Last updated on Sunday, 18 May 2008

If you only see one frame - click here for the full frames version of the A to Z

100 Top International Hockey Stories of the Century

Three stories a week were published thoughtout the 2007-08 season.
All stories ©

01-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80 81-90  91-100

71 Worlds final in front of 50,000 fans at soccer stadium
Moscow, Russia               
March 5, 1957       

The Soviet Union shocked the hockey world by winning the 1954 World Championship in their first international appearance. Two years later, the Vsevolod Bobrov-led CCCP team won Olympic gold in Cortina. The decision to hold the 1957 World Championship in Moscow was made by the IIHF in recognition of the instant success of Soviet hockey.

When it was learned that neither Canada nor the United States were coming to Moscow, the hosts were unanimously considered the tournament favourites. Most of the games of the 24th World Championship were held in the newly built indoor Luzhniki Sports Palace. The last game of the round-robin format between the Soviet Union and Sweden was to be the gold medal game. The Swedes, led by players like Sven Tumba, Lasse Bjorn, Roland Stoltz and Nisse Nilsson, had won six straight games, while the Soviets had five wins and one tie, against Czechoslovakia.

Only three years earlier, the Soviet sports fans hade a very vague idea of ice hockey, which the authorities endorsed only in 1946. But after the successes of 1954 and 1956, ice hockey interest grew immensely. With the national team playing in an all-decisive gold medal game against Sweden, the demand for tickets was massive.

The tournament directorate realized that playing in the 14,000-seat Luzhniki Sports Palace would prevent many fans from attending the game. The decision was made to build a rink on the nearby Luzhniki soccer stadium. As this was Moscow in early March 1957 and the world had not yet been subjected to the term ‘global warming’, the organizers were not taking any major risks that it would be cold enough to sustain the ice.

The exact attendance figure will never be known, but as the teams took to the ice there were at least 50,000 (some say 55,000) fans. The game was a classic. The guests took a 2-0-lead in the first period, but the Soviets scored four goals in the second stanza making it 4-2 after two. Sweden got one back early in the third. With twelve minutes to go it was still 4-3 and the gold medals seemed destined to stay in Moscow. But then Swedish forward Eilert Maatta chased a loose puck in the right corner of the Soviet zone and cut to the goal, skating along the goal line.

With no one to pass to, Maatta saw that Russian goalie Nikolai Puchkov, anticipating a centering pass, had left a small gap between his pads and the goal post. The Swede, a right-handed shooter, went for the backhander and the puck found the small opening left by Puchkov.

The Swedes hung on, and the 4-4-tie gave Tre Kronor their second World title. Despite the fact that the Soviets didn’t win gold, they started a streak that would see them go undefeated on Moscow ice in World Championship competition for 41 games during a span of 50 years. The streak was broken on May 12, 2007 when Finland became the first team to defeat the home team in Moscow in a World Championship game.

Unless the IIHF takes its flagship event outdoors again, the attendance record from the Luzhniki soccer stadium will never be broken. It was that game, on March 5, 1957, that established hockey as the sport of the masses in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet team lines up prior to the historic game at the Luzhniki soccer stadium on March 5, 1957.

PHOTO: Hockey Hall of Fame

72 Reporter's scoop reveals that Samuelsson is not a Swede in Nagano-98
Nagano, Japan              
February 15-17, 1998      

Picture it: The 1998 Olympics in Nagano with full NHL-players participation for the first time and a huge media following. After one of Team Sweden’s practices a big media scrum is waiting in the mix zone for the players to appear from their dressing room for interviews. As rugged Swedish defenseman Ulf Samuelsson passes by the reporters, Sport Illustrated hockey writer Michael Farber cracks a joke to Janne Bengtsson, a Swedish reporter standing next to him: “Why would we give a dirty player like that U.S. citizenship?”

The innocent comment initiated one of the biggest journalistic scoops in hockey history, triggered chaotic development over the following 24 hours that ended in the highest sports court and finally resulted in Samuelsson having to leave his team and the Olympic village.

