When Soviet hockey looked to GB
by Andy Potts|22 MAY 2021
A contemporary newspaper photo from the exhibition game between the USSR and Harringay Racers in Moscow in 1955.
photo: Sidorov/Grebnev via ice-hockey-stat.com
Saturday’s game between Russia and Great Britain is only the second time the countries have met in IIHF play since the break-up of the USSR. The previous clash, in 1994, ended in a convincing 12-3 victory for the Russians and the Red Machine will expect a similarly comprehensive scoreline this time.

But there was a time when the Soviets looked upon British hockey as a valuable staging post to assess the nation’s progress towards its first Olympic campaign. In the 1955/56 season, with the USSR readying for Cortina d’Ampezzo, games against British opposition formed a key part of the preparations.

Sporting détente

World War II transformed relations between London and Moscow. In the aftermath of the conflict, there was a willingness to try to cement closer ties between the two allies and sport played a big part in that. In 1945, Dynamo Moscow’s footballers went on an unprecedented tour of Britain, attracting huge crowds to games in London, Cardiff and Glasgow and earning rave reviews for their fast-paced passing game. Dynamo went undefeated, a sporting shock comparable with the Soviet performance in the Summit Series of 1972. One of the players drafted into the touring time was Vsevolod Bobrov of CSKA Moscow, who later said it was the first time in his life that he saw artificial ice. Later, of course, Bobrov would emerge as a hockey pioneer and a key figure in the Soviets’ rise to hockey greatness.

At the same time, the Second World War inspired a new wave of enthusiasm for hockey in Britain. The national team was the defending Olympic champion after its 1936 gold in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the game was boosted further when Canadian servicemen were posted to the UK during the war. From Brighton on the south coast, where the local rink stayed open throughout the war to cater for Canadians eager to enjoy some R&R on the ice, to Durham in the north-east, where Earl Carlson set up a team of players from the Royal Canadian Air Force to play at a newly-opened rink, the stage was set for a post-war hockey boom. Once the war was over, more Canadians were willing to cross the Atlantic, attracted by clubs willing to pay good wages for experienced skaters.
For the Soviet Union, eager to test its players against North American opposition, this was a great opportunity. Rather than navigating the logistical and political minefield of a Trans-Atlantic trip, Bobrov & Co could get a taste of Canadian-style play without leaving Europe. In November 1955, the touring party headed to London, with the Soviet national team – Bobrov included – making its first visit to Britain at the beginning of a three-nation tour.
This photo was made for the "Igrayut mastera khokkeya" magazine in the '50s.
photo: Sidorov/Grebnev via ice-hockey-stat.com

Soviet success

There were three games scheduled for the London leg of the trip – two against the Harringay Racers and a third against the Wembley Lions. The visitor won all three, starting with an emphatic 11-1 success against Harringay that drew warm praise from the host club.

“We knew the Russians were good but nobody counted on them producing the dazzling, non-stop hockey that they did here on Saturday against Racers in their first ever match on English ice,” reported the club program. “Their quick-fire passing, superb fitness, accuracy and sizzling skating left Racers breathless – and the crowd too.”

Two days later, though, the teams met again in a far tighter contest. The Racers jumped to a 3-0 first-period lead on a hat-trick from Bill Glennie and added a fourth early in the second, but the visitor rallied to win it 5-4, helped by a treble from Ivan Tregubov. “Definitely one of the finest matches ever seen at Harringay and the disappointment at not winning, or even drawing, was softened by the wonderfully exciting hockey. Let’s hope we meet the Russians again soon! Nothing but praise for Racers and applause for the USSR who fought back from 0-4.”

The Soviets went on to beat Wembley Lions 3-2 on a goal from Yevgeni Babich in the 58th minute before heading to Paris for an exhibition game against the Brighton Tigers. This time, a second-period tally from Viktor Shuvalov, who was the last survivor of the 1956 Olympic champions until his death last month, separated the teams.

The Harringay Racers soon got their wish to ‘meet the Russians’ once more. The teams competed in the Ahearne Cup, a major invitational tournament played in Stockholm, and after two tight periods, the USSR ripped it up in the third, scoring six unanswered goals on the way to a 9-2 victory.

Then came another piece of history. In December 1955, Harringay went to Moscow – the first pro club team to visit the Soviet Union. There were three games, two against the USSR’s national team sandwiching a meeting with the Soviet ‘B’ team. Glennie remembered the shock of playing in the open air on a December evening in Moscow, joking that frostbite was setting in before the national anthems were over.
The results were lopsided. The Soviets won 7-1 and 4-0, although Harringay restored some pride with a 5-4 success against the ‘B’ team. Newsreel footage of the games offers a fascinating glimpse of the hockey culture of the time, visiting both teams in their locker rooms before the game.
Russian reports of the games gave a generous account of Harringay’s performance, without missing any opportunity to contrast the ‘professional’ visitor against the Soviet ‘amateurs’ preparing for their Olympic debut. An article headlined ‘The Hockey Stars are Playing’ (Igrayut mastera khokkeya) noted that ‘the players from both teams demonstrated great sporting mastery’ while the text analysed player technique in some detail. A photo of a clash between Bobrov and the Racers’ Young was captioned: “Vsevolod Bobrov, in possession of the puck, decided to beat his opponent round the boards. However, he failed to take into account that the opposition is fluent in the art of the check. As the Englishman B. Young closed in on Bobrov, his body blocked the path of the Soviet player and, as a result of the clash, Bobrov lost the puck.” Other captions urged close attention to the positioning and body shape of Ron Kilbey, the visiting goalie.

Return visits

Harringay clearly made an impression in Russia. The team was invited back in 1957, and John Carlyle captained the team. The Falkirk-born defenceman was the first British player to wear the ‘C’ on an import-stacked roster.

Later, his son, Garry, shared some of his father’s recollections of that trip to Moscow to face a team that, by then, was an Olympic champion. 

“He talked about how the team was escorted everywhere by officials and were taken to visit Lenin’s tomb,” Garry recalled. “They stayed in a hotel on Red Square, where members of the party were given rooms befitting their perceived importance. Officials might have a suite of rooms, others would hardly have room to swing a cat!

“The team were the only guests in the hotel, and they believed that all the hotel staff were removed and replaced with government staff. But my father kept the game pennant in a black lacquered box with the Kremlin on it and I still have it at home to this day.”

This time, the teams played indoors at the newly built rink in the Luzhniki sports complex. There were three games in four days, with the Soviets winning 8-3 and 5-1 before a 2-2 tie. If those scorelines seem one-sided, it’s worth noting that the week before these games, the USSR defeated West Germany 9-3 and 9-0, and in January 1958 the Red Machine had 11-1 and 6-1 victories over Poland.
However, even by this time, it was clear that the Soviets felt they had learned all they could from British hockey. In November 1957, a touring team returned to the UK for a five-game series. This time, though, instead of the national team, it was a Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic team comprising youngsters looking to stake their claim to a place on team USSR. Among the future stars was Viktor Yakushev, who won the first of his eight World Championship medals a year later, 1954 World Champion Mikhail Bychkov, and Viktor Tikhonov, who never played for the national team but coached it with legendary distinction. The tour had six games, with the Russians beating Wembley Lions, Nottingham Panthers and Paisley Pirates, tying 3-3 with Harringay but losing to Brighton Tigers and going down 6-10 in a return game at Wembley.

At the end of the tour, Yuri Bazhanov, head of the hockey section of the All-Union Committee for Sport and Physical Culture, shared his thoughts with the ‘Sportivnie Igry’ magazine. “Our players need to think seriously about improving their individual skills,” he wrote. “In particular, we must pay special attention to raising the level of our goaltenders.

“But the Soviet hockey school, as demonstrated in these games, is incomparably richer and more varied than the English when it comes to tactics.”

The end of an era

That was not quite the end – the Wembley Lions visited Moscow in 1958, playing a Soviet junior team, a Moscow representative side and the Krylya Sovietov club – but while Soviet hockey was embarking on a journey that would make it the world’s dominant national team, back in Britain things were very different.

By 1960, the British National League collapsed, putting an end to the professional era. For two seasons, there was no organised league in the country and when competitive action returned it was initially a Scottish championship (including one English team from Durham). This expanded into a Northern League of teams from Scotland and the North of England, but it was not until 1970/71 that a Southern League was added. By this time, the famous names of Harringay and Wembley were long gone. It was not until 1982 that the British Hockey League restored a nationwide competition.

There were a few touring teams in the latter days of the Soviet era, with both Lada Togliatti and Dynamo Moscow playing against British clubs in 1990. By now, though, the novelty was very much for British hockey fans getting a chance to witness some of Europe’s top players in the flesh and nobody was suggesting this was a development opportunity for the Russians.
Later, there were Continental Cup meetings between the two countries in 1999/2000, with Lada playing Cardiff Devils and Nottingham Panthers, while Sheffield Steelers faced Avangard Omsk. In 2013/14, Nottingham faced Toros Neftekamsk of the VHL in the same competition 

Most recently, two KHL teams – Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod and Dinamo Riga – came to Britain in 2019 to help GB prepare for its return to the elite division.