In the Beginning… (Part 1)
“Of course, this was astonishing news for us all.” So said Dmitri Fedorov*, of the Dynamo Sports Club, Leningrad chapter, looking back at what transpired in December of 1946. The news to which he was referring was threefold: First of all, the USSR had just announced the creation of the country’s first league devoted to the sport of “Canadian hockey” or “puck hockey.” Ice hockey had been popular in Russia for decades, but it had been the version generally known as “bandy” that was uppermost in the public mind, and that was enjoyed by Fedorov and his Dynamo team-mates. Bandy is played on a rink the size of a soccer field (flooded pitches were, in fact, often used for just that purpose in winter), with 11 players per side, short curved sticks, and a ball. The second bit of astonishing news was that that paraphernalia was now in the past for Dmitri Fedorov and the rest of the Dynamo Leningrad team — they were forthwith to take up the puck, the longer sticks, and the smaller rink of “Canadian hockey.” And finally, on that December morning came word that Dynamo Leningrad’s first game in their new sport would take place the next day, in Moscow, against the club from Spartak (they lost, 5-1, with Fedorov scoring his team’s only goal).
And so began the first season of the Soviet Championship — below the jump, we’ll take a look at what happened as the USSR took its first steps in the sport!
Astonishing news it may have been for Fedorov and the others, but the plans to take up puck hockey had actually been in the works for some months. Eager to demonstrate that the appalling destruction wreaked on the country during the Second World War had not broken it, Soviet leaders decided on a program of demonstrating superiority in a number of fields of endeavour, athletics among them. Since puck hockey was the sport of the Winter Olympics, that game, rather than bandy, would be the new focus of the USSR’s sports clubs during the winter. Help in getting it all set up, not too mention a fair number of the first season’s referees, came from the Baltic republics, where “Canadian hockey” had been in vogue for many years (Latvia had sent a hockey team to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany). By December of 1946, everything was ready. The players, many of them already well-established as sports stars, were drawn heavily from the soccer and bandy teams run by the USSR’s big sports clubs.
Twelve teams contested the first season of the Soviet Championship. The Dynamo Sports Society, operated by the Soviet state security apparatus (later the KGB), sent four of them, from Moscow, Leningrad, Riga, and Tallinn. The Spartak Club, representing various trade unions, had two teams: one in the capital and another from Uzhgorod, in the Subcarpathian region of western Ukraine. The armed forces of the USSR were also well represented, with the famous Central Club of the Red Army (CDKA, now known as CSKA) playing out of Moscow, along with the Dom Ofitserov (“Officers’ Club”) squads from Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg) and Leningrad — the latter of those two is now SKA St. Petersburg, in the KHL. The Soviet Air Force had its own team, VVS MVO Moscow, managed by none other than Josef Stalin’s son Vasily. Lithuania was represented by the city team from Kaunas. And finally, from well north of 60°, on the banks of the Dvina River, came Vodnik Arkhangelsk.
That first season, which began on the 22nd of December, 1946, was short. The teams were divided into three groups of four, with each squad playing each of its group-mates only once. The three group winners then played each other twice each to determine the champion (the three second-place teams from the first stage, along with the best third-place finisher, met in a consolation round to determine the fourth through seventh spots). The games were played outdoors (the Soviet Union’s first indoor hockey arena did not arrive until the mid-1950s), usually on boarded-off areas of bandy rinks in the nation’s soccer stadia.
In the first round, Group A, which played in Moscow, proved to be the most competitive. CDKA Moscow could only muster a 1-1 draw against Dom Ofitserov Leningrad, but defeated Vasily Stalin’s Air Force team to win the group. The Air Force men finished second, ahead of Dom Ofitserov Sverdlovsk in third, and the Leningrad team in fourth. Group B’s meetings took place in Leningrad, where Spartak Moscow won all three of their games, the closest being a 6-4 victory over second-place finishers Dinamo** Riga. Two of the other Dynamo Sports Club representatives, those from Tallinn and Leningrad, finished third and fourth respectively. Up in Arkhangelsk where Group C played, Dynamo Moscow had an even easier time of it; they not only swept all three games but finished with a goals for and against mark of 33-2, thanks in large part to a 23-0 mauling of Spartak Uzhgorod. The host team, Vodnik, came in second, while the Lithuanians from Kaunas did well enough in third place to take the final spot in the consolation round. Poor Spartak Uzhgorod came last by a mile, with their best result in the three games being a 9-3 loss to Vodnik.
