It was all change for the Soviet Championship as the new season, the eighth of the nation’s brief hockey history, loomed in the fall of 1953. Gone, never to be seen again, were the three-time defending champions, the Air Force team VVS MVO Moscow. As you may recall, from previous posts here, that team had been run by Josef Stalin’s son Vasily, and had been swept away in the wake of the old dictator’s death earlier that year. And there was an obvious — most obvious — candidate to replace them atop the Soviet hockey hierarchy. However, “there’s many a slip” as the old saying goes, and the 1953-54 season turned into a surprising spectacle indeed…
VVS MVO Moscow were not the only familiar name missing from the roster of teams as the 1953-54 season began. Another of the Moscow giants, Spartak, also declined to take part in the campaign. I have never been able to satisfy myself as to why they withdrew, but in any case, Spartak’s absence would last only a couple of seasons. Some teams had new names, as well. Krylya Sovetov Moscow had changed their name to Zenit, although they would switch it back after only a single season (some sources, in fact, do not acknowledge the change at all). The team formerly known as Khimik Elektrostal were now Klub Karl Marx Elektrostal, while Dzerzhinets Chelyabinsk had become Avangard Chelyabinsk.
If that sounds confusing, at least the new season’s format was straightforward. The USSR’s hockey organizers did away with the previous seasons’ two-stage tournament in favour of a simple league system: nine teams in the Championship, each playing two games against each other team, and the winner being the team with the most points at the end. The list of participating teams included three from Moscow, two from Leningrad, and one each from Elekstrostal, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, and Riga.
On paper, the title seemed to belong to the Red Army team, CDSA Moscow, before the season even began. Not only had the Army men finished second to the now-disbanded VVS MVO by a single point in the previous season, but they had then absorbed nearly all of the champions’ top players. That meant the big line in Soviet hockey — Yevgeny Babich, Viktor Shuvalov, and the sublime Vsevolod Bobrov — would stay intact, but was now in the employ of CDSA. On defense, CDSA already had possessed real talents in Nikolai Sologubov and Ivan Tregubov, among others, and now added the redoubtable defensive defenseman Alexander Vinogradov to the mix. Finally, in goal, the Red Army team had acquired VVS MVO’s superb pairing of Grigory Mkrtychan and Nikolai Puchkov. CDSA’s coach, the legendary Anatoly Tarasov, must have been extremely confident of seeing his first championship since the 1949-50 season.
Any challenge to be mustered would likely come from one of two sources. Dynamo Moscow had won the inaugural Soviet title in 1946-47, and while they had not managed a repeat of first place, they had never finished outside the top three either. Their own first line of Alexander Uvarov, Valentin Kuzin, and Yuri Krylov was a force in its own right, if not quite at the level of Bobrov and friends. Dynamo’s coach, Arkady Chernyshev, possessed a keen hockey mind as well, and would later go on to a fruitful Soviet national team partnership with Tarasov. The other potential threat to CDSA was the re-named Krylya Sovetov club, Zenit Moscow. Alexei Guryshev, who would win the Soviet Championship goal-scoring title five times in his career, was the big star there, oft-likened by later observers to Phil Esposito. His regular linemates in 1953-54, Nikolai Khlystov and Mikhail Bychkov, were adept at the getting the puck to the danger area in front of the net, where Guryshev would shovel it home. However, for both Dynamo and Zenit, roster depth outside their top lines was a problem, and it would take something fairly remarkable for either team to sneak past the stacked lineup at CDSA.
It was thus at least a bit of a surprise, once the season began, when CDSA promptly lost their first meeting with Dynamo by a score of 2-1. It was a blow, albeit not a fatal one, to their championship aspirations, but worse was to come. After being held to a 3-3 draw by Zenit, the Red Army men were beaten again, this time 4-3, and shockingly the defeat came at the hands of Dom Ofitserov (“Officers’ Club”) Leningrad — in effect, CDSA were beaten by their own farm team.
Part of the problem was that Bobrov’s knees were once again giving him grief. He would play only seven games that season, although he did score 15 goals in that span (Shuvalov would be the team’s goal leader that season, with 20). We also have to wonder, I think, about the number of former Air Force players having to adapt to a new system under Tarasov. Tarasov’s tactical experiments were still in their infancy, but his ideas were already doubtless more complicated than what VVS MVO had played, which had mostly involved getting the puck to Bobrov or Shuvalov and letting them do their thing. And there have long been rumours that a number of the ex-VVS MVO players, very definitely including Bobrov, were not at all fond of the disciplinarian, perfectionist approach used by their new coach.
Whatever the case, CDSA did sort out their early difficulties, and ran the table for the rest of season. Along the way, they took revenge on Dynamo, 6-3, and on Dom Ofitserov Leningrad by an identical score (they also avenged the tie with Zenit, winning the second match between the two teams 5-0). The Red Army men scored 140 goals in the season’s 16 games, while conceding only 26. It was a thunderous performance overall, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the bad start. Chernyshev’s Dynamo squad rolled through the season, winning 15 times while losing only that second game against CDSA, and their goals-for-and-against was not bad either: 118-36. For the first time since 1947, the Soviet Championship trophy took up residence on the blue and white side of Moscow. It must have been a bitter disappointment for Tarasov, whose presumptive favourites had to make to do with second place in the Championship, while Zenit came third to complete the podium picture.
In fourth place, a nice finish for a team of their stature, was Dom Ofitserov Leningrad, the Red Army Officers’ Club squad from that city (as mentioned, Dom Ofitserov served mainly as a reserve or farm team for CDSA). In fact, they finished only two points behind Zenit, narrowly missing out on being the first non-Moscow team in the top three. In addition to their famous victory over their “parent” team, Dom Ofitserov could also boast the Championship’s top scorer in 1953-54. Belyai Bekyashev, who had been runner-up to Viktor Shuvalov in the scoring race the previous season, tallied 34 times, although it should be noted that 17 of those goals came in his team’s two games against lowly Dynamo Sverdlovsk. Bekyashev is a bit of a forgotten man in Soviet hockey. He did play a couple of seasons for the big Red Army team in Moscow, winning a championship in 1950, but spent most of his career in Leningrad. He scored 190 goals for Dom Ofitserov in his career, which remains a club record (the team these days lives on in the KHL, as defending Gagarin Cup champion SKA St. Petersburg).
At the bottom end of the table, the afore-mentioned and hapless Dynamo Sverdlovsk managed only a single win (for the record, it was a 4-3 triumph over Klub Karl Marx Elektrostal), and were relegated to the second tier of Soviet hockey. They would be replaced the following season by two teams: Dynamo Novosibirsk and Torpedo Gorky.
CDSA Moscow could claim one final consolation, as they managed to win the fourth edition of the Soviet Cup tournament, defeating Zenit 3-2 in the final. Interestingly, and this is perhaps evidence of some of the early tactical innovations of Anatoly Tarasov, all three CDSA goals were scored by defensemen; Tregubov, Sologubov, and Dmitry Ukolov were the marksmen.
And that was about it for the 1953-54 Soviet Championship season. However, as remarkable as Dynamo Moscow’s upset title triumph was, it was only the second-most important thing to happen in Soviet hockey that year. In late February, the Soviet national team, including a now-healthy Vsevolod Bobrov, trooped off to Stockholm to make its twice-delayed debut at the IIHF World Championship. Dynamo’s national title earned Chernyshev, rather than the expected Tarasov, the coaching position for the tournament, and he took full advantage. On March 7th, 1954, the USSR defeated Canada 7-2 in the first international hockey meeting between the two countries, a spectacular victory that gave the Soviets the gold medal at their first try. The 1954 IIHF World Championship deserves its own full post here, and by-and-by it will have one!