Those who saw the game will never forget it: Buffalo vs. Krylia Sovietov 12-6 in 1976. Scores like that are probably less likely 35 years later when the city hosts the IIHF World U20 Championship.
For Buffalo, which got its NHL franchise in 1970 and thus celebrates 40 years as a major league town this season, the IIHF World U20 Championship will be the first real international tournament in the city’s hockey history.
Yes, Buffalo hosted a game in the 1984 Canada Cup, but the preliminary round game between the United States and Czechoslovakia (3-2) was the only one which was allocated to the city in upstate New York.
However, the most memorable international game which echoed around the hockey world was played in Buffalo at the old Memorial Auditorium – the Aud – on January 4, 1976, as part of what was called the “Super Series” when the Soviet Union’s two best club teams – CSKA and Krylia Sovietov from Moscow – battled eight of the NHL’s top teams.
The “Super Series” came only three-and-a-half years after the historic eight-game Summit Series between the Soviet Union national team and Team Canada, the first ever best-on-best meeting between hockey’s super powers.
So the Cold War, both on and off the ice, was alive and well in the mid-1970s when Soviet hockey authorities and the National Hockey League decided to stage the first-ever series of games between club teams from the two leagues.
Prior to the eight-game match-up, NHL President Clarence Campbell explained:
“This series will be a truer test of the calibre of hockey, compared to the 1972 meeting. The games will come during the regular season when the players are in peak playing condition. And equally important, this will be a test of team versus team, not a collection of All-Stars unfamiliar with each other’s style of play. I guess it will be a very good reading of who plays the best hockey in the world.”
What Mr. Campbell probably didn’t realize was that CSKA Moscow and Krylia Sovietov (dubbed “Red Army” and “Soviet Wings” respectively, during this series) carried about 80 per cent of the players who normally suited up for the Soviet national team. And if this was not enough, both Soviet clubs where strengthened by national team players from other Soviet clubs.
So if CSKA – the 32-time winner of the Soviet league – wasn’t already strong enough, it still added defenceman Valeri Vasiliev and forward Alexander Maltsev, who normally represented Dynamo Moscow. And Krylia, which shockingly enough won the Soviet league in 1974 and followed it by winning the European Cup, added the Spartak Moscow line of Alexander Yakushev, Viktor Shalimov and Vladimir Shadrin, and defenceman Yuri Lyapkin.
(Can you imagine the star-stocked 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens adding Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, and Bobby Orr?)
So, without any exception really, the entire Soviet national team was represented on those two club teams.
The historic, first meeting between a Soviet club team and an NHL club took place on December 28, 1975, at the Madison Square Garden in New York, and the result was an embarrassment for the NHL. CSKA toyed with the N.Y. Rangers, cruising to a 7-3 victory after holding a commanding 6-1 lead after two periods.
On the next day, Krylia Sovietov entered the stage in Pittsburgh and before the Penguins knew what struck them it was 4-0 for the Soviet Wings. Final score 7-4 for the unknown guests whose simple blue jerseys sported only two stylized Cyrillic letters “KS”.
On New Year’s Eve, the hockey world witnessed one of the best games ever played – maybe the best ever between two club teams – when the Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson and Guy Lafleur-led Montreal Canadiens skated to a 3-3 tie with CSKA Moscow.
So the 16,433 fans who went to the ancient Aud in Buffalo on January 4 knew that their Sabres would have a tough game on their hands. The Soviets not only had a splendid national team; their best club teams showed that they had the potential to compete with every NHL team.
The Sabres of the ‘70s were led by one of the most exciting lines in hockey, the French Connection, with the elegant playmaker Gilbert Perreault at centre, the prolific scorer Rick Martin on the left side and right-winger René Robert. It was that line that led the Sabres to the club’s first Stanley Cup finals just seven months earlier, where Buffalo lost to Philadelphia in six games.
The Soviet Wings had an excellent team; goaltender Alexander Sidelnikov was Vladislav Tretiak’s backup on the national team while forwards Vyacheslav Anisin, Alexander Bodunov, and Yuri Lebedev formed a line that skated in the 1972 Series. Besides the four added Spartak players, Krylia also had electrifying forwards Sergei Kapustin and Vladimir Repnev.
Even though this was technically an exhibition game, Sabres coach Floyd Smith and general manager Punch Imlach felt pressure to win from the entire NHL establishment. A fourth consecutive game against the Soviets without a win would not look good after league president Clarence Campbell’s comments that this series would be “a very good reading of who plays the best hockey in the world.”
What materialized on this January afternoon was one of the least expected scenarios in top-level international hockey.
Defenceman Jocelyn Guevremont opened the scoring after six minutes and the French Connection (Perreault and Martin) made 3-0 after twelve. Repnev and Kapustin replied for Krylia, but Martin’s second made it 4-2 after the first.
The score was 7-3 almost midway through the game when Soviet coach Boris Kulagin decided to pull goalie Sidelnikov for backup Kylikov, but he lasted only less than four minutes – and two goals against – before Sidelnikov was back facing the crossfire.
Score after two periods, Buffalo 9, Krylia 4. The “Aud” fans celebrated each goal as if it were a Stanley Cup goal.
Kapustin and Lebedev scored for the Soviets in the third while Fred Stanfield, Danny Gare, and Brian Spencer ended this 18-goal spectacle at 18:02 of the third period with the Sabres’ fifth power-play goal of the matinee.
As the teams lined up for the handshake, the arena scoreboard showed the unbelievable numbers – 12-6. The Sabres skated in and out through the Wings’ defence as if it were a junior team. Never before and never after had a top Soviet club been so totally outplayed as on this memorable day.
It was the worst defeat ever for a professional Soviet hockey club.
The score was even more impressive considering Krylia’s other games on the tour. Three days after the debacle at the Memorial Auditorium, the Wings beat Chicago 4-2 and their last game was a 2-1 win against the rising New York Islanders, who already at that time had a very good team with Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, and “Chico” Resch in goal.
There was something about those Sabres teams that the Soviets didn’t like or were not able to handle. The next time the NHL vs. Soviets club tour came to Buffalo – in 1980 – it was decided that the Sabres would take on the best touring team, CSKA Moscow, with Tretiak in goal, Kasatonov on defence and Makarov, Petrov, Kharlamov, Mikhailov, and Balderis up front.
The game was played almost to the day four years after the 12-6 rout, and again the Soviets were defeated by an unlikely score: 6-1. During the 15 years that the club “Super Series” lived, CSKA never again lost to an NHL team by such numbers. In 1989, as the series began to lose much of its original allure, Buffalo defeated CSKA again, 6-5.
Maybe it was the old but charming Memorial Auditorium that the Soviet players didn’t fancy. Just like all CCCP teams loved playing at the Montreal Forum, they just couldn’t win on the small-ice downtown rink from 1940.
As the hockey world gathers in Buffalo for the 35th IIHF World U20 Championship, the “Aud” is gone and replaced by the modern HSBC Arena where 21 out 31 World Junior games will be played, including the Gold Medal Game on January 5.
As for Team Russia, it hopes that the unfriendly “Aud” ghosts vanished when the building was torn down in 2009.
(Who watched the 12-6 game on television in Toronto)
Footnote: Although the Memorial Auditorium was demolished only in 2009, the Buffalo Sabres moved in 1996. The “Aud” was the last arena in which the ice sheet fell short of the NHL-mandated 200 ft. by 85 ft. size.
The 1976 game between the Buffalo Sabres and their guests from Moscow, Krylia Sovietov, ended with the unbelievable score of 12-6. Photo: Ron Moscati