The order to start playing hockey came, in 1946, from the very top. Stalin believed that with the war finished and his objectives in Eastern Europe achieved, the Soviet Union’s isolation was at an end. The USSR had good athletes. They could send them to international championships and win over the nonaligned nations. As Charlie Chaplin once quipped, of early Soviet movies, it’d be better propaganda than executions.
The first great Soviet player was Bobrov. He wore #8. He liked to hang out by the red line and wait for a pass to send him on his way. He dangled the puck before him, daring defensemen to take it, then scuttled past them with a burst of speed. He missed the first Soviet hockey season, 1946–47, with a knee injury sustained while playing soccer for the national team, but in the league’s second season he scored fifty- two goals in just eighteen games, for TsDKA, the Central House of the Red Army — Red Army, for short.
Bobrov’s linemate on that team, and also his coach, was Anatoly Tarasov. Tarasov had grown up playing soccer, as well as an old Russian game known as “hockey” but which in the West is known as “bandy,” played on a large ice surface the size of a soccer field with eleven players on each side, with curved sticks held in one hand and a ball. The new hockey was thus called “Canadian hockey,” or “hockey with a puck.”
There wasn’t a single indoor rink in the Soviet Union at the time. Most of the games were played at one end of Dynamo Stadium. To make sure the ice didn’t melt, they were played at night. Players didn’t have proper equipment: their sticks were of domestic manufacture and easily broke, and they had no hockey helmets. Some wore bicycle helmets; some wore boxing headgear, which covered part of their faces; and a few players just put on their old infantry helmets. It didn’t matter much, because no one could figure out how to lift the puck. In between periods, to save electricity, the stadium lights would be shut off, plunging every- thing into darkness.
Red Army’s rival for supremacy was the Air Force team, run by Vasily Stalin. Despite his high parentage, Vasily had bad luck. He poached players from Tarasov’s Red Army team, including Bobrov, but then lost most of them in a plane crash. Bobrov wasn’t on the plane, and survived. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Vasily was arrested and imprisoned, and Tarasov got back Bobrov.
Practically from scratch, Tarasov invented the Soviet version of the game. In terms of skating and passing, he was building on a long tradition of Russian-style hockey. But beyond that, tactically, Tarasov had very little. He had never been to Canada, where the game was born, nor did he have films of games that he could watch. In the first few years of Soviet hockey, Tarasov would later write, he did not have “one person who knew European or world hockey. We learned the game out of a void.”
The result was a new kind of hockey. Making a virtue of necessity, Tarasov used the lack of ice time to pioneer a set of dry-land exercises that stressed lower-body strength and balance. He had his team play a lot of soccer, which helped them develop quick and nimble feet. Analyzing the game, Tarasov concluded that the key to it was passing, that no matter how fast a man traveled on his skates, the puck could travel faster. He described his years of playing on a line with the great scoring machine Bobrov and the excellent passer Babich as a kind of mistaken hockey; because Bobrov was the best scorer and the strongest skater, Tarasov and Babich were always passing him the puck. But this was wrong.
“If we rejected this principle,” wrote Tarasov, “then how were we to build our forward line? Perhaps we should include three aces, three Bobrovs, all the more so since with the passing of time more high-caliber players appeared? However, was it possible for three Bobrovs to play on the same line — three outstanding but quite similar attacking players? I do not think so. But three men like Babich could have made a winning combination. In fact, I feel sure that even the best defensemen in the world could not stop a line of three Babiches. Because Babich could do everything. He could wind up a beautiful attack, he could feed his partners sizzling passes, and if need be, he could play defense.” Bobrov never played defense.
Later on, when he had visited the United States and been amazed both by the prodigiousness of its cities, the variety of its supermarkets, and the tricks of the animals at Sea World, he would say to an American scout: “Your people can build the world’s tallest buildings. You can make forty-nine different kinds of mayonnaise. You can teach dolphins to do the most complex tasks. Why can’t you teach your hockey players to pass the puck more than two meters?” He would eventually even come to rue the overemphasis on passing in the Soviet game that he developed, and in fact blame the poor quality of Soviet hockey sticks, which players were afraid to break. Nonetheless this fast-paced passing style, and the use of all five players to mount wave upon wave of attacks, was a revelation for a game that had become, in its birthplace, primarily a matter of one man taking the puck and trying to get through the rest of the other team while his teammates looked on. North Americans defended this as an expression of “individuality.” The Soviets didn’t argue. Between 1956 and 1990, they won seven of the nine Olympic gold medals, and twenty-one of thirty-four world championships.
But this was later. In the early fifties, the Soviets played their first friendly matches. They missed the world championship in 1953 because Bobrov was hurt and Stalin decreed, over Tarasov’s fierce objections, that they should skip the tournament rather than lose without their best player. But Stalin was soon dead, and in 1954 they entered the world championship tournament in Stockholm. Tarasov and his team had no idea how they would do; they had never faced international competition. They knew their country was poorer than other countries, less developed, and had lost an entire generation of athletes during the war. The point of the international sports program was to prove to themselves and others that things were not so bad in the USSR; but what if they were? As one Soviet sports doctor who ended up in the gulag sarcastically put it, of the top Russian soccer team: “If Dynamo can beat a French team, obviously the French have even less bread and meat than we do.” But was the converse also true? If the French had more bread and meat — and they did, by far — would that mean they’d make short work of the Soviet teams?
Soviet athletes, traveling abroad, could not have failed to see the contrast between a place like Stockholm or Paris and the poverty back home. Tarasov, during his first team’s trip abroad, to Prague, refused to put his players in their assigned hotel, forcing them instead to sleep in cots at the workout facility. This has been both praised and criticized as an example of Tarasov’s commitment to fitness. But it may also have been the case that Tarasov did not want his players to be intimidated by a nice hotel.
Nonetheless, in 1954 in Stockholm, the Soviets won gold, initiating four decades of hockey dominance. In 1972, after years of beating all amateur competition, the Soviets played an all-star team of Canadian professional stars, including Phil Esposito, Ken Dryden, and Brad Park, to a virtual tie, and they would likely have won the series had Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers not deliberately broken the ankle of the Soviets’ best player with a vicious slash.
Tarasov had been removed as the coach of the national team just before that tournament: he was too cantankerous and independent-minded and had apparently refused an order to throw a game against the Czechs (to screw over the Americans). He was replaced as head coach by his old rival Bobrov, and then as the head of the national program by the less charismatic, more dictatorial Viktor Tikhonov, who took Tarasov’s ways and regimented the life out of them. As soon as the Soviet Union opened up a bit in the late eighties, the players rebelled; those who were good enough left for the NHL.
Nonetheless, Tarasov had forever changed the game of hockey. If five attackers, using the entire ice, weaving back and forth and launching long passes to one another, does not sound entirely unfamiliar, that is because Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers adapted much of the Soviet style during their 1980s championship run. Tarasov revolutionized the game by making it less individual and more collective. And he did it despite immense obstacles. It took until 1956 for an indoor rink to be built in the USSR. Thirty years later, after three decades of total international dominance, there were, across the entire Soviet Union, 102 indoor rinks; in Canada at that point there were 9,000. In 1980, during the Olympics at which the Soviets lost to the US in the “miracle on ice,” the American trainer noticed that the Soviets were still badly equipped. They “were always looking to trade sticks, scoop up supplies,” he said. “The trainer would ask if he could have a few Band-Aids, and he’d reach in and take the whole box. Here they were, the greatest team in the world, a superpower, and they didn’t have anything.”
But people working together, and passing each other the puck, and doing lots of plyometric exercises, can accomplish anything. Saith Tarasov, of his great Alexandrov, Almetov, and Loktev line, which dominated international hockey throughout the 1960s:
I can see if a player is happy when his teammate scores, whether he shares this happiness. And even though they say it does not become men, athletes, to hug each other out on the ice, I know that when Loktev gives Almetov a bear hug or loving rap on the behind, or when Almetov hugs Alexandrov, this is only a sincere way of displaying their recognition and gratitude.