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In his blog entry from April 5 ("A Londoner upsets the Reds – Wembley Lions versus the Soviet Union 1955"), Stewart Roberts takes a look at the series of games the Soviet national team played in England in November and December 1955, most notably the narrow 3-2 win over Wembley Lion on December 1. The game report by English weekly "Ice Hockey News" highlights the stiff bodychecking by Wembley players Lawson Neil and Roy Sheperd and as Roberts rightfully points out, the series was an "opportunity for the Soviets to get a good work-out against Canadian opposition" after they had been defeated 0-5 by Canadian club Penticton at the 1955 World Championship. In this entry, I'd like to take a look at the series and its background based on Russian sources.
Prior to 1945, only "hockey with the ball" (in England known as bandy) had been practiced in Russia. Then Nikolai Romanov, head of the Soviet government committee overseeing sports, decided that Canadian hockey should be picked up since it was an Olympic sport and bandy wasn't. Some of the best bandy players of the country were recruited to switch to the new game. Their bandy background gave them an excellent foundation in skating: all of them were professional athletes (not in name though) that would annually spend their winters speeding over the soccer-sized ice rinks that were used for bandy competitions. Other aspects, however, had yet to be learned: the tactics of the game and many techniques, including physical play. There was no bodychecking in bandy.
When LTC Prague, one of the leading clubs in Europe, arrived in Russia in February 1948, the Soviets were shocked as they had no concept of bodychecking as customary in international hockey. Their referee Sergei Savin kept sending Czechoslovak players to the penalty box for actions that wouldn't have resulted in a penalty elsewhere. Overall LTC Prague left a big and favourable impression on their hosts, but the praise was mixed with complaints about "excessive roughness". It's perhaps no coincidence that those of the Soviet observers and participants who went on to become all-time greats in Soviet hockey (e.g. Anatoli Tarasov and Vsevolod Bobrov) are the ones who didn't complain but took the experience as a learning opportunity. The same can be said of Arkadi Chernyshov, one of the members of the Soviet coaching Council, who put it bluntly: "The matches have demonstrated a number of holes in the game of our players, a typical example of which is the inability to play the body."
By 1954, Arkadi Chernyshov was the head coach of the Soviet national team when they won their first World Championship. In their first encounter with a Canadian team, the Soviets upset the East York Lyndhursts 7-2 with their speed and their passing. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association reacted by sending a better team: the Penticton Vees led by former NHL player Grant Warwick. Not only did they win the 1955 World Championship and defeat the Soviets 5-0, they also introduced them to the tougher Canadian bodychecking. Their main target was Soviet star Bobrov who was famously knocked over by Canadian defenceman Hal Tarala with an open-ice hit.
The Soviets were in for another learning experience. Chernyshov put it in the following terms: "At the 1955 World Championship, our team lost to the Canadians. One of the weaknesses of our hockey players was the inability to conduct a successful fight against a team whose players act rough and tough and make extensive use of bodychecking. Last year's world champion Penticton (Canada) was just such a team."
For the winter of 1955-1956, an extensive schedule against English clubs with their many Canadian players and their Canadian style of play was organized. The trip to England was the first part of that schedule. One of the goals Chernyshov named for those encounters: "Learning to withstand physical play."
Chernyshov's 1956 review in the magazine "Sporting Games"
As the protests of the Soviet bench after Sheperd's checks against Khlystov and Uvarov show, the lesson wasn't all that easy to take in, but after the fog had cleared the Soviets weren't too vocal about the hits. Reviewing Game 2 (5-4 vs Harringay Racers), Chernyshov says: "Having studied the Soviet manner of play, the British began to play more harshly and roughly." Game 3: "At the beginning of the second period, the English defenceman knocked Khlystov out of action with a rough check. He was taken off the ice unconsicous. A minute later, the same check was repeated and Uvarov left the ice." So the actions of the British club were labeled as "rough" or "rude", but that's as far as the criticism goes. No further complaints or more vocal accusation were made. The Soviets did indeed decide to take those encounters as an opportunity to learn and it served them well in regard to the 1956 Olympics. Stewart Roberts' conclusion that perhaps those hits in 1955 "taught the USSR a valuable lesson, helping them to adapt their fast, skillful game to cope with the more rumbustious Canadian style" is indeed not just wishful thinking.
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