Farber knew that Ulf Samuelsson, who played for the New York Rangers and at that time had already lived 13 years in the States, had applied for U.S. citizenship. For Farber that was nothing strange. The sports world is full of athletes who carry dual citizenship. But his innocent comment ignited Janne Bengtsson’s journalistic instincts. The reporter for Svenska Dagbladet was distantly aware about a Swedish law that said that Swedish citizenship is annulled when a person acquires a foreign passport. So while the passport that Samuelsson submitted to the tournament directorate prior to opening game was indeed Swedish, it was no longer valid.

Realising that he could be onto something big, Bengtsson immediately started researching. He was sure to confirm the Swedish law that - at that time - didn’t allow dual citizenship and also the IIHF eligibility regulation that stated that in order to represent a country one must indeed be a citizen of his team’s country. It took some time, but on February 16, the same day as Sweden played against Belarus, Bengtsson had all the facts.

During the first intermission, Bengtsson approached Rickard Fagerlund, the president of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association and also member of the IIHF Council. “Do you know that Samuelsson is a U.S. citizen and, as such, not eligible to represent Sweden?”

When Fagerlund overcame his initial shock, he called to team manager Bo Tovland, who was on the team bench, and told him to ask Samuelsson if it was correct that he was a U.S. citizen. Midway through the game, with Sweden up 3-1, Samuelsson confirmed that he held an American passport.

Sweden won the game 5-2, but no one on the Swedish team really cared. Samuelsson was told by Tovland and Fagerlund that his U.S. citizenship nullified his Swedish passport. The player was stunned. He cannot believe that he, born and bred in central Sweden, is considered a Swede no more.

Now the circus began and it lasted through the next 24 hours, finishing at five the next morning as the sun was rising in Nagano. There was no question that Samuelsson must be disqualified and that he must leave the team and the Olympics. Just like in a doping case, the IIHF tournament directorate ruled that the player was out, but the team suffered no consequences and kept its standings points.

But things were not so easy. The Czech Republic disagreed with the decision and wanted the directorate to deprive Sweden of all their points. The reason was simple: If the Swedes lost all their points from the games with Samuelsson’s participation, the Czechs would face Belarus in the quarterfinal and not the U.S. – a huge difference.

The Czechs filed a protest against the directorate’s decision and the case went to CAS, the Court of Arbitration in Sport that is always at the Olympic venue. But time was running out. It was February 17 and the quarterfinals were scheduled for the 18th. CAS dealt with the affair quickly and supported the position of the tournament directorate. Samuelsson was out of the Olympics, Sweden retained its points and played Finland in the quarters. The Czechs had to face the Americans.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Olympic Committee held a press-conference with the entire hockey team. Samuelsson, one of the toughest and meanest players in the NHL, broke down in tears. He assured the media that he was not aware of the rule that said he couldn’t be a dual citizen. The players said goodbye to Samuelsson as they had to prepare for the quarterfinal. The team never re-covered and Sweden lost to archrival Finland, 2-1. The Czechs? They easily defeated USA 4-1 and went on to win the country’s first Olympic hockey gold.

Samuelsson never saw the Swede’s game against the Finns. The city he arrived in one week earlier as a celebrated Swede, he left as a disgraced American. After having played close to 100 games for different Swedish national team, he would never again suit up in the Tre Kronor-jersey.

It wasn’t easy for reporter Janne Bengtsson either. Back in Sweden, his family needed police protection as they received more than 400 threatening phone calls, many of them with death threats. Many fans accused him of high treason. What they never understood was that he was doing his job. He was a reporter, not a supporter. And his scoop led to one of biggest stories in the history of international hockey.
Ulf Samuelsson (right) in his last ever game with Tre Kronor in Nagano, Japan, against Belarus.

PHOTO: Europhoto/Jukka Rautio

73 Star-studded Russia ends up all-time low at home in 2000
St Petersburg, Russia             
May 14, 2000      

It started really well. The best team that Russian hockey had assembled since the glorious Soviet days, ran over France 8-1 on opening day of the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg. This meant that a Soviet/Russian team had never lost a World Championship game at home, riding a streak of 36 consecutive games without a loss, dating back to 1957.

The Russian fans were sure that this team, loaded with NHL stars like Pavel Bure, Maxim Afinogenov, Alexey Yashin, Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Zhamnov, Alexei Zhitnik, Dmitri Mironov, Andrei Kovalenko and Valeri Kamensky, simply couldn’t fail. In total 14 NHLers came home to join the team that was on a mission to win the nation’s first World Championship gold since 1993.

But already in the next game the star-studded Russians were shut-out by USA, 3-0 and the unbeaten home streak that had lasted for 43 years, through four World Championship events, was over. What’s even worse – the loss to the Americans happened on May 1, traditionally a very important day for Russian people, symbolically significant as a day of celebration for workers across Europe. Another blow happened two days later when Switzerland rallied back from being 2-1-down to win 3-2, the first ever Swiss win against a Soviet or Russian team in a men’s hockey championship.

In just four days the fans’ sentiments had changed from joyous to furious. But there was still time for redemption. The sole win against France was enough for the Russian team to qualify for the next round. But things would only from bad to worse. In the opening game of the Qualifying Round, Russia lost to Latvia 3-2, in a game where the former Soviet goalie Arturs Irbe played the game of his life. For the hockey fans from Latvia, a former Soviet republic, this was the best day of their lives.

Now, after three consecutive losses, Team Russia’s qualifying for the quarterfinal was in serious jeopardy. They badly needed wins against both Belarus and Sweden. The game against Belarus (another former Soviet republic) on May 7 will probably forever be remembered as the lowest point in the country’s hockey history. Vladzimir Tsyplakov’s goal after twelve minutes was enough. A fundamentally demoralized team full of hockey millionaires could not overcome even this setback. The game ended 1-0 for Belarus and the fans at St. Petersburg Ice Palace booed their players mercilessly.

The team and head coach Alexander Yakushev were chopped into pieces by Russian media. “The worst St. Petersburg has seen since 1917” shouted one headline and another publication called the players “Hollywood stars, not athletes”. But the media wasn’t done. In an action that has no precedence in the world of team sports, the home media demanded that the entire team and coaching staff would show up at a press-conference to publicly apologize for the showing which was considered as a national embarrassment.

The Russian Ice Hockey Federation had no other choice than yield to the demands and to subject the entire team to this humiliation, where many of the Russian scribes acted more as fans than as covering journalists. Some of the best players in the world sat there and the only thing that they could say was “we are sorry”.

The last game against Sweden proved meaningless. Despite a 4-2-win Russia finished 11th – between Norway and Italy. What was predicted as a revival of a once great national team on home ice, ended with an all-time low.
Coaches (second from left) Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Alexander Yakushev, GM Alexei Kasatonov and the entire Russian team had to explain their failure to outraged media at the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St Petersburg.

PHOTO: Jukka Rautio/Europhoto

74 Only 18, Crosby wins scoring crown at the 2006 World Championship
Riga, Latvia            
May 5-21, 2006     

Sidney Crosby was famous in Nova Scotia until he was about 14. Then, when Wayne Gretzky suggested this young teenager could one day break some of his records, Crosby was famous around the world. In junior hockey, he lived up to his tremendous billing as the next great star, and his rookie season with Pittsburgh in the NHL was exceptional. The Penguins, however, were a re-building team, and they failed to make the playoffs despite Crosby’s 39 goals and 102 points as an 18-year-old.

Of course, he got the call from Team Canada general manager Jim Devellano to play for coach Marc Habscheid at the World Championship in Latvia, and Crosby happily agreed to continue his season and extend his international career beyond his silver (2004) and gold (2005) medals from the World Junior Championships (U20). Crosby was joining a team that had won gold at the 2003 and 2004 World Championship and won silver in 2005, the year of the lockout. Team Canada ’06 featured Patrice Bergeron, who had won gold in 2004, and a host of other talented Canadians, notably Brad Boyes, Jason Williams, Jeff Carter, Kyle Calder, and Mike Richards. The team got a further boost by the late addition of veteran Brendan Shanahan.

