The Soviet team lines up prior to the historic game at the Luzhniki football stadium on 5 March 1957.
photo: Hockey Hall of Fame
International hockey history isn’t always just about wins and games played and big goals. An important part of the game’s development can be measured by important moments that happen for the first time... or the last time.
Ice hockey debuts at the Olympic Games
Although the IIHF was founded in 1908 by France, Bohemia, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Belgium, the first true international tournament didn’t take place until 1920 during the Summer Olympics. That’s when the two North American powers, Canada and the United States, travelled to Antwerp, Belgium, the first time a true world showdown took place. Games were played seven men a side on small patches of ice with “boards” that were no more than a foot high (30cm). The European players were more familiar with bandy and couldn’t compete with the puck skill and skating ability of the North Americans, so it’s not surprising that the most competitive match was a close Canada win, 2-0, over the U.S. The tournament format was also unique. Called the Bergvall System, it had all teams playing for gold. Then, all teams that lost to the champions – Canada – played for silver, and then the teams that lost to the silver medallists – United States – played for bronze, won by Czechoslovakia. The format didn’t last, but that didn’t matter. Hockey was now a worldwide international event, and four years later the first official Olympic Winter Games was created as a result.
First annual World Championship held in 1930
The development of international hockey during the 1920s was swift and successful. It started in 1920 with Olympic participation of seven nations from both Europe and North America, which in turn led to the creation four years later of an Olympics dedicated exclusively to winter sports. The 1920s also saw the IIHF family grow to include Spain, Italy, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Finland, and as the sport’s popularity increased it became apparent a world tournament every four years was not enough. And so, starting in 1930, the IIHF created its own World Championship, to be played in non-Olympic years. The first incarnation took place in Chamonix, France, but poor weather near the end forced the re-location of games to Berlin and Vienna. Canada beat Germany, 6-1, in the finals (the United States did not participate), and so began an event that today includes more than 50 nations every year in various divisions.
Czechoslovakia wins gold at first post-war World Championship
Although the war ended in 1945, it wasn’t until two years later that the IIHF was able to schedule its first World Championship since 1939. By this time Canada had won every tournament with two exceptions – the 1933 Worlds, which it lost to the U.S., and the 1936 Olympics, which it lost to Great Britain. In 1947, Canada didn’t compete, though, leaving the tournament wide open. The United States was represented by an all-star team of sorts, and the Czechoslovaks and Swedes were considered the class of Europe. The latter two proved superior in the early going. Sweden beat the U.S., 4-1, and the Americans later lost to Austria, 6-5. Sweden beat the Czechs, 2-1, but then Austria beat Sweden by that same 2-1 score on the final day. In the final match of the tournament, the Czechoslovaks beat the U.S. soundly, 6-1, claiming their first gold medal. The team was led by several players who were later inducted into the IIHF’s Hall of Fame, notably goalie Bohumil Modry as well as forwards Ladislav Trojak and Vladimir Zabrodsky.
IIHF Worlds finale held in outdoor stadium in front of 50,000
Such was the stunning success of the Soviet Union’s entrance into the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 1954, when it defeated Canada for gold, that the IIHF awarded the new hockey nation the right to host the ’57 World Championship. Most of the games of the 24th World Championship were held in the newly-built indoor Luzhniki Sports Palace, but as the tournament moved along it became clear the last game of the program, hosts Soviets versus Sweden, would likely decide the gold medal. As a result, tournament organizers moved the venue from the 14,000-seat indoor arena to outdoors, on the nearby Luzhniki football stadium in Moscow. Indeed, by that final day the Swedes had won six straight games, while the Soviets had five wins and one tie, against Czechoslovakia. The exact attendance figure will never be known, but as the teams took to the ice there were at least 50,000 fans in the stadium. Sweden took an early 2-0 lead, but the Soviets scored four goals in the second to make it a 4-2 game after two periods. Sweden got one back early in the third, and then with about 12 minutes remaining Swedish forward Eilert Maatta chased a loose puck in the right corner of the Soviet zone and cut to the goal, skating along the goal line. With no one to pass to, Maatta saw that Soviet goalie Nikolai Puchkov was anticipating a centering pass and had left a small gap between his pads and the goal post. The Swede, a right-handed shooter, went for the backhander and the puck found a small opening. The 4-4 tie gave Tre Kronor its second World Championship title, and the attendance record from that game stood until 2010, when it was surpassed in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Amateur era comes to a close as Trail Smoke Eaters take home gold
The last true and pure amateur champions of the world were Canada’s Trail Smoke Eaters in 1961. The team came from British Columbia and featured many familiar names to fans in Canada, namely Mike Legace, Addy Tambellini, Seth Martin, Hal Jones, Harry Smith, and Bobby Kromm (who was also the coach). And, as might have been expected, the gold medal came down to the final day and a game between those Smoke Eaters and the Soviets. Czechoslovakia won earlier in the day, taking them to 13 points in the standings, and Canada had 11. The Soviets had 10 and couldn’t win gold, but they could also spoil it for Canada with a win. But that final game was not particularly close. Smith gave the team an early 1-0 lead, and then Jackie McLeod and Jones made it 3-0 after two periods. Canada won, 5-1, and took gold over the Czechoslovaks because of a superior goal difference. The next year, Canada abandoned club representation in international hockey and adopted Father David Bauer’s National Team concept. The Soviets went on to win every tournament for nearly a decade, and then Canada withdrew from competition until it could use its professionals.
