1950-51: The Line
The 1950-51 Soviet Championship season opened with CDKA Moscow, the vaunted Red Army team led on and off the ice by Anatoly Tarasov, having won the previous three national titles in a row. The relatively new league was quickly becoming a Moscow-centric competition, with the likes of Spartak, Dynamo, and Krylya Sovetov — capital city teams all of them — vying to unseat CDKA. However, the army team’s fiercest challenge would come from another Moscow side: VVS MVO Moscow, the Soviet Air Force team run by Josef Stalin’s son Vasily. The 1949-50 campaign had seen VVS MVO’s assault on the title destroyed by the horrendous tragedy at Sverdlovsk, but as the new season opened, they were back, re-tooled and ready to go.
Even before the Sverdlovsk air disaster, Vasily Stalin had begun to use his political clout to good effect in the area of player procurement, and he once again stepped up his efforts to rebuild his shattered team in the wake of the crash. The summer of 1950 found him paying a great deal of attention to the goaltending side of things. Nikolai Puchkov was brought from the VVS MVO soccer team, which he had joined in 1949. And young Stalin also launched another raid on Red Army’s hockey ranks, making off with their first-choice goalie, Grigory Mkrtychan. Those two, helped by the likes of solid defenseman Alexander Vinogradov, would be responsible for keeping the puck out of the VVS MVO net.
But the air force team’s crowning glory was the trio of men — Vsevolod Bobrov, Viktor Shuvalov, and Yevgeny Babich — charged with putting the disk in the opponents’ goal. Bobrov, poached from CDKA in 1949, and also entrusted with the coaching duties at VVS MVO, was the undisputed king of the three. Already well-established as the Soviet game’s first superstar, and a close friend of Vasily Stalin as well, he was known as a bit of an individualist on the ice — one with an unrivaled nose for the net. His only real weakness was chronic trouble with his knees, which on occasion sidelined him for lengthy periods of time. Shuvalov, who like Bobrov had been fortunate enough to miss the ill-fated flight to Sverdlovsk in January of 1950, had come to Stalin’s attention by leading Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk into the top division of Soviet hockey and helping them stay there. He was not Bobrov’s equal in skill, but a powerful goal-scorer in his own right. And the playmaker and puck-supplier of the three was Babich, acquired at Bobrov’s urging from CDKA in the wake of the plane crash. The Soviet Championship did not tally assists at this time, but if it had Babich would almost certainly have topped the rankings. As a side note, he was, and remains, one of the game’s greatest Jewish players. Canada, and the rest of the hockey world, would find out about Bobrov, Shuvalov, and Babich on the ice in Stockholm in 1954, but for now the three were tasked with driving VVS MVO to a first-ever national championship.
The league format for 1950-51 involved two stages. The twelve teams were divided into two groups of six, with the top three in each advancing to the championship round, while the bottom three would combine to play in a consolation group. In this first round, VVS MVO found themselves grouped with defending champions CDKA, and fought them to a respectable 3-3 tie. The two teams won out against the rest of the teams in the group to advance easily, joined by Dynamo Leningrad in third place. Dynamo Moscow won the other preliminary group, with Krylya Sovetov Moscow and ODO Leningrad in second and third respectively. And so it was off to the championship round, where each team would play each other team twice to determine the title winner.
And — finally — it all came good for Vasily Stalin and VVS MVO Moscow. The Air Force team found another gear, winning both games against CDKA by scores of 5-2 and 5-1, and hammered Dynamo Moscow 9-5 and 9-1 into the bargain. In fact, VVS MVO won nine of the ten championship round games, with their only blemish being a 2-2 tie with Krylya Sovetov. In those 10 games, they scored 74 goals while conceding only 18. Bobrov, in particular, was at the height of his powers — over the two rounds of the season he scored 42 goals in 15 games. Unsurprisingly, that total led the league, and his line-mate Shuvalov came in second with 25. Babich scored “only” 13, but as noted his main job was to set up the other two. For Vasily Stalin, the title must have come as a tremendous relief; there is enough historical evidence out there to suggest that he was absolutely terrified of his father, and the pressure to succeed, and to placate the old man in the Kremlin, was surely immense.
Dynamo Moscow, despite their thrashings at the hands of Bobrov and Co., did enough to sneak into second place in the championship round and take home the silver medal. They could also boast the third-place scorer in the league, as Alexander Uvarov potted 21 goals. Just behind Dynamo, in third place, was Krylya Sovetov, largely driven by 20 goals off the stick of Alexei Guryshev. As for CDKA, their defense of the title proved a surprisingly feeble one in the end. Not only were they swept by VVS MVO, but they also lost both games to Dynamo Moscow, and finished off the podium in fourth place. The only comfort for Red Army was their young rising star, defenseman Nikolai Sologubov — the only non-VVS MVO player voted to the season-ending All-Star team. The two Leningrad teams occupied the bottom two spots of the championship group.
Viktor Shuvalov’s old club, Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk, earned a measure of respect by topping the consolation group, although they needed goal difference to break a three-way tie with Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Sverdlovsk. There was, for some unknown reason, no relegation from the top division in 1950-51. This meant that top-flight newcomers Spartak Minsk, who had failed to win a game in either round, were spared to try again the next season.
As a final note, the Soviet hockey authorities in this season instituted a new competition: the Soviet Cup. This was to be a simple knockout tournament involving teams from any level of Soviet hockey, much along the lines of the English FA Cup in soccer. Legend has it that Vasily Stalin promised his players a new television each if VVS MVO could win both the Championship and the Cup, but the double triumph was not to be. The Air Force men did have the satisfaction of once again getting the better of CDKA, 3-0 in the Cup semi-final. In the final, however, they took a 3-1 first-period lead over Krylya Sovetov only to see Guryshev and his team-mates roar back to win it 4-3. The Soviet Cup would continue to be contested, although not every season — in the end, the competition was held 21 times between 1951 and 1989.
Cup defeat aside, VVS MVO exited the 1950-51 season as champions of the USSR. The next task? To keep it that way. And in the next post in this series, we’ll look at the 1951-52 season and see if they did!
1950-51 All-Star Team (Golden Helmet Award)
Goaltender: Grigory Mkrtychan (VVS MVO Moscow)
Defense: Nikolai Sologubov (CDKA Moscow), Alexander Vinogradov (VVS MVO Moscow)
Forwards: Yevgeny Babich (VVS MVO Moscow), Vsevolod Bobrov (VVS MVO Moscow), Viktor Shuvalov (VVS MVO Moscow)