Crosby arrived in Riga and, quite simply, took over the tournament from the start of game one. By the time the tournament was finished, he had led the World Championship in goals (8) and points (16) to become the youngest player ever to do so. More important, though, was how he played. There was no sense of fatigue, no sense of going through the motions or taking a back seat to Shanahan, Bergeron, or anyone else. In truth, he led and inspired the Canadian team through his play.

In Canada’s first game, a close 5-3 win over Denmark, it was Crosby who made the difference. He scored the game’s second goal to give Canada a 2-0 lead, but by the end of the second period the surprising Danes had tied the game, 3-3. Crosby scored the go-ahead goal early in the third, a goal that stood as the winner. He had a goal and two assists in the team’s next game, an easy 7-1 win over Norway, and in game three, he scored in the second period against Team USA to erase an early American lead en route to a 2-1 Canada win. It was, perhaps, the best goal of the tournament. Linemate Patrice Bergeron, deep in his own end, spotted Crosby streaking up ice and hit him with a beautiful pass just before the centre red line. Crosby exploded between two defencemen as soon as he got the puck, steaked in all alone, faked and deked goalie Jason Bacashihua at top speed, and slid into the corner after the spectacular goal. The crowd was in awe.

In an easy 11-0 win over the host Latvia, Crosby had a goal and assist in the first period, and in a 6-4 loss to the Czechs, he also had a goal. The only thing missing from his tournament was a medal, as Canada lost to Sweden 5-4 in the semi-finals and was then shut out 5-0 by the Finns for the bronze medal. Against Sweden, Canada trailed 5-2 midway through the game, and Crosby almost completed a great comeback. He scored a goal late in the second period to make it 5-3, and early in the third he made an unbelievable pass from the corner to Bergeron in the slot to make it 5-4. Try as they might, Canada couldn’t tie the game.

By the time the tournament was over and Sweden had claimed its historic gold (to go along with its Olympic gold just three months earlier), Crosby had left his mark on the senior international game. He may have been only 18, but he played with a combination of remarkable, youthful exuberance and extraordinary maturity. The world will see more of Sid the Kid before he is done.
Canada's Sidney Crosby vs Denmark at the 2006 IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia.

PHOTO: Europhoto

75 At 39, Peter Stastny closes circle and promotes his country to the A Pool
Bratislava, Slovakia           
April 21, 1995    

There were two great defections in Toronto in the early 1970s. On June 29, 1974, the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected moments after a performance with the Kirov Ballet at the O’Keefe Centre, across the street from, ironically, the current home of the Hockey Hall of Fame. At about the same time, Vaclav Nedomansky defected from Czechoslovakia to play in the World Hockey Association with the Toronto Toros. It wasn’t for another six years that a high-profile defection took place. On August 26, 1980, Peter Stastny, his pregnant wife, and his brother, Anton, defected from Innsbruck, Austria after a European Cup tournament. From there they flew to Quebec. A third brother, Marian, joined them a year later.

Peter and Anton were the first players to defect to play in the NHL. They joined the Quebec Nordiques for the 1980-81-season, and Peter went on to have one of the finest careers in league history. Combined with his incredible international career, it might be argued he was one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Indeed, he played in two Olympics, five World Championships (three gold, two silver), and two Canada Cups.

Peter and Anton loved Quebec City so much they became Canadian citizens, and Peter played for Canada at the 1984 Canada Cup, winning a championship with his adopted country. The only goal he would score for Canada, was against Czechoslovakia. Incredibly, Peter had played on the 1976 Czech team that lost to Canada in the dramatic 1976 finals.

None of his accomplishments, however, can compare to the emotions surrounding Peter’s last foray into international hockey. The early 1990s brought incredible changes to the political landscape of Europe, and Czechoslovakia divided into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The former was granted top pool status at IIHF events as the substitute nation for Czechoslovakia, but the Slovaks had to start from the bottom and work their way up the ranks. And, with the help of Peter Stastny, they did just that.

The new nation qualified to play at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway and finished in a remarkable sixth place. Stastny led that team with five goals and nine points in eight games, the first time he represented his true country. At the opening ceremonies in Lillehammer, it was a teary-eyed Stastny, who carried the Slovak flag, bursting with national pride. Just a few weeks later, Slovakia won the C Pool of the World Championship (without Stastny).