The IIHF expands the World Championships to A, B and C pools
The history of the IIHF is really the history of the explosive development of hockey around the world, and 1961 was a pivotal year in that explosion. The 1936 and 1952 Olympics consisted of 15 nations, as did the 1935 and 1959 World Championship. It was becoming clear that the tournament was getting too big for so many nations, and top to bottom the discrepancy in talent was also too great for competitive balance. So, in 1961, the IIHF crated three levels of play. The top eight teams competed in A Pool; the next six in B Pool; and, the next six in C Pool. Now, 20 nations competed among more equal competition, thus fostering greater development of the game throughout Europe and around the world. In 1987, a D Pool was added, and in 2001 the “pool” system was replaced by divisions and groups, of which there are now eight in men’s World Championship play.
Goalies play their final game without a mask
It was voluntary, and then mandatory. At the 1971 World Championship in Switzerland, most goalies were wearing facemasks, but four were “old school” holdouts who played bare-faced. Marcel Sakac of Czechoslovakia, Christer Abrahamsson and Leif Holmqvist of Sweden, and Carl Wetzel of the United States all played without a mask. The refusal to don protective headgear worked for the most part as the Czechoslovaks won silver and Sweden bronze, but the Americans finished last and were demoted to B Pool for 1972. But by then the IIHF had mandated that facemasks were to be worn by all goaltenders at all Olympic and World Championship competition, thus ending the debate over who was brave (or crazy!) and who was not.
Canada returns to the international stage after seven years
The issue of what defined an amateur player became such a contentious issue in international hockey that Canada withdrew from IIHF competition after the 1969 World Championship and didn’t return for eight years. No Olympics, no Worlds. But by the time Canada played at the ’77 Worlds in Vienna, the Summit Series (1972) and Canada Cup (1976) had proved huge successes, and incoming IIHF president Dr. Gunther Sabetzki had made it his top priority to get Canada back into the fold. By 1977, then, the word amateur no longer existed. Any player could represent Canada, from the NHL to any other league. As a result, Team Canada came to the Austrian capital for the 1977 World Championship with a team that featured Tony and Phil Esposito and other established NHL veterans such as defencemen Carol Vadnais, Dallas Smith, and Phil Russell. Forwards included Rod Gilbert, Ron Ellis, Pierre Larouche, Jean Pronovost, and Eric Vail. It was an inglorious return marred by violence, bad losses, and disappointment, but it marked the start of a new chapter in IIHF history and the growth and development of the international game.
Wayne Gretzky makes his only World Championship appearance
When the Los Angels Kings beat Edmonton in the opening round of the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs, it was a humbling jolt of disappointment for an Oilers team that was young, fast, and full of Cup hope. For Wayne Gretzky and teammate Kevin Lowe, they tried to forget that upset by joining Team Canada for the World Championship in Finland. Number 99 had six goals and 14 points in the ten games, leading Canada to a bronze medal. He had scored a preposterous 92 goals and 212 points in the NHL’s regular season, and he would go on to set just about every possible scoring record in the league. He also played for his country many times in the coming 17 years, but as fate would have it this appearance in 1982 was the only time he played at the World Championship. One and done, but one to remember.
Alexander Mogilny becomes first Soviet-era player to defect to the NHL
Alexander Mogilny was not just a great hockey player – he made a life-altering decision that had greater implications for the game. The 20-year-old had teamed with Sergei Fyodorov and Pavel Bure to help give CCCP another gold at the 1989 World Championship in Stockholm. After the win, players were rewarded with two “shopping days”, but when they gathered to fly home, Mogilny was nowhere to be found. He had slipped away from the team’s hotel, assisted by the Soviet team host, Sergei Fomichev. Mogilny, who had been drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1988, called Don Luce, the Sabres director of scouting, and asked for a meeting, indicating “he had some interest in coming out.” Luce immediately flew to Stockholm with the club’s general manager, Gerry Meehan. They met with Mogilny on May 4 at a secret location, the same day the Soviet team left the Swedish capital for Moscow. On Friday, May 5, Mogilny left Stockholm with Sabres’ officials, and seven hours later they landed in New York. This was the first defection by a Soviet hockey player, a brave decision made in the name of wanting to play in the world’s best league.
Vladislav Tretiak first European-born player inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame
The 1989 inductions at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto were significant for two reasons. First, it helped celebrate the announcement that the Hall would soon be moving into a new home in downtown Toronto, one with more space that could take the Hall into the 21st century. Second, this induction was very much an international celebration. Darryl Sittler was a famed NHLer, but he also scored the monumental series winner at the 1976 Canada Cup. Father David Bauer created Canada’s National Team. And then there was Vladislav Tretiak, the incomparable Soviet goalie who had rarely tasted defeat during his 15-year career. Tretiak’s inclusion was a monumental break from tradition for the Hockey Hall of Fame because he never played in the NHL and was being honoured entirely for his international career. He won ten gold medals at the World Championship, and three more at the Olympics, and his extraordinary play led the NHL world to see that although it was the greatest league, there were great players elsewhere around the world who should be honoured alongside those NHL stars. Tretiak was the first.
During the 100-year anniversary of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship we bring you the top-100 moments in stories, photos and videos in 10 days. Check out more by clicking the chapters below: