Juggernauts on Ice

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Playing hockey in Russia on a national level was greatly intertwined in politics and propaganda.

Compared to the Western nations of Canada and the United States, the Soviet Union was a late bloomer when it came to hockey. While the North Americans started playing hockey as we know it in the late 19th century, the Soviets didn’t really start playing ice hockey until the 1930’s, and the sport wasn’t nationalized until after WW2 (although they played a sport called “Bandy”, sort of field hockey on ice, since the 1890’s). However, when the Soviets did start, they blew up the world stage. The legacy of Soviet hockey can still be felt today. From the 1950’s until the collapse of the Union, the Soviets won nearly every international competition they played in, earning an overall record of 738-110-65 in international play. While the Soviets didn’t win every single game, they seemed to win the ones that counted. The question that was often asked wasn’t “Who will the championship?” but rather ,”Who will the Soviets beat to win the championship?”

Firsov
Anatoli Firsov. Considered one of the greatest hockey players ever and one of the reasons why the Soviets dominated the sport during the 1960’s.

The 1960’s seemed to be a golden age for the Soviet Union. They started the decade off by beating the United States and putting the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. They also dominated on the ice. Starting in 1963 and going all the way until 1976, the Soviet National Hockey team won every World Championship and Olympic Gold Medal. For Russians, hockey wasn’t a sport. It was a way of life, and a source of national pride. Not to mention, playing hockey was a method to spread the ways of communism like a form of religion. The Soviets even claimed that the CIA was sabotaging their attempts to foster better relations with the Canadians over their shared love of hockey (Although it is hard to tell how truthful these claims were due to propagandist tones).

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The СССР 1976 Olympic hockey team with their gold medals. This had been a common sight for the world to see for more than a decade.

Officially, no professional athletes were allowed to participate in the Olympics. However, the Soviets blurred the lines between amateur and professional athletes. Even though the elite hockey league in the Soviet Union, called the Soviet Championship League, had talent comparable to the NHL, it was technically an amateur league because players were required to be part of the armed forces and got payed for their military service rather than playing hockey.

From an American perspective, the most memorable moment in Cold War sports was the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic hockey game between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. The world regarded the Soviet hockey team as second to none, and the American hockey team was fielded by college athletes, who of course didn’t have any professional experience. In short, it was a game that the U.S. was not supposed to win. Vladislav Tretiak, the starting goal tender for the Soviet team, was also considered to be the best at his position in the entire world. However, he had an uncharacteristically weak performance in the first period, allowing the game to remain tied at 2 goals a-piece. The Russian coach, Viktor Tikhonov replaced Tretiak with the back-up goalie, Vladimir Myshkin. Tretiak argued that the U.S.S.R. would have beaten the Americans as he would have stopped the shots that got by Myshkin. It is interesting to note that many people don’t even recall the gold medal game (which the U.S. won). The “Miracle on Ice” was the game to get into the gold medal game.

Starting in 1976, exhibition games between NHL teams and Soviet league hockey teams took place in what is known as the Super Series. Since the games took place in the United States, it was another chance for the Soviets to show off their skills. While most of the North American fans loved to hate the Soviet players, a lot of them started to wonder if they would ever see them play in the NHL. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they got their chance.

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L to R: Sergei Federov, Pavel Bure, and Alexander Mogilny. These were the first among Russian players to play for the NHL.

In the post Cold War world of hockey, many players from the former Soviet Republics migrated to the NHL in search of higher pay, fame and the chance to play in the world’s most competitive hockey league. Some players even managed to “defect” before the collapse, most notably Jaromir Jágr from Czechoslovakia who was drafted in 1990 by the Pittsburgh Penguins (He would help the team win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992).

Evgeni Malkin, Michal Neuvirth
Two of the top Russian players in the NHL today. Left to Right: Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

In the years immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian hockey suffered as far as level of competitiveness as the top Russian players left to play in the NHL. However the creation of Russia’s newest league in 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League, abbreviated as KHL (In Russian: Континентальная хоккейная лига КХЛ) has created a league that is similar in talent and size to the NHL. While the NHL attracts many Russian players, the KHL also attracts many non-Russian players. Some Russian players who have traditionally played in the NHL have gone back to the KHL, most notably top tier player Ilya Kovalchuk.

NHL: Florida Panthers at New Jersey Devils
Left: Ilya Kovalchuk when he played for the New Jersey Devils of the NHL. Right: Kovalchuk playing for СКА Saint Petersburg “Soldiers” of the KHL.

The KHL also gives tribute to its Soviet heritage by naming the league’s champion trophy the Gargarin Cup (After Yuri Gagarin, of course). KHL Commissioner Alexander Medvedev stated that the cup was named after Gagarin because even today, Gagarin is a household name among Russians and he represents achieving great accomplishments.

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Metallurg Magnitogorsk won the Gagarin Cup in 2014.

Even with the Cold War over, politics still plays a role in KHL-NHL relations. There are some who see the KHL as a direct threat in the talent pool to the NHL. There has not been an exhibition game between the KHL and NHL since 2010 (The Phoenix Coyotes beat Dinamo Riga 3-1 in Riga, Latvia), and the powers-that-be at KHL seem to want nothing to do with the NHL. While it is understandable that the KHL would want their league to seem like the best alternative to the NHL, especially among Russian players, perhaps they should take a page out of the Soviet’s playbook and demonstrate their competitive edge on the world stage. One can hope that competition between hockey players around the world will foster better ties among their respective countries.

Suggested viewing: Be on the lookout for “Red Army”, a documentary scheduled to be released January, 2015. It is about the life of the Soviet Red Army hockey players.

Citations and links (in order of appearance):

“First Commandment of a Soviet Athlete.” The Current Digest of the Russian Press 15.5 (1963): 31. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

Lyakhov, V. “With Prompting from the C.I.A.” The Current Digest of the Russian Press 17.52 (1966): 23-24. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

Super Series 1985-86 Edmonton Oilers vs. Central Red Army. Edmonton, Alberta, 1985. Television.

Campbell, Ken. “All-star Rosters Show KHL Is No Threat to NHL.” PosttoPost. N.p., 29 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

 

A. Nelson

What a cool post. The synergy between hockey’s growing popularity in the Soviet Union and the political dynamics of the Cold War is so interesting. I’m just curious as to why you didn’t talk about the 1980 Olympics and the “miracle on ice”? The article you cite about the “First Commandment of the Soviet Athlete” is wonderful – a great example of how unsportsmanlike behavior could be condemned as “bourgeois.”

jslattery

I purposely avoided the 1980 Lake Placid upset, because that is the only thing Americans really know when it comes to Russian hockey. I’m not trying to take away from the sheer awe and the significance of that game, but from a Russian standpoint, it was better known as just another Friday. I also wanted to point out that Russian politics plays a role today with the KHL trying to swoon its native players to play in Eurasia rather than the NHL.

jslattery

Due to popular demand, I decided to talk about the 1980 Lake Placid game between US and USSR.

A. Nelson

Wonderful — Thanks! I think you contextualized the “miracle on ice” really well, and including it enhances the main interpretive line of your post.

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