Soviet trailblazer Shuvalov dies
by Andy Potts|19 APR 2021
A photo dated in 1977 of Viktor Shuvalov (in the middle) at a hockey practice in Moscow.
photo: Andrei Solomonov / RIA Novosti
Viktor Shuvalov, the last survivor from the pioneering Soviet teams of the 1950s, has passed away at the age of 97. The news was confirmed by the Russian Ice Hockey Federation on Monday, 19 April. According to media reports he passed away in Moscow due to complications with a COVID-19 infection.

Shuvalov, born in 1923 in a village in what is now Mordovia, first took to the ice in Chelyabinsk. In 1947 he began playing for the city’s bandy team, Dzerzhinets, but after the success of the inaugural Soviet Ice Hockey championship in 1946/47, the club adopted the puck game. Shuvalov followed suit and made a big enough impact to get a move to VVS Moscow, the air force club managed by Stalin’s son, Vasili. There, he won three Soviet championships (1951-53) before the team was merged into CSKA, establishing the dominant force in Soviet domestic hockey for the next four decades.

As a titled forward on the country’s top team, Shuvalov was an obvious pick for the national team as it made its World Championship debut in Stockholm in 1954. There, he helped the Soviets win gold at the first attempt, a feat repeated two years later when the USSR made its Olympic debut in Cortina d’Ampezzo. In Stockholm, Shuvalov’s 8 (7+1) points included two goals on the Canadians in the final and was second only to Vsevolod Bobrov on the Soviet roster; in Italy he posted 6 (4+2) points.

An international sensation

The Soviets stunned the hockey world in Sweden, coming from nowhere to win gold at the first attempt. However, it was less of a surprise for the team after several years of preparation against Europe’s leading national teams.

“By the time we played at the 1954 Worlds, we had a pretty good idea of the strength of the European teams,” Shuvalov told “Earlier we played several exhibition games against them. True, we rarely travelled, and they usually came to us.

“We were due to play our first [championship] in 1953, but Bobrov hurt his knee and missed almost half the season. The management decided it wasn’t worth going without our top player, but we could well have played. We already had experience against the Czechs, the Swedes, the Finns and the Norwegians. I especially remember the friendly games against Norway. They came to Moscow and Stalin died on the same day. They decided that the games should go ahead, but they had to be played behind closed doors.”

Europe was familiar, Canada still a mystery. But the key battle ended in a 7-2 Soviet victory. “They played too predictably,” Shuvalov said in a 2012 interview with Sport-Express. “They would get to the blue line, fire the puck into the corner and chase after it. But our defencemen were faster and got to the puck first, passing it forward to cut out one or two opponents. After the first period it was 4-0 and we expected them to change tactics. But they were stubborn, like sheep, they just kept following the same plan. All seven goals came from the same play – they would shoot, chase, and get caught on the counter.

“Throughout the tournament the Canadians were arrogant, but after that game they changed their attitude and even came to our locker room to congratulate us.”

Two years later, at the Olympics, there was another memorable match-up against Canada. “The Canadians tried to frighten us before the decisive game, they came past our locker room banging their sticks on the door,” Shavalov added. “And, when we got on the ice, we saw that they all had a black stripe painted under their eyes. ‘They found something to scare us,’ we joked. It turned out they were trying to protect themselves from the glare of the sun, because we were playing on an outdoor rink. It didn’t help – we won 2-0.”

How Stalin saved Shuvalov’s life

However, Shuvalov might never have lived to play for the national team were it not for Stalin Jr’s anxiety about taking a former Dzerzhinets star back to Chelyabinsk. On 7 January 1950, the VVS plane taking the team to a game at Dzerzhinets was diverted away from the southern Ural city due to poor visibility. Redirected to Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), it had to circle the city while other planes cleared the runway and then crashed on its final approach. All 19 people on board – 11 players, two members of the team staff and six flight crew – were killed.

Shuvalov was due to fly with the team, but Vasili Stalin forbade him to travel, fearing an angry reaction from the home fans after one of their favorites returned in opposition colours.

“Vasili Iosifovich wouldn’t let me fly,” Shuvalov told Sport-Express in an interview in 2012. “The previous game, we had a big win against Dynamo Leningrad. Stalin looked into the locker room, full of congratulations. The coach, Boris Bocharnikov, said: ‘The next game is in Chelyabinsk. They say it’s colder than a polar bear’s toenails. We need to get there early to acclimatise.’ Stalin replied: ‘Book a plane... but don’t take Shuvalov.’ I’d only just joined VVS from Chelyabinsk and people there thought I was a traitor.
“I replied: ‘Vasili Iosifovich, I won’t play in Chelyabinsk but please let me travel with the team. I haven’t seen my parents for six months.’ He just said ‘Nyet!’ and that was the end of the conversation. I gave one of my team-mates a suitcase with some presents and asked him to give it to my sister at the hotel. That little suitcase went instead of me.”

A second Olympic presentation

After the Olympic triumph in 1956, Shuvalov was not invited back to the national team. He played two more seasons – one for CSKA and one in Kalinin (now Tver), where he later had five seasons as head coach. He also had a spell coaching the Romanian national team and worked in the youth systems at Khimik Voskresensk and Spartak Moscow.

However, in the 1990s, at a time when the generous pensions available to Soviet athletes dried up, Shuvalov – like many of his peers – ran into financial problems. It got to the point where he needed to sell his Olympic medal.

“A young man from the Sports Committee approached me and offered $1,000 for my Olympic medal,” he recalled. “My wife was against the idea, but I sold it. After all, we have no children and I can’t take it to my grave.” 

Later, he regretted that decision – but there was a happy ending. In 2014 Shuvalov was reunited with his prize after the medal was tracked down in the USA and purchased for him. The hockey legend received it from the hand of Russian president Vladimir Putin at a reception to celebrate Russia’s victory at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk and Shuvalov was greeted by a standing ovation from Alexander Ovechkin and his team-mates. More recently, on 25 December 2020, he received yet another honour – the order for services to the motherland, level IV.

After news of Shuvalov’s death emerged, two-time Olympic champion Boris Mikhailov paid tribute to the Soviet trailblazer.

“Shuvalov was a great player, the last of the Mohicans,” he said. “That era: Shuvalov, Babich, Bobrov, Guryshev, Kuchevsky. Shuvalov was a player who established and glorified Russian hockey. I was fortunate enough to play against him at the very start of my career when CSKA’s juniors had a traditional end-of-season game against the veterans.

“In his later years, Shuvalov talked a lot of sense about hockey in general and the issues facing the modern game in particular. He followed the game closely, he understood everything. It’s a sad day, the last representative of that era is gone.”