By Andrew McGuinness ’24
The Cold War was at its hottest for much of the 1970s and 1980s, creating an incredible amount of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in countless aspects. One of the most heated facets, as it turns out, was hockey. Even people who, to quote Miracle on Ice broadcaster Al Michaels, “do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline” both now and then have probably heard about the game Michaels called on Feb. 20, 1980 (1). On that day, the United States upset the powerhouse, four-time defending gold medalists the Soviet Union on American soil in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The feat was both one of the greatest upsets in sports history and a noteworthy moment in the larger history of the war.
But that is not where the Soviet Union’s hockey history begins or ends. Winning one gold medal is great, but winning four straight is dynastic. Not only was the Soviet Union outstanding at hockey, but they approached the game differently. Throughout several Olympic games and several other notable tournaments against National Hockey League (NHL) stars, the Soviets flexed their might. They proved not only that they could compete with the best hockey players in the world, but also that some of the best were inarguably on their side. Initial doubt from North America turned into shocked acknowledgment at how great the Soviets were. A team like the 1980 United States Olympic team may make an incredible story. But a team that was as dominant for as long as the Soviet Union was is capable of more than creating some special memories. The Soviet Union team changed how hockey is played in North America and, more specifically, the National Hockey League.
While the Soviet Union’s four consecutive gold medals were impressive, they also came with a bit of a caveat. Until 1988, professional athletes were forbidden from playing in the Olympics (2). That is what made the United States’ victory in 1980 so improbable — the Soviets were beaten by a team of collegiate players with not just zero NHL experience, but little experience playing as a team. Meanwhile, the Soviet team was amateur in name only — Russia forbade them from leaving the country to play in the NHL and so they had years of experience training and playing together. So, when the Soviets prepared to take on Canada in the eight-game 1972 Summit Series, expectations were low. The Soviets were not expected to even win a single game (3). Instead, they won three and tied another, and were less than a minute away from winning the series via tiebreaker when Canada’s Paul Henderson scored a late goal to lead Canada to victory (4). That hardly phased the Soviets, though, as they went on to beat the NHL All-Stars in the best-of-three Challenge Cup in 1979, taking the decisive third game by a whopping 6-0 score (5).
The USSR’s speed, teamwork, and conditioning separated them from some of the finest players and teams in the world. “The newcomers pioneered off-ice conditioning programs,” wrote E.M. Smith in a preview of the Challenge Cup. “They borrowed strategies from soccer, like passing the puck to an open area of the ice and letting a teammate skate it down. They shunned the spectacular but inefficient slap shot in favor of short, quick passes leading to a single high-percentage shot—making the player without the puck the most dangerous man on the ice” (3). Not only was their style unique, but they picked apart Canada’s game, hunting any weaknesses they could find. Legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak wrote, “Canadian hockey, which was until recently like a mystery hidden behind seven locks, has been unmasked by us. We can understand its traditions, its excessively rough nature. We have found its weak points, and I like to think that on occasion we have taken advantage of those weak points rather well” (4).
Everyone the Soviets played, win or lose, took notice of their unique play style. In fact, one of the first teams to implement their strategies was one of the teams that beat them the worst. The Soviets were so fed up with the physicality of the Broad Street Bully Philadelphia Flyers that they left the ice during the middle of an exhibition game in 1976 in fury after a huge hit by Ed Van Impe went unpenalized (6). They eventually returned, and the Flyers still won the game. But after a few tough seasons, it was the Flyers who integrated the Soviet system into their gameplan in the 1979-80 season. The Flyers won their first game of the season, lost their second, and then went on a historic 25-0-10 run, setting a record for most consecutive games without a loss across the four major North American sports leagues – the NBA, the NFL, the MLB and, of course, the NHL (7). “Under (head coach Pat) Quinn’s system the forwards bring the puck up the ice, crisscrossing like the Soviets as they come, and defensemen, spotting an opportunity, may join in the attack,” read a 1980 Time Magazine article (8). Players who could play the Soviet system became incredibly valuable. In praising rookie teammate and future three-time 40-goal scorer Brian Propp, Hockey Hall of Fame Flyers center Bobby Clarke said “He skates like a Russian” (8).
Even though the Soviets were upset by Team USA in the Olympics less than two months after that Time Magazine piece, their influence hardly died out. Instead, it grew when the coach of that team, Herb Brooks, became head coach of the New York Rangers in 1981 (9). A huge reason why the Soviets were so dominant is that they trained together almost year-round at a high level (4). Sure enough, a key part of America’s win in the Olympics was its stellar conditioning. Meanwhile, NHL training camps at the time were seen as a time for players to work back into shape just to be ready for the season. Now, that timeline is expedited, as players are expected to arrive in tip-top shape and are subject to brutal skates and intense practices to not just be prepared for their season but to be more prepared than everyone else. Brooks, whose camp schedule included multiple days described as “torture,” helped usher that era in (9).
The Soviets did not fall off the map after the Miracle on Ice, recovering to win gold in 1984 and 1988 (10). Still, cracks were beginning to show. The rigidity of the Soviet Union, which extended to its hockey program, became less and less appealing as players saw some of the lavish lives of their North American counterparts. In a 1987 New York Times article, head coach Viktor Tikhonov admitted to uncharacteristic shortcomings, as the Soviets were not adjusting to the changes North American teams and countries made to handle them (11). Star center Igor Larionov complained about the “endless training regimen” (11). Two years later, Alexander Mogilny became the first Soviet star to defect for the NHL. Shortly after, Larionov and others were allowed to leave. At first, NHL teams and players were hesitant to welcome Russian stars, perhaps still seeing them as enemies and worrying about job security (12). Ultimately, those concerns faded, and the modern NHL is littered with Russian stars. But what hasn’t faded is the in-game influence from the days of the Soviet Union. The value of teamwork and speed has helped hockey, commonly referred to as the world’s fastest sport, to become even faster. And, their intense training routines forced the NHL to demand more from its stars, contributing to the all-in, obsessive approach necessary to make it big in hockey today.
Andrew McGuinness is a Film, Television, and Theatre major with a TV Concentration and minors in Digital Marketing, Business Economics, and Sport, Media, and Culture. His article was originally written for Professor Annie Coleman’s course ‘Sports and American Culture.’
- Von Zerneck, Frank, and Robert Greenwald. 1980 Olympic Hockey USA vs USSR. YouTube, 19 Sept. 2016, 1980 Olympic Hockey USA vs USSR. Accessed 14 Oct. 2022.
- Greene, Bob. “What Changed the Olympics Forever.” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 July 2012, https://www.cnn.com/2012/07/22/opinion/greene-olympics-amateurs.
- Swift, E.M. “The Russians Have Come.” Sports Illustrated, Accessed 14 Oct. 2022. https://vault.si.com/vault/1979/02/12/70817#&gid=ci0258bfd7d01326ef&pid=70817—031—image
- Mulvoy, Mark. 1972. “Waking up from a Nightmare.” Sports Illustrated 37 (15): 42-43. Sports Illustrated Archives
- SI Staff. “RUN OVER BY THE BIG RED MACHINE.” Sports Illustrated Vault, Accessed 14 Oct. 2022. https://vault.si.com/vault/1979/02/19/run-over-by-the-big-red-machine-the-soviet-national-team-flew-home-as-champions-of-the-hockey-world-after-making-so-much-borscht-of-the-nhl-all-stars-routing-them-6-0-in-the-finale-of-the-three-game-challenge-cup-series-and-leav
- Meltzer, Bill. “Great Moments: Flyers Conquer the Red Army.” NHL.com, NHL.com, 10 Jan. 2008, https://www.nhl.com/flyers/news/great-moments-flyers-conquer-the-red-army/c-435985.
- The Washington Post (1974-). “Flyers Rally to Top Sabres, 4-2, Extend Unbeaten String to 35.” 1980. (ND Catalog)
- “Seeing A Future That Works Inspired by the Soviets, the Flyers Are Leading the N.H.L.” TIME Magazine 115, no. 1 (January 7, 1980): 94. (Time Magazine Archive)
- Calabria, Pat. “Look Out, NHL – Rangers Enter Brooks Regime. (Herb Brooks).” The Sporting News 192 (1981): 55. (ND Catalog/University Archives/Joyce Sports Collection)
- Finn, Robert. “’88 WINTER OLYMPICS; Soviet Clinches Gold in Hockey.” New York Times, 27 Feb. 1988, pp. 51–51, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/27/sports/88-winter-olympics-soviet-clinches-gold-in-hockey.html.(Accessed 14 Oct. 2022.
- Taubman, Philip Special to The New York Times. “Hockey Rivals may be Catching Up to Soviet: Soviet Hockey is Stumbling.” New York Times (1923-), Dec 23, 1987. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
- Mark Zwolinski Toronto Star. “Some NHLers Feel Threatened by the Soviets.” Toronto Star. 1989. (ND Catalog)