Time for another look back into the early history of Soviet hockey! When last we checked in, Dynamo Moscow had pulled off a bit of an upset by taking the 1953-54 title ahead of Red Army’s massively stacked roster of superstars, and the Soviet national team had stunned Team Canada, and the hockey world, by winning the World Championship at their first try. Would either of those feats be repeated in the 1954-55 season? Read on to find out…
The Red Army team was under, yet again, a new name for the 1954-55 season; this time, they were CSK MO (“Central Sports Club of the Ministry of Defense”). And there must have been a certain amount of desperation setting in at the club. It is strange to think about now, but Red Army were entering their fifth season since the last time they had won the Soviet Championship.
Despite the name change, that amazing lineup of players at Red Army remained pretty much the same. Most importantly, the big forward line of Vsevolod Bobrov, Viktor Shuvalov, and the play-making Yevgeny Babich was still intact. The defense was anchored by Nikolai Sologubov, Ivan Tregubov, and Alexander Vinogradov, with the first of those already turning into one the USSR’s all-time great blueliners. At his best, Sologubov was a sort of proto-Bobby Orr, fond of hurling himself into the rush and more than capable of contributing to the goal-scoring side of things. We will hear more of him anon in this series, rest assured. In goal, meanwhile, CSK MO could boast a one-two punch that far out-stripped their championship rivals; Nikolai Puchkov and Grigory Mkrtychan were the netminders for the Soviet national team as well as for Red Army, and it was hard to see how anyone could better that combination. The whole thing was overseen by head coach Anatoly Tarasov, still some ways from the height of his fame as a hockey innovator in the 1960s, but already beginning to work on the team play and speed that would come to characterize his teams. While Tarasov’s abrasiveness could irritate superiors and subordinates alike (Bobrov, in particular, famously disliked him), there was no questioning his effectiveness even at this early date.
As for Red Army’s rivals, they would once again be the other big teams from the Soviet capital (we still, in this series, await the first appearance in the top three by a club from outside Moscow). The defending champions, Dynamo, had their own big trio up front, in the persons of Alexander Uvarov, Valentin Kuzin, and Yuri Krylov. And Dynamo could now boast a World Champion coach in Arkady Chernyshyov. Chernyshyov has largely been relegated by history to a supporting role in Soviet hockey, albeit a very important one, behind his rival Tarasov. However, at this time, he ruled the coaching roost in the USSR, as bench boss of both the national team and the national champions. While not the creative genius that Tarasov was, Chernyshyov was easier to get along with, and he was far, far, from a fool when it came to hockey matters.
Spartak Moscow, traditionally numbered among the “bigs” in Moscow, would once again sit out the hockey season, leaving Krylya Sovetov — often known in English as “Soviet Wings” — as the other powerhouse from the capital. Krylya Sovetov’s big offensive weapon was Alexei Guryshev, who had won the scoring title in 1948-49 and was still going strong. The coach of the team was Vladimir Yegorov, an almost-forgotten name outside of Russia, but a solid hockey tactician who was Chernyshyov’s assistant in the national team set-up. Krylya Sovetov had never won the Soviet Championship, but were regulars in the top three, and could not be overlooked by any opponent.
The 1954-55 season would once again be a double round-robin affair, with each team playing each other team twice — once at home and once away. The championship was to be contested by nine teams, up one from the previous campaign. Dynamo Sverdlovsk had been relegated to the Class B league, replaced by two newcomers: Dynamo Novosibirsk and Torpedo Gorky (in addition, Dynamo Leningrad had changed their name to Avangard). And so the season began, with CSK MO looking to end their championship drought, unseat defending champs Dynamo, and exact a bit of revenge for the previous year.
