wizard of ice hockey

The years of pupilage, when the new game kept nonplussing the most experienced players, were left behind. Its intricacies were mastered and it was funny to think there was a time when the players could not tear the puck away from the ice.

•  V. Viktorov, Wizard of Ice Hockey (1957)

 

Born in Morshansk in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on a пятница of this date in 1922, Vsevolod Bobrov was a star soccer striker for CSKA Moscow  — he captained the Soviet Union at the 1952 Olympics, too — as well as a hockey left-winger who’s remembered as one of the greatest players to have skated his country’s ice.

The hockey, in fact, came first. Until he was 18, Bobrov only dreamedof soccer. That’s according to the 76-page official Bobrov biography pictured here above. Produced in the USSR in the late 1950s for foreign consumption, it’s a stiffly written (or at least stiffly translated) bit of propaganda that finishes up with a friendly if not particularly enthusiastic letter to the reader from the man himself.

Russian hockey is the hockey that Bobrov played as a boy, which is to say bandy, with a ball, eleven-a-side, on a big stretch of ice — the Soviet embrace of Canadian-style hockey was still more than a decade away. Bobrov’s father, Mikhail, was a good (Russian) hockey player in the ’30s when Vsevolod was growing up in Sestroretsk, near what was then Leningrad, as was his older brother, Vladimir.

Seve is what Lawrence Martin calls the younger Bobrov in his very fluently written, not-a-fleck-of-propaganda-to-it history of Soviet hockey, The Red Machine (1990). “He was scrawny,” he writes,

… poorly fed by parents who first met at a skating rink. They started their boys on the ice at age five, and when little Seve played on the youth team, Lydia, his mother, promised him a pretzel for every goal he scored. She was always running out of pretzels.

On the soccer field, Bobrov ended up in the starting eleven for CSKA Moscow in 1944. That’s skipping over a lot of wartime ground, bypassing all kinds of fine detail. The upshot is that by the late ’40s, he was playing soccer in the summer, hockey in the winter. Canadian hockey, now: in 1946, the Soviets had undertaken to figure out what the puck, the six-a-side, the smaller rink was all about, launching a league of their own, and thereafter, slowly, bit by bit, making strides into the international arena.

Smooch ‘Em If You Got ‘Em:
The Soviet team’s masseur kisses captain Bobrov after the Soviets beat Canada 7-2 in Stockholm in March of 1954.

Adjusting to the new game wasn’t always easy. Even those who’d played bandy — and excelled on the soccer pitch — were bamboozled, at first. That’s the pupilage that The Wizard of Hockey talks about up above. Viktorov on Seve’s struggle:

Bobrov soon overcame his bewilderment and feeling of helplessness, traits that were totally alien to his character. He made the puck obey him. Well, he told himself, if necessary he would start learning from the ground up again. If the Canadians were playing ice hockey for 80 years and found pleasure in the game, if the Swedes liked it and scored substantial successes, if the Czechs unravelled its secrets and won the world title twice, surely it was not beyond the powers of Soviet hockey players.

In his second winter of domestic hockey, Bobrov used his puck powers to score 52 goals in 18 games for CSKA Moscow. He kept on with the soccer, though by 1953, he’d decided he’d had enough of the grass, retiring at the age of 30 to focus full-time on the ice.

The Soviets were supposed to make their international debut at the 1953 World Championships in Switzerland, but Bobrov was injured, so they delayed a year. The Canadians skipped the ’53 tournament, too, but both teams were on hand the following year, in Stockholm, Sweden.

The first impression the hockey newcomers made there was not exactly to Canadian tastes, as the Soviets bushwhacked Canada’s team 7-2 to take the World title for the first time. Highlights, backed by a charming soundtrack, are below, with full coverage of the Soviet coaches and staff kissing their players starting in around the 5:20 mark. Wearing the maple leaf that year were the East York Lyndhursts from Toronto; leading the overwhelming was Bobrov, who captained the champions and scored their deciding goal. You’ll see the former standing around disconsolate after the kissing’s over, and the latter receiving the championship silverware from IIHF supremo Bunny Ahearne.

Bobrov’s playing career on the ice lasted until 1957, whereupon he took up coaching. When the great Anatoli Tarasov was deposed as coach of the Soviet national team in 1972, it was Bobrov who succeeded him — just in time, of course, to surprise another Canadian line-up, this one of overconfident NHL stars rather than Lyndhursts.

Vsevolod Bobrov died at the age of 56 in 1979.