There’s a whole generation of hockey fans in this technological age who have no idea what the stakes used to be every time international teams took the ice.
Until very recently, the Russians were not our friends. The Soviet Union, paragon of the Communist system, wanted to prove superiority by any means possible. Whether it was Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at Disneyland in the 1950s, questionable practices which aided their athletes in the Olympics, or the massive parades intended to showcase military might every May 1, the Russkies wanted us to know they’d be ready and willing for a global standoff.
Sure, you can look it up on YouTube, you can watch it any time a major network or the World Wide Leader trots out a retrospective about the Miracle on Ice, but it’s something altogether different having lived it.
They wanted to obliterate us, pointing missiles from Siberia at North America. We wanted to make sure we were safe and could counter-attack, pointing missiles at them from Alaska, North Dakota and Western Europe.
Kids, it was serious. You know that 80′s pop music you think is cool now? A ton of those songs, particularly from European acts, related to the fear of total nuclear annihilation.
Just last week, I was appalled that a T-shirt was for sale, featuring the mask of Flyers rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in gold and fashioned from a hammer and sickle, placed on a red background.
It was an unmistakeable symbol of a prickly time in world affairs, but I was surprised in being in the minority when I said I couldn’t buy something like that due to the connotations of the Soviet color scheme.
In the 1970′s though, there was a political detente between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. But that didn’t mean one-upsmanship didn’t occur in whatever sport the Soviets found themselves competing in.
As far as hockey was concerned, it was a standoff between the Canadians and Soviets, ever since the overseers behind the Iron Curtain started winning Gold Medals in competitions starting the decade before.
Just four years prior to the fateful meeting between the Flyers and Soviets, a Canadian team comprised of the NHL’s best talent took it to their comrades, winning four and tying one in a best-of-eight series split between Canada and Moscow.
Bobby Clarke was one of the players on that squad, and he retained his dislike of the Soviets through his playing days and into his time as general manager.
The Central Red Army was one of the Soviet clubs which played a batch of exhibitions against NHL teams throughout the 1975-76 season. They crushed the Rangers and soundly beat the Bruins, while also tying the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve in what many regard as the greatest international exhibition game in hockey history.
However, on January 11, 1976, the Philadelphia Flyers hosted the Red Army in the final game of the series at the Spectrum. Yes, those same Flyers who were the scourge of the continent, whom NHL president Clarence Campbell scowled at when presenting the Stanley Cup the previous two years, were charged with nothing less than saving the face of North American hockey in front of a world-wide audience.
Chaos ensued, and on NBC, legends Marv Albert and Gene Hart called the action. It’s a shame that the Flyers, in their 10 Greatest Games set, couldn’t secure either the rights or the full tape of the NBC broadcast. It’s the CBC feed there, and the relatively milquetoast call does take away from the urgency and importance of the contest.
We’ll let archived NHL video fill in the gaps:
And here’s some Classic Clarke talking about the Soviets’ infamous walkout:
A lesser-known posting from Dave Leonardi aka “Sign Man” read “Bring on Mars” referencing the two Cups, and the vanquishing of the other best that the world had to offer.
The underrated site Flyers History has a box score of the game here: http://www.flyershistory.com/cgi-bin/poboxscore.cgi?10000002
Hart, who broadcast Flyers games continuously from 1967-95, liked to tell a joke about one of the goal scorers in the memorable contest which went something like this:
“An American political delegation was visiting Russia to get a feel for what was going on inside the country. They saw Red Square in Moscow, the art collection and architecture in Leningrad, the wheat fields of Ukraine, but requested to look at the barren wasteland of Siberia, where it was rumored all political prisoners were banished.
Reluctantly, the Soviet contingent agreed, and both sides made the long trip to the hinterlands.
Upon arrival, the American delegation was shocked at how unforgiving the land was, how brutal the weather was, even in the middle of Summer, and how sparse the living quarters were.
When both sides walked over a hill, they came upon five men in Red Army uniforms, disshevelled and sweating from the hard work of loading and unloading coal from a nearby mine.
An American delegate spoke up, asking his Soviet counterpart how their country could treat its military officers so harshly after giving their lives in service.
The Soviet leaned in and said ‘They were the five men on the ice when Joe Watson scored.’”
It proved to be the first, and last, time a Philadelphia hockey club was able to take down a Soviet counterpart. Further exhibitions in January of 1979, 1983, 1990 and 1991 failed to produce another victory.
Nonetheless, it left a lasting impact on the sport and the city. It is still a point of pride, 35 years later. WE BEAT THE RUSSIANS.