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.

 

under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading