However, few today would recall that Wednesday’s exhibition game and the planned visit of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in April also returns something of a favor dating back to the USSR’s first Olympic ice hockey campaign. Back in 1955, the Soviet Union sent its team to Britain to gain international experience against local club sides – and even invited Harringay Racers to Moscow for a couple of high-profile games in December of that year.
In hindsight, it might seem strange that the Soviets would bother. In 1954, the Red Machine had won its first IIHF World Championship, following up with silver medals in ‘55. And, as everyone knows, Vsevolod Bobrov & Co. took the Winter Olympics by storm in Cortina D’Ampezzo, taking gold at the first attempt just a decade after the country set up its first hockey league. However, the Communist government of the time had something of a love-hate relationship with the games. Prior to World War II, Soviet athletes were excluded from competition in what was seen as a ‘bourgeois’ event; socialist sports had their own Spartakiad instead. After the war, things changed, but poor results could bring lasting consequences – as Bobrov discovered in 1952 when he was part of the Soviet soccer team that missed out on a medal after defeat to Yugoslavia. CSKA, the club that supplied the bulk of the national team, was disbanded in punishment for that defeat; the hockey team wanted to ensure no similar slip-ups in 1956.
In November 1955, the Red Machine flew to England. It was the start of a three-nation tour that would see the USSR play against British teams in London and Paris before heading to Stockholm for the Aherne Cup, a major invitational tournament of that era.
The choice of opposition was no accident. In the post-war era, Soviet soccer teams had enjoyed several tours of Britain. Successful on and off the pitch, the likes of Dynamo Moscow became a valuable diplomatic tool. Moreover, when the Soviets went to the Olympics, one of their biggest rivals would be a Canadian amateur club team selected to represent the country. Taking on British club teams with many Trans-Atlantic imports might offer valuable clues about what to expect from the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in Cortina D’Ampezzo.
Certainly, the Soviets took the trip seriously. All 16 of the players who took to the ice for the opening game of the tour, an 11-1 win over Harringay, would go on to play on the golden Olympic roster: goalie Nikolai Puchkov, defensemen Ivan Tregubov, Nikolai Sologubov, Dmitry Ukolov and Alfred Kuchevsky, plus forwards Vsevolod Bobrov, Viktor Shuvalov, Evgeny Babich, Yury Krylov, Alexander Uvarov, Valentin Kuzin, Nikolai Khlystov, Alexei Guryshev, Yury Pantyukhov and Viktor Nikiforov.
Results were good. After that opening demolition, the Soviets followed up with a 5-4 success against a Harringay team reinforced with players from the Wembley Lions. A few days later, the Lions themselves were beaten 3-2 at Wembley Arena, in the shadow of the famous Twin Towers. On the way to Sweden, the USSR stopped off in Paris to play another British team, the Brighton Tigers, winning 2-1 in front of 10,000 spectators. Then, in the Aherne Cup, there was another victory over Harringay followed by a win and a loss against Team Sweden.
After playing against Harringay in London and Stockholm, the Soviets invited the Racers to Moscow for two games played in the open air at the Dynamo Stadium. The home team won both games comfortably – 7-1 in the first encounter, 4-0 in the second. Somewhat modestly, the Russian magazine ‘The Hockey Stars are Playing’ (Igrayut mastera khokkeya) noted that ‘the players from both teams demonstrated great sporting mastery’, while the text repeatedly emphasized the ‘professional’ visitor in contrast with the Soviet amateurs preparing for Olympic action.
The text of that article also focuses heavily on player technique. A photo of a tussle between Bobrov and a Harringay player notes ‘Vsevolod Bobrov, in possession of the puck, decided to beat his opponent round the boards. However, he failed to take into account that the opposition is fluent in the art of the check. As the Englishman B. Young closed in on Bobrov, his body blocked the path of the Soviet player and as a result of the clash, Bobrov lost the puck’. Other captions urge close attention to the positioning and body shape of the Harringay goalie, Colby.
Among the visiting party was Johnny Carlyle, a defenseman from Falkirk, Scotland, who represented GB in two World Championships before heading south to play for the Racers. His son, Garry, passed on some of his late father’s recollections of visiting Moscow at a time when few Brits got the chance to see the Soviet Union.
“He talked about how the team was escorted everywhere by officials and were taken to visit Lenin’s tomb,” Garry recalled. “They stayed in a hotel on Red Square, where members of the party were given rooms befitting their perceived importance. Officials might have a suite of rooms, others would hardly have room to swing a cat!
“The team were the only guests in the hotel, and they believed that all the hotel staff were removed and replaced with government staff. But my father kept the game pennant in a black lacquered box with the Kremlin on it and I still have it at home to this day.”
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