In the 1950-51 season, Vasily Stalin’s VVS MVO Moscow club, the team of the Soviet Air Force, had finally broken through in style to collect its first national championship. They would return a virtually intact lineup for the next campaign, highlighted by the nigh-unstoppable top line of Vsevolod Bobrov (who also coached the team), Viktor Shuvalov, and Yevgeny Babich. There were weapons elsewhere on the VVS MVO roster as well: Alexander Vinogradov anchored a strong defense, and the team’s goaltending tandem of Nikolai Puchkov and Grigory Mkrtychan was frankly peerless. Could any of the Air Force team’s rivals put together something to beat that, or would VVS MVO stroll to a second straight title?
Certainly, there would be challengers. CDSA Moscow**, the Red Army team, had been embarrassed by their fourth-place finish in 1950-51. In player-coach Anatoly Tarasov, they had a good forward and a fantastic thinker of the game, and CDSA could also boast the nation’s best defenseman, Nikolai Sologubov. While Red Army did not possess the sort of scoring threat enjoyed by their Air Force rivals, forward Alexander Komarov could be counted on to rack up some goals. Krylya Sovetov Moscow, meanwhile, representing Soviet aeronautics workers, were coming off a third-place finish and possessed a real scoring star in Alexei Guryshev. And Dynamo Moscow, defending silver medalists, would for their part look to forward Alexander Uvarov to put the puck in the opposition’s net.
An interesting side-note: among the Dynamo Moscow players at that time was a forward named Lev Ivanovich Yashin. While he would fail to make much of a mark as a hockey player, he more than compensated for it on the soccer pitch. Dressed entirely in black, which earned him the nickname “the Black Spider,” Yashin guarded the net for the Dynamo soccer team and the Soviet national side from 1950 to 1970, and he is widely regarded as the sport’s greatest goalkeeper of all time. It is worth remembering here that a number of the early Soviet hockey stars were multi-sport athletes — Bobrov too was a highly-regarded soccer player, to name but one example.
Like the preceding year, the 1951-52 hockey season would be a two-stage affair. The Championship’s 12 teams were first divided into three groups, and packed off eastward to Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk, and Chelyabinsk to play a preliminary round, with the top two in each group to advance to the championship group. The bottom two finishers in each would qualify for a consolation group to determine seventh through twelfth place in the overall championship. As to why the preliminary round was played in such relatively far-off places (Novosibirsk did not even have team in the Championship’s top division, although that was soon to change), the answer is quite simple; the USSR had not yet gotten around to building indoor rinks, and playable ice formed earlier in the autumn out in Siberia than it did in Moscow or Leningrad.
When things got underway, a very tough Group A saw CDSA Moscow stumble out of the blocks, although they managed to advance in second place, behind Krylya Sovetov. ODO Leningrad and Spartak Moscow came third and fourth in that group, and were sent to the consolation round. In Group B, meanwhile, Dynamo Moscow claimed first place and advanced, with the Latvians of Daugava Riga in second. Dynamo Sverdlovsk and Spartak Minsk brought up the rear in that group. And the defending champion Air Force men were in Group C, where they served notice early on that they were feeling fine. VVS MVO swept through the group, scoring 69 goals in 6 games, including a 20-2 hammering of Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk. Despite that disaster, Dzerzhinets did enough to finish second ahead of Dynamo Leningrad and Dinamo Tallinn.
In the final group, where the six advancing teams played each other twice, Red Army finally found the range a little bit, and the competition soon became a two-horse race between them and VVS MVO. Tarasov’s men got their noses in front early with a 3-1 victory over the Air Force team, only to see their rivals extract revenge in the return game, 3-2. CDSA and VVS MVO both swept their games against the rest of the group, and so finished with identical 9-1 records.
This is where things got slightly odd. The Red Army men had the better goal difference; 54-12 as opposed to the Air Force’s 53-18, and normally that would have meant the title. However, for some reason, in 1951-52 this was not the case. Whether it was part of the annual tinkering with the format of the championship, or political pressure had been exerted to give the team of Josef Stalin’s son a second chance, a tiebreaking, winner-take-all, game was to be played between the two teams. On the 24th of January, 1952, VVS MVO and CDSA met in Moscow, and when it was over, Vasily Stalin’s team had its second consecutive championship, by a score of 3-2.
And so it was gold again for VVS MVO, and a silver medal for CDSA. Dynamo Moscow came in third, ahead of a Krylya Sovetov team that basically collapsed in the final group stage. The “Soviet Wings” claimed only a single point in six games against VVS MVO, CDSA, and Dynamo (it came from a 2-2 draw with the latter), and slumped to fourth. As for the non-Muscovites in the group, Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk and Daugava Riga split the two games against each other, and lost all the rest. Spartak Moscow won the consolation group, narrowly, ahead of ODO Leningrad. Spartak Minsk finished last, and their 0-11 record through the two stages meant that they had now played two full seasons in the Soviet Championship without ever winning a game. However, the Championship was looking to expand (more on this when we discuss 1952-53), and so the Belarusan team was once again spared relegation.
There was another honour still to come for VVS MVO Moscow in 1951-52. The Soviet Cup competition, a simple knock-out tournament, was held for the second time, after the regular season was done. As had been the case in the tournament’s inaugural edition the year before, the Final featured Krylya Sovetov against the Air Force team. Krylya Sovetov had come out on top in 1951, but this time VVS MVO got their revenge, and completed the double championship by a score of 6-5.
Vsevolod Bobrov scored a hat-trick in the Soviet Cup Final, and 1951-52 was very much his year. His 37 goals led all players in the Championship, and in second place was his line-mate Shuvalov with 31 (Babich, whose major role was that of provider for the other two, still managed an excellent 15 goals of his own). Tied for a distant third place in the scoring race, at 21 goals, were Krylya Sovetov’s Guryshev and Komarov of CDSA. The final team standings may have been close, and we are entitled to wonder a bit about the unusual tiebreaker that decided the title, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that VVS MVO Moscow were the class of the Soviet Championship in 1951-52.
As a final note, Soviet hockey authorities had a decision to make as the season wrapped up. 1952 was an Olympic year, with the Winter Games being held in Oslo. Since its start-up in 1948, the Soviet national team program had been churning along, playing exhibition games here and there to test its strength and gain experience. With Bobrov, Shuvalov, et al. in such scintillating form, was it now time to take the big step, onto the world and Olympic stage? The authorities decided on this occasion that it was not. Another year of preparation, they felt, could do no harm, and sights were thus set on the 1953 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland.
** = Up until 1951-52, the team had been officially named CDKA, for “Central Club of the Red Army.” The new designation, CDSA, stood for “Central Club of the Soviet Army.” Colloquially, they were still “Red Army.”