That meant three Moscow teams in the championship round, with CDKA, Dynamo, and Spartak. Those three, in fact, would end up winning all but five of the 46 Soviet Championship titles that were contested before the country’s breakup in the early 1990s. In that first season, they were very evenly matched – in fact, nobody managed to win both games against either of their rivals, and the teams finished with identical 2-2 records. The championship was decided on goal ratio (Goals For divided by Goals Against), and Dynamo’s 6-1 victory over Spartak gave them the decisive edge in that regard and made them the first ice hockey champions of the USSR. CDKA claimed the silver medal, while Spartak had to make do with third place. In the consolation group, the Latvians of Dinamo Riga edged out VVS MVO Moscow, again on goal ratio after a 1-1 tie between the two teams, to claim fourth. You can check out the complete standings here.
In terms of individual performances, the 1946-47 scoring title (goals only – assists were not tallied that year) went to the 28-year-old player-coach of the Air Force team – a man by the name of Anatoly Vladimirovich Tarasov. Tarasov, who scored 14 goals that season, would go on to become the driving force behind Soviet hockey as coach of the Red Army team, and of the Soviet national squad through the 1960s and into the early 1970s. It was he who put in place the country’s hockey philosophy, with its devotion to the wonderful passing game along with strict discipline and heavy emphasis on physical fitness, and that earned him induction in 1974 into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. His under-rated co-coach through many of those years with the national team was Arkady Chernyshev, who back in that first season was the player-coach for champions Dynamo Moscow (Chernyshev scored a modest four goals for them).
Tarasov was also never afraid to butt heads with his superiors in the Soviet hockey hierarchy, and he gave an early taste of that trait at the end of the 1946-47 season. Angry over what he saw as Vasily Stalin’s unwillingness to strengthen the Air Force team, he walked out on the Soviet leader’s son, and took himself off to be player-coach at CDKA. It is probably more than a coincidence that the Red Army squad won the next three championships in row (Stalin did get a measure of revenge eventually – VVS MVO Moscow ended CDKA’s title run in 1951, and proceeded to win three in a row of their own).
There are other names deserving of mention from that first season. Harijs Mellups (pictured above), goalie for Dinamo Riga, was one of the most experienced players of the puck game in the USSR, despite also being one of the youngest at only 19 years old. As noted above, Mellups’ native Latvia had been playing the Canadian game full-time since the 1930s, and the young ‘keeper came into 1946-47 season with a Latvian league title already under his belt. He played three season for Dinamo in the Soviet Championship, before transferring to the Air Force team. There, tragically, he perished with a number of his team-mates on January 7th, 1950, when the airplane carrying them to a game in Chelyabinsk crashed outside Sverdlovsk.
A few more: CDKA’s stalwart defenceman Alexander Vinogradov and his team-mate, skilled forward Yevgeny Babich, were among a handful of players that first season who would be on the Soviet national team in 1954, when they played, and won, their first World Championship. And the Red Army team also had a young player named Vsevolod Bobrov, who would in time become the sport’s first Russian superstar. In 1946-47, he played only one game for CDKA, although he served notice of what was to come by scoring a hat-trick in it. Bobrov was already a renowned soccer player, having impressed British crowds during a 1945 exhibition tour, and would star in that sport for his country at the 1952 Summer Olympics. We shall hear a lot more about him in these pages as time goes on!
So that, then, was the beginning of the road that led in due course to umpteen Olympic gold medals and World Championships, The Summit Series, New Year’s Eve in 1975, and all the other interesting people and events down the line to likes of Ovechkin, Malkin, Mozyakin, and Kovalchuk today. But it does leave one question – what did “Canadian hockey” look like in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1946-47? Photographs give some idea of the equipment, and the uniforms, but not much indication of what the actual game-play was like. Fortunately, we have footage! But that is for next time.
Thank you for reading!
* = Quoted in The Red Machine: The Soviet Quest to Dominate Canada’s Game, by Lawrence Martin (Doubleday, 1990), pp. 24-5.
** = It is a modern convention, to which I intend to adhere, to spell it “Dynamo” when the team referred to is Russian, and “Dinamo” when it is not.