Welcome to the USSR

Bruce Bennett

The incredibly brief and somewhat confusing history of hockey in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The Russians are a feared opponent by all teams. They are chock full of offensive weapons but even when they played as the Soviet Union the Russians struggled to win a best on best tournament. Through the book The Greatest Game by Todd Denault and my research for a paper last year, this is the story of the rise, fall, and mythical nature of the Russian hockey program.

Background

Russian hockey lore will always be tied on with the hockey lore of the Soviet Union hockey program. The Soviet Union had many struggles in it's early days. The country was rather unstable and it was not until 1946, with Josef Stalin's son Vasily in charge of the program, did the Soviet Union begin to build up nationhood through sport. In 1954 the Soviet Union, just a few years after beginning to train hockey players at a high level, the Soviet Union beat an amateur team from Canada, East York Lyndhurst, to capture the gold.

1970-1977

The Soviet Union and Canada traded blows at the World Championships until Canada stopped going to the World Championships because they did not see the Soviet Union as a true amateur team. The Soviet players mainly played for the famed CSKA Moscow Club, which is more commonly known as the Red Army team. They were technically in the Soviet Army, though their service surrounded playing hockey. The Canadians were denied the use of any professional players in 1970 and felt as though Russia was also playing professional hockey players under the ruse that they were actually in the military. This thought was disputed and the Soviet Union dominated until the rules changed in 1976 when the IIHF allowed Canada to send NHLers who were not playing in the playoffs any more, much like we see today.

1987-Present Day

This is where the mythology really comes into play. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1987 and the Eastern Bloc slowly began to open up, the Soviet Union/Russia's dominance began to diminish. The fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of the domestic league in 1992, though the league never truly went away, it returned as the Russian Super League in 1996 and was renamed the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008. Russia has not won a best on best tournament since the 1981 Canada Cup. Their highest finish in a best on best tournament since 1981 was in 1987 when they finished second to Canada in the second last Canada Cup. Russia has a bronze medal from Torino as their only Olympic medal since the Olympics opened itself up to NHLers.

Tarasov

Maybe the greatest gift the Soviet hockey program gave the rest of the world was new coaching tactics. Though the tactics that Anatoli Tarasov used would now be considered outdated he was the first to believe that skating and passing, instead of straight lines and hitting. It was a novel idea that he gained from not having any experience coaching hockey beforehand. His ideas were echoed in the book The Hockey Handbook Loyd Percival, a Canadian. When the Soviet Union started sending over teams to compete against North American players, at first amateur teams and later NHL teams, the only North American coach who watched them practice was Scotty Bowman.

Tarasov changed the way that hockey players trained as well. He had his players do dry-land training. This was a huge departure from the North American way of using training camp to get into shape. This idea would take a long time to reach this side of the pond.

Conclusion

Thanks to some incredible runs of dominance in the World Championships when Canada would send an amateur team, a loss in 1972, and a famous game on New Year's Eve in Montreal in 1975 the Soviet Union and therefore Russia since its collapse has become a myth. The mythology surrounding them has been built on losses, not wins. A rivalry has been built on a one sided battle. The myth of Russian hockey has been built on teams that are seemingly always just a little short of something to give them a win in a best on best tournament. After all, they only have one and that was in 1981, 33 years ago. There best finish in a best on best event since then was in Torino, where they finished with the bronze medal.

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