By Dane Frizzell
With the World Cup of Hockey starting soon, it is time to look at some of the biggest international hockey stories.
The Soviet Red Army Hockey Team is one of the most interesting and impacting clubs of the past 50 years. During the 1970’s and 80’s, a team built on dedication and discipline took the world by storm. A government run and military established hockey team built to spread soviet propaganda and power, quickly became the best.
After the Second World War, Antatoli Tarasov was asked to put together a hockey program from scratch. He founded a hockey department at CSKA Moscow. Before this, the most common sport in the Soviet Union was bandy. A sport similar to field hockey but, played on the ice. Bandy focused on passing perfection, skating skills and overall team mentality. Everything the soviets prided in their program. Tarasov also looked at ballet and chess as inspiration to building his program. With only about a hundred hockey rule books and little knowledge the program was born and began to recruit it’s players. As a coach and director, his personal ideas and thoughts on the game were revolutionary. He gave his life building plays and practices in order to develop his players. Focusing on passing and hard and long physically draining practices, Tarasov turned his players into machines. The teams quickly became unified and worked as a group opposed to individuals. Known as the father of Soviet and Russian hockey, Tarasov quickly grew respect from his country and his players.
The team quickly grew international attention. Participating in tournaments in Russia and participating in the 1972 Summit Series, the Canada Cup tournament and the Olympic games, the Red Army proved to be one of the highest skilled teams of their generation. The team won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991 and never failed to medal in any International Ice Hockey Federation tournament they competed in. With precision and military minded players, the team proved mightier than the competition. Although beaten at times in the Summit Series and in the memorable Miracle On Ice, the Soviets changed the way hockey was taught and thought of in North America.
The Russian players played together all year around. With the decline of Antatoli Tarasov, Viktor Tikhanov gained the head coaching position for the team. The strict coach would have his players in his fist. As a general in the army, Tikhanov controlled his players and would often keep them away from their families and the outside world. The thought of defection was a constant fear for Tikhanov. He would often cut players he felt were going to betray their team and country. He maintained the same coaching style of Tarasov and continued to push forward with the same core players. Years after the fall of the Soviet Union, players and personal would come forward and tell tales of Tikhanov’s brutality and extremely hard relationships with his team. With a fresh coach, the team would go on to continue their world dominance and produce some of the finest players in the world. Including the Russian Five.
The Russian Five were the strongest players on the Red Army Team and grew up playing together from a young age in the Soviet Union. The precision passing and knowledge of where each player was at all times on the ice, made them dominate international hockey players. Sergei Makarov is the all time leading scorer for the Soviet Union International Hockey Team. Larionov led the revolt with Fetisov against Soviet authorities that prevented Soviet players to defect to the NHL. After loads of frustration, false promises and 8 years of fighting, Larionov was finally allowed to join the Vancouver Canucks Alexander Mogilny was the first Soviet player to defect to the NHL and in 1989 joined the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. The other four players of the Russian five joined Larionov in the NHL and slowly began to make an impact in North America.
In 1995, the Detroit Red Wings would build their own Russian Five. Through trades and signings, Detroit Red Wings own Scotty Bowman brought together the five-man unit. Leading the Red Army line through a spectacular display of their prowess in which they played a two-minute shift at both ends of the ice, denying all attempts at defensive maneuvering. The five skater group included forwards Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov with Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov on defense. The five players prided themselves in puck possession and accurate passing often stalling entry into the offensive zone in order to settle down the play and control the puck. These five Russian players would help the Red Wings win the 1996-1997 Stanley Cup.
With more and more players leaving the crumbling team and the USSR dissolving into what is now the Russian Federation, the once mighty Red Army Hockey program was gone. Many players continued to play in the Russian federation, but many explored careers in the NHL and elsewhere in the world. With players finally free from Tikhanov’s draining regime, they could explore options elsewhere and be free to live their lives how they please. The Red Army model slowly became extinct. The number of players adept in this style began to dwindle, as the system’s influence faded. The impact of this team and its program is still being felt today. Hockey in Russia is still their most popular sport. Children dream of playing the sport professionally and the honor of representing their country is visible. Russian stars in Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are the faces of Russian hockey these days. The amount of pride the players have for their country is comparable to none. Without Antatoli Tarasov building the program, or Alexander Mogilny defecting for a new career, it is impossible to be certain if these great players would be in North America impressing and entertaining the fans.