In that disappointing 1953-54 campaign, the initial sign of trouble for Red Army had come when they lost their first meeting with Dynamo Moscow. And so, in the winter of 1954-55, the alarm bells must have been ringing for Tarasov when Dynamo once again got the better of them early on, by a score of 2-1. But this time, CSK MO righted the ship in short order. The Red Army men swept through the league after that opening set-back, winning not only the re-match with Dynamo, taken by a 3-0 score, but every other game as well. And they pounded their weaker opponents, hitting ten or more goals in six of the season’s 18 contests. In all, CSK MO scored 142 times (nearly eight goals per game, on average), while their defense and goaltenders were beaten less than once per match — 16 goals against in total. Five years after their previous gold-medal finish, Red Army were once again champions of the USSR.
Just to reinforce their championship, Anatoly Tarasov’s boys completed the double by winning the Soviet Cup. After knocking out Krylya Sovetov by a 5-1 score in the semi-finals, CSK MO downed Dynamo 5-2 in the finals. It was the second such double-championship in the history of Soviet hockey; Vasily Stalin’s old Air Force team had managed the feat in 1952.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about CSK MO’s 142 goals was the relatively small number of them that came from the big line. Bobrov scored 25, good for third in the championship but a modest total by his standards. Relatively unknown second-liner Yuri Pantyukhov actually came second on the team, with 19 markers, a total that had time tied for fifth in the league. Babich had 14, which, unusually, put him ahead of Shuvalov with 13. A balanced attacked, however, had been key; eight different Red Army players scored in double-figures, more than any other team in the league.
Despite CSK MO’s 17-1 record, and their goal-scoring and -preventing exploits, the final table was relatively close. In fact, the season turned on Red Army’s two tight wins (2-0 and 2-1) against Guryshev and his Krylya Sovetov team-mates. Apart from those two losses, Krylya Sovetov matched CSK MO’s performance almost exactly, splitting with Dynamo Moscow and scoring 143 goals while conceding 26. Guryshev’s 41 goals earned him the league scoring title, his second such award. His team-mate Nikolai Khlystov finished fourth in the league scoring race, with 20 goals, while Vladimir Grebennikov’s 19 tied him for fifth.
As for Dynamo, the defending champions stumbled a little bit after their early win over Red Army. In addition to losing against both CSK MO and Krylya Sovetov, the were held to surprising draws by both Daugava Riga and — even more stunning — Avangard Leningrad, who finished eighth out of the championship’s ten teams. Dynamo’s third place finish was disappointing, although the fans could take some consolation from the performance of Alexander Uvarov; he scored 27 times to finish second in the scoring, just ahead of the redoubtable Bobrov.
As was becoming the usual way of things, the big Moscow clubs basically had the title race to themselves in 1954-55. Although only four points separated CSK MO, Krylya Sovetov, and Dynamo in the standings, there were another 13 standing between the latter in third place and Avangard Chelyabinsk in fourth. Down at the wrong end of the table, Torpedo Gorky took the “honours” of tenth and last place. Not to worry; their day would come, and in fact was already not so far away.
On the international scene, meanwhile, the Soviet team set off for West Germany in late February as defending champions after their stunning demolition of Canada’s East York Lyndhursts the previous year in Sweden. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association had been the target of a great deal of domestic vitriol over that debacle, and the organization responded by sending the much more powerful Penticton Vees, the Allan Cup champions, as Canada’s team in 1955. Once again, the tournament came down a final match between Canada and the USSR, but there would be no gold medal repeat for the Russians this time. Led by the notorious Warwick brothers, the Vees simply pummeled the Soviet players into the ice, and won the title-decider 5-0. The great hockey rivalry between the two nations thus stood at one victory apiece, with the third meeting to be the 1956 Olympic Games in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy.
As we pass through the 1954-55 season, we are approaching what we might call “the end of the beginning” of Soviet hockey. The domestic championship was now well-established, although tinkering with the format would continue throughout its existence, and the national team was now making its mark at the World Championship level despite the set-back of 1955. And some of the game’s first Russian stars were nearing the ends of their careers, at least as players. However, Bobrov and Co. still had a chapter or two to write on the ice, and next time in this series we’ll check out what they got up to in 1955-56!