The Birth of Soviet Hockey

Posted on Behind the Boards (SIHR Blog). In 1945, Nikolai Romanov became chairman of the All-Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sports, the...
  1. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    In 1945, Nikolai Romanov became chairman of the All-Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sports, the governmental body overseeing sports in the Soviet Union. Anatoli Tarasov would later characterize him in the following manner:

    Granted, he scolded me more often than he praised me, but all his remarks were certainly fair and sensible: they helped to grow and to see a horizon behind the horizon. And beyond. More than others, he understood that it is impossible to create anything new in sports without experiments and risks. [1]​

    One of Romanov's ideas that brought something new was the idea that the Soviet Union should take part in the Olympic Games. He argued that the international appeal of the Olympic Games would make them a great stage for Soviet athletes to demonstrate their superiority and bring glory to their home country – an argument that tied in with how the Soviet leadership under Stalin had come to view international sports during the 1930s.

    [​IMG]
    Nikolai Romanov. Source

    Romanov and his colleagues at the Committee were optimistic. As Sergei Savin, head of the football (=soccer) and hockey (=bandy) department, put it in retrospect:

    Olympic winds were blowing over the country. It was assumed that we could already take part in these largest contests of our time in the winter of 1948. [2]​

    It didn't come to pass: the traditional Communist stance was to reject the Olympic movement as bourgeois and hostile to the working class. Ideologically motived opposition against Romanov's plan delayed the Soviet entry to the Olympics until 1952. However, one of the steps taken in 1945 couldn't be undone: the introduction of Canadian hockey to Russia.

    [​IMG]
    Sergei Savin. Source

    Envisioning Soviet participation in the Olympics, Romanov gave Savin the task of stuyding the program of the Olympic Winter Games. When Savin handed in his report, he emphasized that a game called Canadian hockey was "in the center of the public attention" at the Winter Games. Having studied the report, Romanov gave out the directive: "This Canadian hockey must be put on Russian tracks immediately."

    Curious Russian bandy players had already looked into and tried out Canadian hockey before. In 1932, a German trade union team had visited Moscow and demonstrated how the game with the puck was played. At the State Central Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, lectures on Canadian hockey had been held by renowed soccer coach Mikhail Tovarovsky since the 1930s. Among those who had attended them was Anatoli Tarasov. Written descriptions of Canadian hockey were available, but what was missing in Moscow in 1945 was a rule book that was up to date. Savin turned to Latvian bandy player Edgars Klāvs for help. In Latvia – an independent country until its occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940 –, Canadian hockey had been played since the early 1930s.

    [​IMG]
    Edgars Klāvs. Source

    Klāvs, who had been a member of the Latvian national team at the 1937 and 1938 World Championships, invited Savin to the Latvian capital Riga. The meeting in Riga was crucial, as Savin recalls:

    Once I was accommodated in my hotel, Klāvs brought me a hockey stick, gloves, skates and several pucks. The next day I was shown footage of a pre-war newsreel where some moments of the Latvian championship and several international matches were captured. And two days before my departure, Edgars gave me the dearest present – he brought the rules of Canadian hockey, translated from Latvian to Russian. Believe me, there is nothing I have ever treated as carefully as those few sheets, written in the neat handwriting of Klāvs. [3]​

    Savin took everything to Moscow and called a meeting to present his findings to the sports clubs and governing bodies. Leading coaches and bandy players – including Pavel Korotkov of the Army club (CDKA) and Arkadi Chernyshov of Dinamo Moscow – got acquainted with the "character and substance of the new game and with the prospects of broad international ties". Among the students at the State Central Institute of Physical Culture, two teams were formed to prepare them for a public demonstration game:

    The Institute did fulfill the order very responsibly. Starting in September 45, the teams were selected and systematic training began to unveil the 'secrets' of the puck that were still unknown to us. [4]​

    The students trained for five months and were frequently joined by interested outsiders like Arkadi Chernyshov. The public demonstration game took place on February 17, 1946, following a bandy match between CDKA and Dinamo Moscow. "Sovietsky Sport", the popular sports newspaper, reported:

    The match between Dinamo and CDKA has ended, but thousands of spectators remain. Their attention is attracted by a small goal, like in water polo. The small field is surrounded by boards. On the field there is a referee with a 'police whistle' and there are two teams – one red and one white – with six players per side. On the back of the players there are numbers and in their hands unusual sticks – long, light, with a long hook at an almost right angle. On the ice there is a solid black rubber 'disc', heavy and gliding over the ice with lightning speed. This is a demonstration match held by students of the Institute of Physical Culture. In Europe and North America, Canadian hockey is very popular. Without a doubt, it can be developed in the Soviet Union as well. [5]​

    Meanwhile, the CDKA players – headed by Pavel Korotkov and guided by Anatoli Tarasov – were tinkering with Canadian hockey too. When they visited Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) in early February 1946, they staged their own public demonstration of Canadian hockey for the local audience after the scheduled bandy match.

