Time now for another look back at the early days of Soviet hockey, with the next in our series of posts about Soviet Championship seasons! The 1954-55 campaign had seen Anatoly Tarasov’s CSK MO Moscow, the Red Army squad, win the ten-team league ahead of Krylya Sovetov Moscow and Dynamo Moscow. And CSK MO could look forward to bringing most of that title-winning team, including the vital Mr. Puchkov, pictured above. However, for 1955-56 they would also be faced with one crucial absence from lineup, which we will get to in a little while. Could they repeat, or would one of their rivals take advantage and snatch the title away? Read on!
There were new faces in the Soviet Championship for 1955-56 — quite a lot of them, in fact. The league added five teams to the previous season’s ten, and four of the new arrivals came from Moscow (the lone exception was Spartak Sverdlovsk, from modern-day Yekaterinburg). One of the new clubs from the capital was a familiar name, as Spartak Moscow were back in the fold after sitting out a couple of seasons. Two of the others would in time become well-known in Soviet hockey. Railway team Lokomotiv Moscow was one of these; in the 1960s they would become the first team from the USSR to win the Spengler Cup. Khimik Moscow, meanwhile, actually played outside the city, in the smaller town of Voskresensk, and would shortly take on the name of their actual home. Khimik Voskresensk, under the leadership of founder and head coach Nikolai Epshtein, would go on to forge a reputation for producing prodigious talent for the larger clubs; the likes of Alexander Ragulin, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Igor Larionov all spent time in Voskresensk early in their careers. The fourth new Moscow team was called Burevestnik, and they were destined for only a short stay in the top levels of Soviet hockey.
Fifteen teams meant a 28-game regular season in 1955-56, with everybody playing everybody else twice. The newcomers, sad to say, did not precisely prosper in this particular campaign. Burevestnik Moscow occupied last place when all was said and done, winning only twice. Two was also the number of times they gave up more than 20 goals in a single game — it was a tough season for them. Lokomotiv finished in the penultimate position, with Khimik just ahead of them in 13th, and Spartak Sverdlovsk in 11th. Spartak Moscow managed to get themselves to mid-table respectability with an eighth-place finish, but it was clear early on that none of the league’s new additions were going to do anything like launch a miraculous attack on the podium spots, at least not this year.
If anyone was going to unseat defending champions CSK MO Moscow at the top of the table, it would be their capital city rivals Krylya Sovetov. The “Soviet Wings” (they were the team of the Soviet aeronautics industry), who as noted had finished second the previous season, brought fearsome scoring power to the table; in 1955-56 three of their players would end up in the top four in league scoring. Vladimir Grebennikov led the championship with 46 goals in the 28 games, while Alexei Guryshev’s 36 put him in third place in the country and Mikhail Bychkov took fourth with 30 (second spot in the scoring race, incidentally, belonged to our old friend Belyai Bekyashev, who scored 37 for fourth-place ODO Leningrad). Krylya Sovetov swept both their games against Dynamo Moscow, who would end up once again in third place, beating the KGB team 2-0 and 4-3, and scored 207 goals on the season while giving up a mere 46.
All that was good only for another second place finish, however; the season belonged entirely to the Red Army team, CSK MO Moscow. Anatoly Tarasov’s men not only repeated their title triumph of the previous season, they did so without a single blemish on their record — a perfect 28-0. Along the way, they outscored their baffled opponents by an average — an average — of nearly 8-1 (Red Army’s final GF-GA was 217-29). Dynamo Moscow were dispatched by scores of 3-0 and 4-1, and, even more impressively, Red Army beat Krylya Sovetov 8-2 and 5-1. In their two games against bottom club Burevestnik, CSK MO ran up an aggregate score of 37-1, and yes, I did check to make sure I typed that correctly. Just to reinforce their complete and utter domination of the season, CSK MO also made off with the Soviet Cup, defeating Krylya Sovetov 4-2 in the semi-finals and shutting out Dynamo 2-0 in the final.
The most amazing thing about Red Army’s unbeaten season was that they pulled off the feat without any contribution from superstar Vsevolod Bobrov. Now 34 years old, and possessing two bad knees, the great Bobrov sat out the entire season, breaking up the powerful line with Yevgeny Babich and Viktor Shuvalov. In his absence, CSK MO spread the scoring around; unheralded Yuri Kopylov led the team in goals in 27 (that was good for fifth overall in the Championship), while Yuri Pantyukhov scored 25 and Shuvalov chipped in 21. Also a positive factor for Red Army were two youngsters in Veniamin Alexandrov (18 goals) and Konstantin Loktev (17). That pair we will certainly hear from again, as they would go on to form a major part of the core of the Soviet national team of the 1960s.
It is entirely possible that some of Bobrov’s injury absence was precautionary, as Soviet hockey authorities had their eyes firmly fixed on the little town of Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, and the Winter Olympic Games to be held there in late January and early February (the competition also served as that year’s IIHF World Championship). It would the USSR’s first Olympic hockey tournament, a massive moment for the game in that country, and all involved were obviously very interested in having the nation’s best player available.
That plan, if plan it was, worked to perfection in Italy; the now-healthy Bobrov was reunited with Shuvalov and Babich, and led the Soviet team in scoring with nine goals and three assists in seven games under the direction of Dynamo Moscow head coach Arkady Chernyshev. And on February 4th the Soviets defeated the Canadians, represented on this occasion by the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, 2-0 to win their first Olympic gold medal (the title banner for this blog shows them celebrating that very victory). Red Army’s pioneering offensive defenseman Nikolai Sologubov was voted the tournament’s best rearguard.
In 1946, the Soviet Union had taken up hockey with the specific goal of winning Olympic medals and World Championships. Now, with two world titles in three seasons, and the gold at Cortina D’Ampezzo, the USSR could safely be said to have arrived on the scene. It also makes 1956 as good a time as any to mark an end to what we might describe as “early Soviet hockey.” The league and national team were well-established, while those players who had been around since the very beginning were either close to wrapping up their careers or had already done so, and the next generation was starting to emerge. The 1956-57 season would also see another important development in hockey in the Soviet Union: for the first time, (some) games would be played indoors.
All of that, however, is for the next post in this series, when we will see if anyone could do anything about the juggernaut that was Red Army. In the meantime, thank you for reading!