While its epic reach into space was dominating world conversation last week, the Soviet Union was, as usual, practicing one-upmanship in sports as well as in cosmic matters. In ice hockey this took the form of an expedition to the U.S. by the best players in the land. Many of them were veterans of last year's world championship at Oslo, which hockey-proud Canada won from Russia by the skin of its teeth. Some had helped Russia win the Olympic hockey title at Cortina in 1956. Like all important Soviet athletes, they had emerged from a state-sponsored program whose goal—and frequent achievement—is world supremacy. The U.S. obviously could not counter with players of the stature of the New York Rangers' Andy Bathgate (see page 26) or the Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe. These are professionals in name as well as spirit, and Canadians at that. In the three games matching country against country we relied on an amateur team composed largely of ex-collegians, the majority Minnesota boys. Some of them had represented the U.S. in international meets, but they were given little chance against the superbly trained and disciplined visitors. Americans may take pride, then, in the fact that the U.S. team skated the Russians to a standstill in the first game, in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, and continued to play spirited hockey despite being overmatched. Here is our correspondent's report.
Nikolai Sologubov, a 34-year-old ice hockey player with worn features and straggly blond hair, might best be described as a Soviet version of Enos Slaughter. A hustling defenseman, Sologubov came upon hockey more or less by chance after he was wounded in the feet at Leningrad by a German booby trap. During his convalescence he began skating, and when he was transferred to Khabarovsk in the Soviet far east at the end of the war he switched to hockey. By 1949 he was good enough to attract the notice of the Central Athletic Club of the Ministry of Defense, the formal name for the Soviet army team, and things being what they are in the U.S.S.R., it was no trick at all to transfer him back to his native Moscow. In 1955 he became a member of the Soviet international team and in 1956 the team captain. At present he is a senior lieutenant in the army, the proud owner of a Volga car and an Honored Master of Sport, a title the Soviet government bestows on athletes not only for their ability but their attitude. Last week Sologubov, who is known as Kolya to his friends, and 17 other Soviet hockey players arrived in the United States for an eight-game tour. The first three were played in New York, Minneapolis and Hibbing, Minn. against the U.S. Nationals, which is composed of this country's best available amateurs. One says available because, although this is a strong team, it is not the strongest the U.S. could muster. For example, Johnny Mayasich, the star of the 1956 and 1958 Nationals, is too busy working as a salesman for a Twin Cities radio and television station to take the time off. Like the Russians, the Nationals are scheduled to compete in the world championships at Prague in March, and the almost four months required for training, touring and the tournament itself are a hardship, especially when you're getting only $10 a day for room and board.
Sologubov and the Soviet team flew into New York a week ago Tuesday. They spent New Year's Eve watching the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins play a rather violent game in Madison Square Garden, and Kolya and Company, who abhor violence on the ice, were distinctly unimpressed when a couple of the players tried to chop one another up with their sticks. As it turned out, the Rangers and the Bruins might have done well to have stayed around to see the Soviet team tie the Nationals the next day. The Russians, though somewhat sluggish from the unaccustomed heat in the Garden (this is an American explanation, not a Soviet alibi), put on a display of skating and passing finesse that had rarely been seen there since the pros began to downgrade stickhandling in the late 1930s. The Russians supposedly started their hockey homework 10 years ago by studying films of old Stanley Cup games, and that, so the story goes, is where they got their foundation in finesse.
The Nationals, who by contrast played the rough and individualistic brand of game now in favor here, started out as if to show the films had been so much waste of time. Bob Dupuis of Allston, Mass. scored the first goal of the game after a face-off on Soviet ice. But the smooth Russians were not to be outdone. They racked up three consecutive goals, one of them by Sologubov, and, unlike the Nationals, who cheer each of their goals with college-boy enthusiasm, the Russians were completely unemotional. "When the Russians make these plays and score, there is no cheering or anything," says Robert Barry of Newton, Mass., one of the two U.S. referees assigned to the Soviet tour. "Damn it, that's what's supposed to happen. Why should they cheer?"
