November 26, 2017

Super Series '76

The National Hockey League never really supported the idea of the 1972 showdown between Russia's best and Canada's best. They didn't like the fact that their assets - the players - were being used in a series they had little control over. There was even a movement by some American NHL owners to not allow their players to play in the games. However it quickly became apparent that there was little the owners would be able to do to stop the series thanks to the Alan Eagleson led NHLPA. In the end the owners hammered out the best deal they could get for themselves.

The NHL went looking for ways to capitalize on the commercial success of these early games against the Soviets. The Soviets packed NHL buildings to capacity, which generated a lot of revenue for the owners not only in ticket sales but also food and souvenir purchases, as well as television and radio rights and commercials.

Although the NHL's bottom line is always their bottom line, their objections weren't entirely profit-driven - or at least it wasn't spun that way in promotion of their own series. They felt the 1972 Summit Series was not the best way to showcase their players. There was a growing sentiment that a truer test of hockey supremacy could be to face the Soviets against NHL club teams in mid-winter. The idea was that that way the Russians would have to face top NHL players in prime game shape and with teammates that they played with regularly. The NHL was highly critical of the hastily put together 1972 Team Canada featuring a brief training camp and unfamiliar line combinations.

The NHL originally planned on a series in the 1972-73 season. Details were leaking out as the 1972 Summit Series was winding down, however no final deal could ever be reached.

That changed in the summer of 1975. Soviet negotiators and NHL governors met in Montreal in June 1975 and after three deals had an agreement.

The agreement became known as Super Series '76. Just after Christmas 1975 two Soviet teams - Moscow Central Red Army featuring a couple of additions from Moscow Dynamo, and the Wings of the Soviet, featuring 5 national team members from Moscow Spartak - would arrive for an 8 game series against the NHL.

The opening game was a convincing 7-3 Red Army victory in one of hockey's holiest shrines - Madison Square Gardens, home of the New York Rangers. The Rangers had the unfortunate task of being the first team to faceoff against the Russians. The rest of the NHL was using this game as it's first real look at them for scouting purposes. The Rangers never had that advanced knowledge and, despite opening the scoring just 17 seconds into the game, were smoked!

"They (the Soviets) are like a team of Yvan Cournoyers, with Gordie Howe's hit," said Rangers defenseman Doug Jarrett, an first hand admirer of the speed and strength of the Soviets.

The following night the Wings of the Soviet pulled off a similarly convincing victory in Pittsburgh. The Wings jumped out to a 5-0 lead early in the second period en route to a 7-4 win. The game was significant for NHL teams as Pittsburgh employed a heavy forechecking system in the second half of the game which produced great results - outscoring the Russians 4-2. Unfortunately it was too little too late for the Penguins on that night.

The Montreal Canadiens took note of Pittsburgh's success and employed it in their game against the Red Army on New Year's Eve 1975. To say there was great anticipation for this game is almost an understatement, as the two greatest club teams in the world were about to faceoff for the first time. And hockey fans on either side of the political drawing line were treated to what many call the greatest hockey game ever played. The Canadiens doggedly pursued not only the Soviet puck carrier but all of his opponents, and the strategy seemed to work. The Habs outplayed the Soviets thoroughly, and outshot them 38-13. But the headlines the following day would read "Canadiens good, but still can't beat Russians" as the Soviets managed to earn a 3-3 tie.

The Buffalo Sabres were the next opponent for the Wings. They perfected the Montreal game plan and earned a memorable 12-6 victory! The Sabres plugged up the neutral zone and physically zeroed in on the Soviet defensemen with great success. The French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin had a field day with the frazzled Soviets, while gigantic defenseman Jerry Korab rocked any Soviet intruder into the Buffalo zone. The biggest difference between the Wings and the Red Army was the goaltending. Alexander Sidelnikov tended the nets for the Wings, and often backed up Red Army's great Vladislav Tretiak on the national team.

Three nights later the Wings, who were kept under heavy seclusion by their coach following the humiliating loss, attempted to redeem themselves against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks employed the same physical game plan against the Soviets, but ultimately that plan backfired as they drew several costly penalties. The Soviets would capitalize on their extra-man advantages, winning 4-2

The Red Army returned to action on January 8th against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins fired 19 shots in the first period alone, but could not beat Tretiak who was again stifling NHL shooters. He was so good in this game that Bruins' coach Don Cherry admitted "Tretiak is incredible." After two periods the game remained tight, but the Soviets pulled away in the third to win 5-2.

The Red Army win meant the Soviet's could celebrate. The win gave them a 4-1-1 record with 2 games remaining, meaning the Soviets had won the 8 game showdown. But there was still two very important hockey games remaining.

The Wings finished their series by playing against the up-and-coming New York Islanders. The Isles were a couple of years away from their NHL dynasty years, but were still a top NHL team in 1976. They were unfortunate not to get a win against the Soviet Wings. The Isles didn't seem to get untracked offensively in this game - they sported the most feared power play in the NHL but could only muster 1 goal on 8 opportunities against the Wings. That would prove to be the only goal they would score. Their defense had a strong game, but a couple of "flukey" goals by the Soviets gave them another victory, this time by the score of 2-1.

The final game saw the Red Army - the best team outside of the NHL - suit up against the Philadelphia Flyers. While many will say that Montreal was still the best team in the NHL at the time, the fact is the Flyers were the two time defending Stanley Cup champions and thus earned the right to call themselves the NHL's best.

The Soviets had already handily won the series against the NHL, but the Flyers were determined to make sure the Soviets wouldn't defeat the Stanley Cup champions under any circumstance. The Flyers roared out in typical Broad Street Bully fashion - physically punishing, often by bending or outright breaking the rules, any Soviet in sight.

The Flyers dominated the opening period, and were very disciplined. But late in the period defenseman Ed Van Impe tried to decapitate Soviet superstar Valeri Kharlamov with a vicious elbow. The Soviets protested what they felt was a deliberate attempt to injure, and actually left the ice for a period of time. They would return, but never re-emerged as the Red Army team we grew to hate and secretly love. The Flyers dominated the game - out shooting the Soviets 49-13 and outscoring them 4-1.

Other than the Van Impe incident, the Flyers had represented the NHL valiantly as the Stanley Cup champions in one of the most memorable and talked about games in hockey history. They saved the NHL some prestige in an otherwise disappointing 2-5-1 tournament. They even went as far as to proclaim themselves as the undisputed world hockey champions.

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