But a year later came the fantastic finale of his career. Just a couple of weeks after playing his last NHL-game, Stastny, almost 39, once again suited up for the Slovak national team when the B-Pool World Championship was held in his home town of Bratislava. Stastny had 16 points in six games to give the Slovaks a victory to earn promotion to A Pool for 1996. He was the tournament top scorer, named Best Forward and selected to the All Star Team. After Peter Stastny completed his mission in front of his own people, Slovakia never looked back, and he could retire in peace – exactly 20 years after debuting for the Czechoslovak national team.

Peter Stastny is the only player to have represented three countries in hockey—Czechoslovakia, Canada, and Slovakia—and although each represents a major component to his career, none has the emotional and symbolic resonance as his final appearance with Slovakia, his country and his home.
Peter Stastny (right) ended his magnificent NHL-career in 1995 at the age of 39 and made sure to promote his native Slovakia to the A-pool of the IIHF World Championships later the same season. A wonderful ending to an outstanding career.

PHOTO: Hannu Lindroos, Hockey Hall of Fame

76 Sergei Priakhin becomes the first Soviet to legally play in the NHL
Calgary, Canada          
March 31, 1989   

Viktor Nechayev was a very average player in the Soviet league when he left his country in 1982 and somehow played his way onto the Los Angeles Kings roster. In all, he played just three games in the NHL, scoring one goal, and later he continued his career in Germany. So by definition, Nechayev is the answer to the trivia question: Who was the first Soviet-trained player to play in the NHL?

But Nechayev is really just a piece of trivia. The distinction of being the first Soviet national team player to come to the NHL with the approval of the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation belongs to Sergei Priakhin. The forward from Krylia Sovietov (Soviet Wings) was not of top-notch Soviet calibre and was far from being a talent in the Larionov, Krutov, or Makarov tradition of greatness. Priakhin, though, represented the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup and two World Championships (1987, 1990). It was this quality of being a perfectly respectable player—but not a superstar--that made him the perfect candidate as the first Soviet export to the NHL. Priakhin was decent enough not to give Soviet hockey a bad name, but he was also a player who the Soviet league and national team could reasonably afford to lose.

The Calgary Flames drafted Priakhin in the 12th round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. After spending the first part of the season with his Moscow-based Soviet Wings, Priakhin joined the Flames toward the end of the NHL season, making his debut on March 31, 1989. Although he played in only three NHL games with the Flames that season, he brought good karma with him. Calgary won its first and still only Stanley Cup that spring with the Soviet player on the roster. Priakhin never got his name on the Stanley Cup, however, because he hadn’t played enough games to qualify.

Praikhin remained with the Flames for two more seasons, playing 44 games and scoring 11 points. In 1992, he returned to the Soviet Wings but later continued his career in Zurich, Switzerland and Espoo, Finland. Priakhin didn’t have any major impact on the NHL, but his transfer was of historic value. NHL teams hoped that it would pave the way for future players to make the sanctioned trip to the west, but massive political change beat the NHL to the punch, as it were. Just seven months after Priakhin signed with the Flames, the Berlin Wall was dismantled and the Iron Curtain was no more. Less than two years after the transfer, the Soviet Union was dissolved and players from the former Eastern Bloc (primarily the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) started to flood the NHL.

But whatever later developments brought, Sergei Priakhin will forever be remembered as the first player allowed to leave the closed world of Soviet ice hockey for the NHL.
HANDPICKED: Sergei Priakhin was specially selected by the Soviet ice hockey authorities, becoming the first Soviet player to transfer to the NHL.

PHOTO: Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame

77 Recently separated, Czechs and Slovaks meet in World Championships final
St Petersburg, Russia         
May 14, 2000  

Proving that breakups of countries don’t have to result in bloodshed, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993, an event sometimes called the Velvet Divorce. In terms of ice hockey, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia meant that the Czech Ice Hockey Association took over the position of former Czechoslovakia while Slovakia was considered a “new” hockey nation. As a result, the Slovaks had to start from scratch in the IIHF World Championship program and work their way up through the divisions.

