1948-49: Capital Dominance
1948 was an important year for the nascent Soviet hockey program. With a couple of domestic seasons now under their belts, the game’s movers and shakers began to look outside the country’s borders for the first time, and in particular, they looked to Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had been playing the Canadian form of hockey for decades, winning a European Championship back in 1911 when the country was still known as Bohemia. They were also, it was generally acknowledged, sneaking up rapidly on Canada and the United States in terms of global hockey superiority. Those factors, not to mention a recently-installed Communist government, made Czechoslovakia an ideal sparring partner for the USSR as it went about growing its national team.
And so it was that at the end of 1947-48 season, the Lawn Tennis Club of Prague had arrived in Moscow to play a series of exhibition games against the Soviet national side. Do not be fooled by the name; LTC Prague were probably the most powerful hockey team in Europe at the time, with numerous Czechoslovakian titles to their name and several Spengler Cup wins as well. Fearing that their inexperienced squad would take a beating from the skilled Czechs, Soviet authorities played down the importance of the games, but their fears proved relatively unfounded. The Soviet team, anchored by the likes of Vsevolod Bobrov and with Harijs Mellups in goal, won one and drew one in five games against LTC, and everyone went away into the off-season relatively satisfied.
Well, nearly everyone. One person who was not at all happy in the summer of 1948 was Vasily Josefovich Stalin, manager of the Soviet Air Force team VVS MVO Moscow. His squad had stumbled to an embarrassing seventh-place finish in 1947-18, out of ten teams, and that simply would not do. Accordingly, Stalin deployed the political clout his last name gave him and launched an audacious raid on his Moscow rivals at Spartak, making off with all three players from the trade union team’s excellent top forward line: Ivan Novikov, Zdenek Zigmund, and Yuri Tarasov. There was no question of a trade between the two teams; the three players were simply told to report to the Air Force squad.
Novikov had scored 32 goals the year before, behind only the spectacular Bobrov at Red Army (he had 52!), and Zigmund, Russian-raised but of Czech descent, had added another 24. However, it was the acquisition of Tarasov that must have given young Stalin the most glee. Yuri Tarasov was the brother of Red Army’s player-coach Anatoly, who had walked out on Stalin and his team after the 1946-47 season and then promptly led CDKA to a championship, so the chance to stick his thumb in Anatoly’s eye a little bit was surely attractive to the Soviet leader’s son. In any case, VVS MVO already had one of the country’s best defensemen in Alexander Vinogradov, and looked to their three new prize players to get things going for them up front.
The Soviet Championship in 1947-48 would once again be contested by ten teams, with an 18-game season determining the winner. Spartak Kaunas had been relegated to the Class B league, to be replaced by Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk, the team that now bears the name “Traktor” in the KHL. The newcomers would place their hopes for survival in the top flight on the shoulders of a young homegrown forward by the name of Viktor Shuvalov.
Vassily Stalin’s purloining of the Spartak players very nearly paid off. When the 1948-49 season got underway, VVS MVO rocketed up the table, behind 23 goals from Novikov and another 19 off the stick of Zigmund (Yuri Tarasov finished the season with 11). The Air Force men won 12 of their 18 games, up from five the previous season, and drew another three. Spartak did extract a measure of revenge for the loss of their top line by inflicting one of the Air Force’s three losses, and their fans made their feelings known as well. Erroneously believing that Novikov et al. had departed the club of their own free will, the Spartak faithful physically attacked the three players the first time they showed up at the Spartak stadium with their new team. However, that bit of ugliness aside, it was an excellent “bounce-back” season for Vasily Stalin’s players.
It was also not quite enough. VVS MVO’s other two losses in 1948-49 came at the hands of Anatoly Tarasov, Vsevolod Bobrov, and the rest of the mighty CDKA Moscow team. The Red Army squad successfully defended their title, winning 15 games and tying two with only a single loss. They managed this despite the fact that Bobrov’s goal total fell to still-impressive 27 from 52, as he was plagued with knee injuries (this would become something of a recurrent theme). His linemates, Anatoly Tarasov and Yevgeny Babich, score 14 and 16 times respectively. CDKA had weapons beyond the Bobrov line too; on defense were one of USSR’s best in Vladimir Nikanorov and an exciting young up-and-comer named Nikolai Sologubov (you can read the post on Khabarovsk to learn a bit more about him). And the Red Army team was well-set in goal, with Grigory Mkrtychan and Boris Afanasyev sharing the duties there (Mkrtychan, in particular, was a rising star). Stalin’s VVS MVO team had improved mightily, but not that mightily, and had to be content with second place on the season.
The rest of the top half of the table belonged to the other three Moscow teams. Dynamo, still trying to get back to their championship form of the USSR’s inaugural season, came in third. In fourth was the team of the Soviet aeronautics industry, Krylya Sovetov. While “Soviet Wings” narrowly missed out on a medal (the USSR awarded gold, silver, and bronze, much as in international competition), their fans could console themselves on two fronts. First of all, the team boasted the talents of Anatoly Guryshev, whose 29 goals led the league. And secondly, Krylya Sovetov was the only team to beat the champions, defeating CDKA 3-1. Finally, in fifth place, was poor bereft Spartak, who fell from the previous season’s silver medal finish.
The country’s non-Muscovite teams had to content themselves with the bottom of the standings. The “best of the rest” was sixth-placed Dinamo Riga. The Latvians could still lay claim the league’s best goaltender, as voted by the Hockey Federation of the USSR, in Harijs Mellups, although top scorer Roberts Sulmanis saw his goal total drop from 24 to 13. Just behind Dinamo came the newly-promoted team from Chelyabinsk — Shuvalov scored 18 goals, team-mate Leonid Stepanov added 16, and Dzerzhinets did indeed survive their first season in the big league. One the downside, Shuvalov attracted enough attention with his exploits to ensure that his days playing for his hometown team were now numbered. Rounding out the championship table were Dynamo Leningrad in eighth, Estonian team Dinamo Tallinn in ninth, and Dzerzhinets Leningrad bringing up the rear, and failing to win a game all season (they tied three) in tenth and last place.
And that was pretty much it for the 1948-49 season. The men in charge of the league decided to expand the top division to 12 teams for 1949-50, and so welcomed Lokomotiv Moscow (the team of the Soviet railway workers, unsurprisingly), Dynamo Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg), and SKIF Leningrad, who promptly changed their team name to “Bolshevik.” Dzerzhinets Leningrad were relegated, and in fact vanish from the record books at this point.
Elsewhere, Vasily Stalin was by no means finished with his quest to unseat CDKA Moscow at the top of the Soviet Championship. The coming off-season would see him once again stocking his team at the expense of his rivals, and we will look at what he got up to, and the tragic consequences thereof, in the next post in this series!
1948-49 All-Star Team (Golden Helmet Award)
Goal: Harijs Mellups (Dinamo Riga)
Defense: Vladimir Nikanorov (CDKA Moscow), Alexander Vinogradov (VVS MVO Moscow)
Forwards: Yevgeny Babich (CDKA Moscow), Anatoly Guryshev (Krylya Sovetov Moscow), Ivan Nikanorov (VVS MVO Moscow)
(Some brief highlights of the game between Dynamo Moscow, in the white-shouldered sweaters, and Spartak on December 12, 1948. Dynamo won 3-2)