January 12, 1959
Before the first period was over, the Nationals cut the score to 3-2, but Venyamin Aleksandrov, the brilliant young Soviet center, came back to make it 4-2. In the second period, the heavier Nationals again took to throwing their weight around, and they moved into a surprising 5-4 lead. It appeared they were about to score their first victory ever over a Soviet team, but a penalty left them short-handed, and the Russians then came through with the final goal of the game for a 5-5 tie. Both teams took off for Minneapolis the next day. The Americans made it without trouble, but the Russians had to change planes in Detroit because of engine trouble. While in the air, Sologubov and a few others played Preference, a rather involved-looking card game which apparently demands all their attention. In fact, all the Soviet players appear to be quite absorbed no matter what they're doing. One of them, deep in a book, was startled when he looked out and saw the engine feathering. He excitedly pulled out a map, looked at it the wrong way and decided that he would die crashing into Boston. Referee Barry righted the map and assured him that it wasn't Boston but Lake Erie.
In Minneapolis, the tired-out Russians made it as quickly as they could for bed. While they were tucking themselves in, Marsh Ryman, the Nationals coach, was perfecting his strategy for Saturday's game. "The best way for us to beat them is to hit them," he said frankly. "We discovered that in the second period in New York, and it almost won the game for us. Until then we were in danger of being routed. Nothing at all resembling dirty hockey is being planned, but we will simply check harder. They're a precise team. They play chess with you. They'll use set plays and pass six or seven times before taking a shot. If we can disrupt that and skate like we all did Thursday, we'll be all right."
On Saturday, before a crowd of 7,766 in Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, it looked for a brief moment, a very brief moment, as if the Nationals were about to clean up. The game had scarcely begun when Jim Westby, a Minneapolis boy, whacked a chest-high line drive into the Soviet goal from just inside the Soviet blue line. Nikolai Puchkov, the Soviet goalie, all but whistled in disbelief, and the crowd burst into a cry of wild joy. But there was little to cheer about after that. The first period ended 3-1 in Soviet favor; in the second the Russians, passing superbly, scored four more goals to the Nationals' one. Sologubov and his teammates took a bouncing around in the process, mainly because they don't know how to use their behinds to ward off assault, but this didn't throw them off their precision game. The final score was 8-3.
Saturday night the Russians and the Nationals bussed 200 freezing miles north to Hibbing in the Iron Range. Sologubov, smoking a Russian filter cigaret, played Preference during the 4½-hour ride. When he awoke Sunday morning he felt right at home. First, the temperature had sunk to 45 below zero, making Hibbing the coldest spot in the U.S. that day. (By game time it had warmed up to 16 below.) Then Moscow called on the phone, sending the desk clerk at the Hotel Androy into a flutter. What it did to the Russians could not be learned, but the rest of the folks in town sure got excited.
10 YEARS TO 100
Before the game began in the Hibbing Memorial Building, Sologubov was presented with a miner's hard hat, and he drew a laugh from the crowd when he donned it and skated over to the Soviet bench. The Russians scored late in the first period to take a 1-0 lead but they would have scored earlier had it not been for several superb saves by Goalie Don Cooper of Wrentham, Mass. Early in the second period Weldon Olson rammed one past the prostrate Puchkov to tie it at 1 all, but Sologubov put in a 15-footer to make it 2-1 before the period ended.
The third period turned into a rout. Within the first few minutes the Russians scored two goals. Igor Dekonskii took a pass from Sologubov for one and Aleksandrov came right back with the other. Before the game was over, the Russians got three more goals, two of them by Sologubov, to make the final score 7-1.
Kolya and his teammates left the ice proud and happy. Bill Riley of Medford, Mass., the other American referee, was generous in his praise of the Russians: "They're very conscious of the advance they've made. They've done in 10 years what Canada did in 100."