They started at the very bottom in 1994 – Pool C – and gained immediate promotion to Pool B after winning that level easily. They also finished on top of the secondary level in 1995 and earned the next promotion, this time to the elite Pool A, in 1996, in Vienna, Austria. But the steady improvement of the new national team program didn’t stop there. The Slovaks – with players such as Zdeno Ciger, Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, and Miroslav Satan – finished 10th in 1996, 9th in 1997, 7th in 1998, and 7th again in 1999 leading to the 2000 World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Proving that breakups of countries don’t have to result in bloodshed, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993, an event sometimes called the Velvet Divorce. In terms of ice hockey, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia meant that the Czech Ice Hockey Association took over the position of former Czechoslovakia while Slovakia was considered a “new” hockey nation. As a result, the Slovaks had to start from scratch in the IIHF World Championship program and work their way up through the divisions.

They started at the very bottom in 1994 – Pool C – and gained immediate promotion to Pool B after winning that level easily. They also finished on top of the secondary level in 1995 and earned the next promotion, this time to the elite Pool A, in 1996, in Vienna, Austria. But the steady improvement of the new national team program didn’t stop there. The Slovaks – with players such as Zdeno Ciger, Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, and Miroslav Satan – finished 10th in 1996, 9th in 1997, 7th in 1998, and 7th again in 1999 leading to the 2000 World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia.
CIVILIZED RIVALS: Seven years following the “Velvet Divorce”, the Czech Republic and Slovakia met in the 2000 IIHF World Championship final, marking May 14 a historic day for both the young nations.

PHOTO: Jukka Rautio, Europhoto

78 USA wins its first and so far only Worlds in 1933, denying Canada for the first time
Prague, Czechoslovakia        
February 26, 1933 

In the early days of international hockey, Canada was all but invincible. It won the first four Olympic tournaments (1920, ‘24, ‘28, ‘32) and the first two World Championships (1930 and ‘31) without losing a single game. But when looking closely at the scores, one could see that Canada was occasionally vulnerable. The Canadians needed overtime in both games against the USA in the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics to secure the gold medal, and, in the 1931 World Championship, Sweden skated away with a 0-0 tie against the eventual champions.

In the 1933 world tournament in Prague, Czechoslovakia, USA and Canada once again faced each other in the gold medal game on February 26 at the beautiful Zimni Stadion at Stvanice. Both teams had coaches who later became high-profile men in the professional leagues back in North America. The Canadian entry, the Toronto National Sea Fleas, was led by Harold Ballard, later known as the controversial owner of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The Americans, represented in Prague by the Massachusetts Rangers, had Walter Brown as their coach. Brown, the president of the NHL’s Boston Bruins and owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, became the president of the IIHF in 1954 and an inductee to both the Hockey Hall of Fame as well as to the IIHF Hall of Fame later in the 20th century.

The gold-medal game in ‘33 was tied 1-1 at the end of 45 minutes of regulation time. Sherman Forbes scored for the U.S. while Tim Kerr had the Canadian equalizer. Six minutes into the 10-minute “non sudden-death” overtime, defenseman John Garrison scored on a beautiful solo effort, beating Canadian goalie Ron Geddes. Gerry Cosby, the American goalie who would later open his famous hockey store at the Madison Square Garden in New York, stoned Canada for the rest of the overtime period and his team held on for the historic 2-1-win.

For Garrison and star forward Winthrop Palmer it was the sweetest revenge. Both players were part of the 1932 Lake Placid team that lost the Olympic gold medal by the narrowest of margins.

Amazingly, as big as the USA success was back in 1933, no American men’s team has been able to repeat the World Championship gold in the next 75 years. In fact, they have won only four silver medals since, the most recent coming in 1956 at the Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
HOME ON THE RANGE: The Massachusetts Rangers won the 1933 World Championship representing the United States, denying Canada for the first time.

PHOTO: IIHF Archives.

