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.
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 dreamed of 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.
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. 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 to earn the championship silverware that IIHF supremo Bunny Ahearne was waiting to hand over.
Bobrov’s playing career on the ice lasted until 1957, whereupon he took up coaching. When the great Anatoly 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.
exit the king
vinter olympia, 1952: penalties make hockey a human game
The Edmonton Mercurys carried off the gold on Canada’s behalf at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. On this very day they plundered the Swiss by a score of 11-2; the very next, they won their sixth game in a row in a 3-2 squeeze past the Swedes.
The talk of the tournament that week was all about how brash and bumpingly the North Americans insisted on playing their hockey. Canada’s 4-1 win over Czechoslovakia was the stormiest of the tournament: “slashing, hooking, holding were thrown in,” Jack Sullivan of the Canadian Press wrote, “even a mild fistic display by Canada’s Gordie Robertson.” An 8-2 U.S. win over Switzerland saw an American defenceman, Joe Czarnota, ejected from the game for an attack on Gian Bazzi. From the stands, Norwegian fans threw orange peels in protest, and barracked (the AP noted) the Americans, calling them “Chicago gangsters.” The Swiss wanted Czarnota suspended. The IIHF didn’t think that was necessary, though they did see fit to ask the U.S. and Canada to behave.
Norwegian Prime Minister Oscar Torp didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Or — did: the problem was that his people didn’t know hockey. Getting worked up about on-ice kerfuffling was the result, he said, of “ignorance.”
“People should understand penalties make hockey a human game,” the PM explained. “When the boys get so het up that they do something wrong or get too rough — okay, give them two minutes to cool down and think it over.”
Canadian coach Lou Holmes thought that tournament was, all told, a wholesome affair. “Some of the penalties that were given against Canadian players would not have been awarded in Canada,” he offered after it was all over, “since these European referees are obviously not accustomed to hard bodychecking.”
In their final game, the Canadians and Americans tied, 3-3, at Oslo’s Jordal Arena in front of a crowd of 10,000 or so. “The match was correct, and unmarred by incidents,” was the word from The New York Times’ correspondent. With the U.S. having previously lost to Sweden, it was enough to secure the gold for Canada, leaving the U.S. with the silver. The Mercurys celebrated by tossing Coach Holmes in the air and singing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” The Times:
At this point several hundred youngsters engaged the police in a battle to reach the Canadians. The kids’ wedge pierced the police lines and the Canadian players gave the lucky first-comers their hockey sticks as souvenirs.
A playoff was needed to decide the bronze. A 4-0 final-day win by Czechoslovakia over Sweden left the teams with identical records, so they played again the following day. This time the Swedes prevailed by a score of 5-3. That’s Sweden’s Göte Blomqvist here, above, having just scored his team’s winning goal.
air show, 1948: sticks flew, tempers flared
Force Majeure: The RCAF Flyers began their pursuit of hockey gold in 1948 with a 3-1 victory on January 30 over Sweden. Hard to say just where the Swedish players were when this photograph was taken — strung out across centre ice, awaiting the Canadian onslaught? The Swedes’ Lindstrom opened the scoring in the first period of a game that The Ottawa Journal described as tough and bruising. George Mara tied the score before the intermission, and Wally Halder got the winner in the second. Both those players were civilian reinforcements; Flying Officer Reg Schroeter added an insurance goal in the final period. “Sticks flew and tempers flared in the final minutes of the game,” advised The Journal, “with a free-for-all threatening.” Didn’t happen, though the Canadian goaltender did end up taking a penalty for throwing his stick. Under Olympic rules, Aircraftman 2nd Class Murray Dowey went to serve the punishment himself with eight seconds remaining. No worries:
Defenceman Andre Laperriere took Dowey’s spot in the nets, without goaltending equipment, and a stout Canadian defence prevented a shot on goal before the final whistle.
(Image: Library and Archives Canada, R15559-22-2-E)
stopping a salming
The Canadians had a simple plan: stop a Salming.
Tuesday, September 7 was the day Sweden and Canada clashed, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in that September of 1976. The home team had opened its account at the first Canada Cup with a merciless mincemeating of Finland: 11-2 was the final. Next day, Sweden beat the United States by a count of 5-2. Canada went on to master the U.S., too, 4-2, while the Swedes shared a 3-3 tie with the Soviet Union.
Canada’s plan for the Swedes had two parts, the first of which precipitated a line-up adjustment: out went a couple of goalscoring wingers, Reggie Leach and Danny Gare, in came a pair with recognized defensive chops, Bob Gainey and Lanny McDonald.
Part two: smother a Salming.
There were two of them to choose from, both defencemen. Stig, the elder at 28, didn’t worry Canada too much, not in the way that his younger brother did, the Maple Leafs’ own Borje, who was 25. If Lars-Erik Sjöberg was the Swedish captain, Salming Minor was their on-ice leader, not to mention an offensive threat — he’d scored a goal in each of the first two games.
There was no secret to Canada’s strategy. “He’s too good,” Gainey said. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”
“It’s nothing new, eh?” captain Bobby Clarke told the Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot afterwards. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”
“Everybody had the same instructions — get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway,” coach Scotty Bowman said afterwards.
Bill Barber was the first to hit Salming hard in the first period, before Bobby Hull applied himself. “He threw two clean checks,” Scott Young wrote, “with all the power of the strongest physique in North American hockey.”
Salming had one long shot on goaltender Rogie Vachon — Proudfoot rated it the hardest he had to handle all night — but otherwise the Leafs’ defenceman wasn’t prominent in the 4-0 win that Canada composed. Bob Gainey had been assigned the job of checking Anders Hedberg, but he found time to score a pair of goals, too, with Hull and Marcel Dionne counting the others.
“The man said he wanted us to hit Salming,” Hull said after the game. “I’m just here to please.” Canada’s back-up goaltender, Gerry Cheevers, agreed that Salming hadn’t been the force he’d been in his team’s previous games. “We can thank Hull for that. Those hits would have stopped a Clydesdale.”
(Canada Cup poster by Thomas Ross McNeely. Image: Library and Archives Canada)