    [​IMG]
    Pavel Korotkov. Source

    In fact, the Armed Forces went one step further: in March 1946, the northern city of Archangelsk hosted their first tournament in Canadian hockey. CDKA prevailed over other teams of the army, fleet and police that had picked up the game with the puck on rather short notice.

    After the experiments of the 1945-46 season, the first Soviet championship in Canadian hockey was announced for the 1946-47 season and the All-Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sports called for the bandy clubs to enter teams for the new sport. Nikolai Romanov's wish was fulfilled: Canadian hockey was put on Russian tracks.

    Notes:

    [1] Anatoli Tarasov: Khokkey. Rodonachalniki i novichki (2015)
    [2] From an interview with Sergei Savin. Link: offsport
    [3] Same
    [4] Same
    [5] Alexander Gorbunov: Anatoli Tarasov (2015)

    Posted on Behind The Boards (SIHR Blog)
     
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2021
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  2. Staniowski Registered User

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    The hockey world owes a lot to the people and events that made hockey an important sport in the Soviet Union.
     
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  3. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    No doubt. Names like Nikolai Romanov, Sergei Savin and Edgars Klāvs are almost forgotten in the annals of hockey.

    Someone who deserves a lot of credit for highlighting the role that Romanov played is Paul Harder with his 2004 thesis on Developing World Championship Ice Hockey in the USSR (available via PDF here: https://curve.carleton.ca/system/fi...developingworldchampionshipicehockeyinthe.pdf)
     
  4. kaiser matias Registered User

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    As an alumnus of Carleton, specifically EURUS (the same program Harder wrote his thesis), I'll take this change to note that a professor associated with the department, Erica Fraser, is currently working on a book on Soviet hockey. I'll quote from her profile page (Erica Fraser):

    She's also done some research on women's hockey in the Soviet Union, and I believe was supposed to present at a conference last year on it, which didn't happen for obvious reasons. So keep an eye out for her work, I'm sure people here will appreciate it (disclosure: while I was in EURUS, I didn't study with Fraser, and regrettably only found out about her project after I left).
     
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  5. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Will do, although personally I'm more interested in the history of the game hockey as opposed to the history of the surrounding society. (Not that it will keep me from reading books like Bruce Berglund's recent one.) And some of the academic jargon of today makes me shudder ("treats ice as a historical actor", "that priviledged the intersection of identities") because I always suspect that everything that can be said can be said clearly, if only it is thought clearly, or if the author wanted to address anyone beyond the academic bubble.
     
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2021
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  6. Rob Registered User

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    This history buff thanks you for posting!
     
  7. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    I've received some (constructive and welcome) cricism of my write-up by mail and I'd like to address the arguments in public since it's possible that people who dig deeper come across them elsewhere.

    I) In the USSR, Nikolai Romanov couldn't make those kind of decisions on his own. Everything had to be decided on a higher government/party level before he was able to act.

    Counter:

    It's certainly possible that Romanov had some backing on a higher governmental level and it's not out of questions decisions were made there before he got his attempt going. Certainly, one big decision that had already been made in the mid-1930s was crucial: the decision of the political leadership that Soviet athlete should be allowed to compete with non-Communist athletes from abroad. The USSR transitioned from „let's not engage with the capitalists“ to „let's beat the capitalists“. My articles hints at that: "He argued that the international appeal of the Olympic Games would make them a great stage for Soviet athletes to demonstrate their superiority and bring glory to their home country – an argument that tied in with how the Soviet leadership under Stalin had come to view international sports during the 1930s." But it was a slow transition handicapped by the remaining – ideologically motivated – hesitance to join international federations.

    The Soviet Union was certainly governed in a very centralist manner, but the decision-making wasn't perfectly streamlined, especially on a topic like sport. If it had been (or Romanov's initiative had been preceded by a decision made on a higher level of government), then Romanov's push for participation in the 1948 Olympics wouldn't have failed and it wouldn't have taken a few extra years for the USSR to join the IOC. The following episode from 1948 (already presented elsewhere) demonstrates how much leeway an imaginative official like Romanov (that's how he is characterized by Tarasov in the article) had in the Soviet system, but also how much risk it could involve:

    After the 1947-1948 season had gotten under way, the Communist youth organization Komsomol (de-facto the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) under Nikolai Mikhailov used their paper Komsomolskaya Pravda to start a campaign against Canadian hockey. They argued that the promotion of Canadian hockey was harmful to Russian hockey alias bandy. Says Romanov:

    All of a sudden, in January 1948, an article entitled "A legal question" appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda, which accused the Sports Committee – and me personally – of destroying Russian hockey in favour of Canadian Hockey, that this was unforgivable, and so on...
    (Quoted after Paul Harder.)​

    The Sports Committee countered with an article in their own outlet, the Sovietsky Sport paper, titled "Unnecessary Resistance", but Komsomolskaya Pravda replied with an aggressive call to "Restore the Rights of Russian Hockey!" Paul Harder writes:

    Sovietsky Sport could not win a war of words with the Komsomol. The fact that his rival insisted on referring to ball hockey as 'Russian hockey' put the Sports Committee on especially treacherous ground. One must not forget that these events were unfolding in 1948, in the high years of Stalinism. Attempting to replace a Russian cultural institution with a foreign innovation could quite easily be considered a capital crime."​

    In another show of individual initiative, Nikolai Romanov turned to Marshal Klim Voroshilov, second deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers:

    I reported the essence of Komsomolskaya Pravda's criticism to K. E. Voroshilov and expressed our disagreement. I explained in detail that puck hockey – sometimes called Canadian hockey – has many good qualities and is useful for the youth. Moreover, we must prepare for the future – for the Olympic games. We asked K. E. Voroshilov to watch a game of puck hockey. He agreed... Already, towards the end of the first period, judging by his comments and questions, I felt that K. E. Voroshilov liked the game.
    (Quoted after Harder.)​

    Briefed by Romanov and enamoured by the game, Voroshilov took on Komsomol secretary Nikolai Mikhailov who also attended the game.

    During a break Voroshilov asked Mikhailov: 'What is this hockey called?' He answered that is was called both Canadian hockey and puck hockey. Voroshilov jokingly said that this was incorrect, and that [puck hockey] should henceforth be called Russian hockey, because it suits the character of the Russian person: it requires courage, split-second reactions, resourcefulness and great endurance. And if necessary you can fight. All these qualities have to be developed in the Soviet youth. He made a special emphasis of the fact that he intended to recommend that the sport be developed in the Soviet Army.
    (Quoted after Harder.)​

    Faced with the fact that a high-ranking member of the government and popular war hero was now embracing puck hockey, the Komsomol decided to drop its opposition to Canadian hockey.

    This episode demonstrates a lack of streamlined central decision-making on sport. The decision in favour of Canadian hockey was made due to the personal liking a high-ranking officer took to the game and again it was Nikolai Romanov's own initiative and resourcefulness that led to this.

    II) Most sources call the 1946-47 season the first season of Canadian hockey in the Soviet Union and don't know anything about that alleged Armed Forces tournament in March 1946. Therefore, it couldn't actually have happened.

    Counter:

    It's true that the body of source material for the early Armed Forces tournament isn't very extensive, but we do have the following:

    1) The February 1946 issue of the Latvian journal Fiziskā kultūra ("Physical Culture") reported:

    This year, for the first time in the Soviet Union, a national competition in Canadian hockey is scheduled. These games will take place from March 10 to 17 in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.
    2) On March 1, 1946, the Latvian newspaper Padomju Jaunatne ("Soviet Youth") reported that players from Lithuania had visited Riga to play Canadian hockey on February 24 and 25. The first game had been labeled Riga vs Kaunas (the respective capitals of Latvia and Lithuania), the second Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic vs Lithuanian Socialist Soviet Republic. Afterwards, the Lithuanians had accepted an invitation to return for two more games to be held on March 2 and 3. The paper explains the background:

    Considering the fact that the Canadian hockey players of our republic are facing difficult and important fights in the All-Union Championship to be held in Arkhangelsk this season, the Canadian hockey section invited the Lithuanians to visit Riga and compete in the city and republic competition for a second time.
    The Latvian squad featured Edgars Klāvs – mentioned in the article – and others who would play a prominent role in early Soviet hockey: Harijs Mellups, Roberts Šūlmanis and Harijs Vītoliņš (whose grandson with the same name would later become an NHL draft pick). This report by Padomju Janatne confirms the report by Fiziskā kultūra that a Soviet national competition was scheduled for March 10-17 in Arkhangelsk.

    3) In an 1989 interview, veteran hockey coach Dmitri Vasilyevich Ryzhkov (*1915, not to be confused with the prominent hockey journalist Dmitri Leontyevich Ryzhkov, *1935) said:

    Already in 1946, the first teams for hockey with the puck were created on the basis of Army sports clubs in Moscow, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk as well as sports societies of Arkhangelsk and Kaunas. Games between them did not have the official status of a national championship and CDKA became the first unofficial champion.
    Riga respectively Latvia not being mentioned could mean the Latvians either pulled out before the tournament or Ryzhkov forgot about them 43 years later. Back in 1946, the Latvian papers didn't label the Arkhangelsk championship "unofficial" as Ryzhkov later would, but since the tournament was staged far away from Moscow without much publicity, unlike the Soviet championships widely announced by the Sport Committee from 1946-47 on, it makes sense to consider them "unofficial" from a hindsight point of view.

    The Ryzhkov quotes also show that, actually, it wasn't strictly an Armed Forces tournament, but the Armed Forces were the driving force with three out of five confirmed entries.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2021
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