1949-50, the fourth season of competition in the USSR, saw the top division expand to 12 teams, and the schedule likewise grow to 22 games for each team. Three new clubs were on the scene: Dynamo Sverdlovsk, from the city currently known once again as Yekaterinburg, Bolshevik Leningrad, and the Soviet railway team Lokomotiv Moscow. Not much was expected from them; the main question for the season was whether Josef Stalin’s son Vasily could strengthen his Air Force club, VVS MVO Moscow, enough to get it past his arch-rival Anatoly Tarasov and the powerful CDKA Moscow side. Sadly, that question would be answered in the short term by a horrendous accident on the outskirts of Sverdlovsk in early January of 1950.
Vasily Stalin had enjoyed success in 1948-49 on the heels of his audacious pilfering of Spartak Moscow’s top forward line, as he had seen VVS shoot up the table and win the silver medal. So, in the summer of 1949, he set out to repeat the strategy. The Air Force team brought in several important new players, beginning with young forward Viktor Shuvalov. Shuvalov had been key to his hometown team, Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk, surviving their first season in the top division, and he was an obvious target for the ambitious young Stalin. VVS also acquired the services of two excellent Latvian players from the club hitherto known as Dinamo Riga, but now renamed Daugava. Roberts Šūlmanis, a high-scoring defenseman, was one of those, and the second was Harijs Mellups, considered by pretty much everybody to be the best goalie in the league (he had been named Goaltender of the Year in all three seasons of Soviet competition up to that point).
However, those acquisitions paled somewhat in comparison to what Vasily Stalin did to CDKA; from the Red Army team he collected none other than Anatoly Tarasov’s linemate, the superstar Vsevolod Bobrov. While Bobrov, plagued with knee injuries, had seen his goal total fall from an unreal 52 in 18 games in 1947-48 to “only” 27 the next season, there can be no question that he was head and shoulders above the rest of the league when it came to talent. However, his habit of going it alone on the ice did not help his relationship with player-coach Tarasov, so it is unlikely that Bobrov felt too put out when the Air Force came calling. He quickly became good friends off the ice with Vasily Stalin, the two men sharing a fondness for the nightlife. On the ice, Vsevolod Bobrov and the other new players appeared to make VVS MVO Moscow the team to beat as the 1949-50 season opened.
However, the Air Force squad did not get off to sort of start that it wanted. By the end of December, head coach Matvei Goldin had been dismissed (apparently for congratulating an opponent for a good game after an Air Force loss, a thing he unwisely did within earshot of Vasily Stalin), and Bobrov had taken over as head of a sort of coaching committee comprised of the players themselves.
Then, on January 7th, 1950, utter calamity struck. The plane carrying the VVS players to a match against Dzerzhinets in Chelyabinsk ran into bad weather, and was forced to divert to Sverdlovsk. Conditions were no better there, however, and while attempting a landing the plane crashed, killing all on board. The dead included all three of the players whom Vasily Stalin had brought over from Spartak the previous year — Ivan Novikov, Zdenek Zigmund, and Anatoly Tarasov’s brother Yuri — along with both Šūlmanis and Mellups. Harijs Mellups’ death has a particular poignancy; the star goalie was only 23 years old, and the father of a week-old son whom he never got to see. Mellups would be honoured, albeit in somewhat bitter fashion, by once again being voted Goaltender of the Year for 1949-50 — his fourth straight such award, but this one posthumous.
However, even amidst the tragedy, Vasily Stalin and the Air Force brass could take comfort from one fortuitous circumstance: Vsevolod Bobrov, Viktor Shuvalov, and ace defenseman Alexander Vinogradov all, for various reasons, missed the ill-fated flight. Bobrov, it seems, had overslept due to a faulty alarm clock, and was hastening to rejoin his team-mates by train. Shuvalov, the native of Chelyabinsk, had been held back by Vasily for fear of his reception at the hands of the Dzerzhinets fans (Novikov, Zigmund, and Tarasov had been attacked by the Spartak faithful over their move to VVS). In a 2012 interview, Shuvalov recounted that he begged to be allowed at least to accompany the team and visit his parents, but was refused. He had to be content with sending some presents in the care of team-mate Vasily Vorodin, who perished in the crash. Finally, Vinogradov was suspended, having gotten into a fight during the team’s previous game.
News of the crash was suppressed, apparently in an attempt to keep word of it from getting back to Vasily Stalin’s father. There was no mention of the incident in the national press, and writers of game reports even refused to mention the players brought in as replacements by name. Those replacements, incidentally, include a couple of interesting names. One was young forward Viktor Tikhonov, who is recorded as having scored one goal in 1949-50 — he would be far better-known as a coach in later years. And the other was Yevgeny Babich, Bobrov’s old linemate from the Red Army team. Bobrov, when he took over the coaching reins at VVS, had been eager to recruit Babich, and his transfer to VVS had actually already been underway when the plane crash occurred, waiting only on the final paperwork. At the Air Force team, the two men would join up with Shuvalov to form a truly potent front line.
However, the golden days of the Bobrov-Shuvalov-Babich trio were still in the future. In the meantime, the deaths at Sverdlovsk, along with VVS’s poor form to start the season, left the door open for Anatoly Tarasov and CDKA Moscow to capture their third straight title, and they seized the opportunity with aplomb. Red Army won 19 of 22 games and tied another, and Tarasov himself scored 27 goals to tie Krylya Sovetov Moscow’s Alexander Guryshev for third-most in the league (Shuvalov won the scoring title with 31, with his team-mate Bobrov just behind him at 29). On defense, Nikolai Sologubov and Dmitry Ugolov were rapidly making a name for themselves along with the already well-known Alexander Nikanorov, and CDKA could boast an exception platoon in net as well, with Grigory Mkrtychan and Boris Afanasyev.
CDKA’s main competition came from Dynamo Moscow and their redoubtable coach Arkady Chernyshev. Dynamo got 20 goals off the stick of Alexander Uvarov and another 16 from Nikolai Postavnin, and finished only four points behind the Red Army men. The bronze medal went to Guryshev and Krylya Sovetov — the team’s first podium finish, although it would by no means be their last. Despite the goal-scoring exploits of Shuvalov and Bobrov, the shattered Air Force team could do no better than fourth. Spartak Moscow came in fifth, while the top half of the 12-team table was rounded out by always-respectable Daugava Riga.
As for the newcomers, they had mixed fortunes in 1949-50. Bolshevik Leningrad and Dynamo Sverdlovsk acquitted themselves decently enough, finishing seventh and eights respectively. For Lokomotiv Moscow, however, it was a season to forget – the Railwaymen won only twice, and were outscored by 77 goals over their 22 contests. Back they went to the Class B league, to be replaced for 1950-51 by the top division’s first ever Belarusan representatives in Spartak Minsk.
1940-50 was a very sad season for Soviet hockey, obviously. Not only did the catastrophe at Sverdlovsk shatter the up-and-coming Air Force team, but it also dealt a heavy blow to the young Soviet national team program, as several of the players who died had been counted upon to play key roles there. Next time in this series, we’ll look at the steps taken by Vasily Stalin at VVS MVO, and by the national team’s organizers, to try to recover from the blow.
1949-50 All Star Team (Golden Helmet Award)
Goaltender: Harijs Mellups (VVS MVO Moscow)
Defense: Vladimir Nikanorov (CDKA Moscow), Alexander Vinogradov (VVS MVO Moscow)
Forwards: Yevgeny Babich (CDKA Moscow & VVS MVO Moscow), Vsevolod Bobrov (VVS MVO Moscow), Viktor Shuvalov (VVS MVO Moscow)