a skating rink in the middle of the park, where a brass band was playing, and the skaters were skating to the music. I remember hearing a waltz of an extraordinary beauty and skated closer to listen to it. Suddenly I noticed Her. She was skating on the ice with such grace, and performed breathtaking pirouettes so nicely that is made me stand for an entire hour watching her, unable to move, and unable to take my eyes off of her. There are no words to describe how much I liked her. But there was no way for me to get into the rink. To get inside you had to have figure skates and money for a ticket. And I, unfortunately, had neither.
I borrowed the skates from one of my neighbors, they were too big but I had no choice. I stuffed them with newspapers and by hook and by crook borrowed enough money to buy a ticket and get into the rink. When I arrived there, the figure skater girl was there again. I was looking at her without taking my eyes off, constantly trying to imitate every move she made. She jumped – I jumped. She performed a step, and so did I. No doubt she was a lot more successful in it than I was, but I did not give up. A week passed, and then another and I didn't even know her name. Until this one time when I unsuccessfully imitated her move, fell down and passed out. When I opened my eyes, she, my beautiful stranger, was sitting beside me. Happened to be that when the paramedics asked around if anybody knows me, she said she did.
This girl became my first figure skating partner and later we took 2nd place in the USSR Junior Championship of Figure Skating. Naturally, our friendship evolved beyond sports, but this is a whole different story…
The ice gave Jacob what every person could dream of: a beloved profession, unlimited creative freedom and the chance to self realization. For him, ice is a unique sort of matter, a space between the earth and sky, where, it seems, that even the law of gravity obeys his will.
- When I arrived at the ice, I immediately felt that this was my element. There is so much room for creativity here, it is simply incredible. The only laws that apply here are the laws of nature. Rhythm, balance, inspiration, flight of fancy… and no politics, no games, intrigues, deceits. In the restless 50's and 60's it was particularly working on ice that helped me survive. I saw that "the system's hand" simply didn't reach here. Nobody cared about who you were, the most important part was that your students won prizes and became champions, nobody cared how they became champions. If this was the case, I thought, that the ice would protect me and save me. Save me from sports-related officials, help me not to get bogged down in the bureaucratic fog and allow me to remain who I am – a free artist and a creator.
It was training kids that made me realize that I was gaining something a lot more important than mere professional mastery. I invested a part of my own soul into each one of my students, and in return I received a tremendous charge of vital energy. A sort of "virtual exchange" occurred. After all, it is a real miracle to be able to invent a new combination, visualize it in your brain and see it come alive by your students. Right in front of your eyes, an ethereal idea, a thought, becomes reality. Isn't it magic?
In its time, many renowned figure skating masters such as: Irina Rodina, Aleksander Gorshkov, Valeriy Meshkov, Sergey Chetverukhin, Georgiy Proskurin, Galina Sedova and Lyudmila Belousova, studied with Jacob Smushkin. The career of this successful trainer was very promising; however, in 1970 a single event changed the course of our hero's life forever. Quite unexpectedly, relatives which he was not aware of, arrived in Moscow from the USA. They were looking for family members who remained in the USSR after the revolution. It was shortly after their departure that problems begun. "Comrade Smushkin" was removed from his role as the scientific consultant of the Soviet Skating Federation, and lost the right to leave the country. Those who remember the situation in the USSR at that time know what it meant for a Soviet person to have relatives abroad. Jacob felt that a barrier of estrangement was building around him. He was very well aware how this play was going to end. He made a personally difficult decision to emigrate from the USSR.
- I came here, to the West, when I was 43 years old. My first wife, with which I lived together for 14 years, refused to leave the USSR. Her decision caused a big inner trauma and taught me the cold fact of life that those you love don't always love you back. I realized that in order for me to achieve success and prosperity here, in North America, I had to make my professional interest a first priority and leave the rest for later.
In North America, I switched to teaching Hockey because the system of teaching figure skating was already monopolized by the proper federation. In other words, you are told how to teach, how much to teach, what you can and cannot do. I realized that this was not for me. I am that type of a plane that is not going to take off on their short runway.
While watching hockey trainings, I noticed one weak link in their training system. Traditional hockey players where taught the muscle methods: speed, strength and force – those qualities received primary importance. But what if we take a hockey player and add the lightness and elegance of a figure skater to his strengths? I started teaching hockey players the techniques of figure skating. And I was back on the horse! The reason being was that my work produced results, if there were not results I would have simply gone broke. Nobody cared about what skates I used for training or what accent I had. They simply cared about how well the student was playing after my trainings. So they came back in bunches and brought many more with them.
Twenty three (23!) of Jacob's former students have played or are now playing in the NHL. Not many trainers can take pride in such accomplishments. After developing his own unique system of training young athletes, Jacob used it for more than 30 years and is using it until this day. First, The Hockey School of Dr. Smushkin opened in Boston, then in Toronto and recently in Stockholm .
- The most important thing in my method of teaching is that I do not force my personal experience on my students. My students do not care what I could or could not do at their age; all we care about is the importance of helping them develop their own potential. I teach them accuracy and precision, which used to be solely the prerogative of figure skaters. I teach them to think, because modern hockey demands speed of thought as well as speed of action. I teach them harmony and rhythm, because the movement on the ice is subject to those exact laws. And it gives me great joy to see how simple pawns become mighty warriors.
I work without a mask. I am who I am. If it is necessary, I can become quite upset during trainings. But neither do my students nor their parents resent me for it, on the contrary, they appreciate my directness and absence of falseness.
Now, after many years, I can honestly say that yes, I am happy! Happy because people trust me with the most precious thing they have – their children. I am happy because I am in demand. Happy because I feel like I am a pioneer, an innovator. Happy because never in my life did I move aside from the path God has chosen for me. And for a complete happiness, all there is left to do is to finally settle down in my personal life.
There are two real passions in Jacob's life: work and women, and he had plenty of both. There was enough women, numerous affairs, however…
- Unfortunately, I have never had children of my own. But now I feel it is the time to have an heir or an heiress. Goethe, in his declining years, did? Chaplin did? Why not Jacob Smushkin?
76 is nothing but a number. One's life is not measured by what's written in one's passport, but by the state of his soul. Jacob came up with an aphorism once: "Man's age is the age of his woman". And to the amazement of all, if to judge by his own saying, today Jacob is a 23 year old that spent 60 years of his life doing the work he loves.
- I found the secret fountain of youth. You can slow down the physical process of getting old, but you can not stop it. What you can preserve, is the youth of your spirit and mind until your last breath. This is what keeps me here, on this earth. As well as an interest for life. I love every day I live, every minute I live. And today, I am not working for the money. I am working in order to become younger. Retire and rest passively? That's not for me. We will rest when we're dead, but, while we are still breathing – we have to continue to move forward.
By Eugene LEF,
Mercury Advertising Agency