79 Scotty Bowman forms NHL's first-ever "Russian five"
Detroit Red Wings       

One of the most important results of the Summit Series of 1972 was a recognition by Canada and the Soviet Union that each nation had a distinct style of play, and in ensuing years each took styles from the other and incorporated them into their own game. For instance, Canada learned about puck movement while the Soviets learned about physical play. But there were other subtle examples, one of which was the Soviets' penchant for uniting their forward line and defence pairing into a cohesive five-man unit. It wasn't until a quarter of a century later, however, that this strategy was used in the NHL, and the distinction of making a successful go of it belongs to Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman.

When Bowman started coaching Detroit in 1993, he inherited a roster that quickly became among the top teams in the league. The team made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, but the Wings were quickly dispatched by the Colorado Avalanche in four straight games. No matter. Bowman's team returned to the finals the next year, and this time it was the Wings who did the sweeping, of Philadelphia, in four straight games.

A large part of Detroit's success came from the Russian fivesome of defencemen Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov and forwards Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, and Slava Kozlov. The uniting of these five was inspired, to say the least. Bowman had two veterans in Fetisov and Larionov who were revered by the next generation of players, among whom the other three were the cream of the crop. Not only had all the players grown up under the Soviet system of hockey, the younger players were inspired by and motivated by their elders, and the veterans in turn acted as de facto coaches for their Soviet protégés.

The result was a Stanley Cup which was of historic significance as the wily Bowman took a page from the old Soviet playbook and used it in a modern way with a combination of old school and new school players. The political meaning of the coaching strategy was almost as important as the hockey results. Had Bowman used a five-man unit in 1972, he might have been branded a traitor. In 1997, he was called a genius.
THE FAB FIVE: From left, Slava Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Igor Larionov celebrate another Stanley Cup win with the Detroit Red Wings.


80 Rebel league WHA recruits Europeans, changing the North American game
WINNIPEG, Canada      
September 1974

Although Swede Thommie Bergman was signed by the Detroit Red Wings in 1972 and his countrymen Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom joined the Toronto Maple Leafs one year later, Europeans in the NHL were few and far between in the early 70s. And apart from Salming, they didn't have much impact and the tough Swede was seen as an exception to the rule that said that you can't build a team around Europeans.

All that changed in 1974 when the World Hockey Association started to systematically sign Europeans, mostly Swedes and Finns who were easily accessible. When the WHA was introduced in 1972, the rebel league was dominated by the New England Whalers and the Houston Aeros who only had North American players. In Winnipeg, general manager Rudy Pilous and coach Bobby Kromm realized that courting European might be the way to WHA dominance. How right they were. It started with Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson joining in 1974 and the flashy Scandinavians formed one of the most exciting lines in professional hockey teaming up with legend Bobby Hull. Hedberg had 53 goals in his rookie season while Nilsson set rookie records with 94 assists and 120 points.

It was during that season that the North American hockey establishment realized that players from the other side of the pond could play dominating roles. The Jets were on their way to greatness and with nine (!) Europeans – including Swedish captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg – Winnipeg won the WHA championship, the Avco Cup, the next season. The 1974-75 was a milestone season for European migration to North America. The WHA would only live for three more seasons before it merged with the NHL, but the Euro-stocked Jets won in two out of the three years.

The WHA and the Winnipeg Jets had immense influence on the future of pro hockey in Canada and the United States. Closely watching the free-wheeling style of the Jets, coach Glenn Sather in Edmonton started to build his upstart Oilers by emulating Winnipeg's European oriented approach. As soon as the WHA folded in 1979, the NHL raided the defunct clubs for European talent.

Hedberg, Nilsson and Sjöberg joined the New York Rangers. Their cross-town rivals, the New York Islanders, won four Stanley Cups (1980-83) with four Swedish players, becoming the first NHL-club to have Europeans on their winning team. Another Swedish Jet, Willy Lindstrom, went to the Oilers and assisted Wayne Gretzky in winning Stanley Cups in the mid-80s.

There is no doubt that the WHA's and the Winnipeg Jets' coveting European players in the mid-70s contributed to changing the North American game.
Winnipeg Jets' Anders Hedberg (left) and Ulf Nilsson helped changing the face of North American hockey in the mid-70s.



page hits