Seven world championship gold medals, two Olympic Gold Medals, a two-time NHL All-Star, a Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, and regarded by many to be one of the best defensemen in the world. - Viacheslav Fetisov
Ten world championship gold medals, three Olympic Gold Medals, a Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee, and regarded by many to be one of the best goaltenders in the world. - Vladislav Tretiak
One world championship gold medal, a seven-time NHL All-Star, a Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee, Hart Memorial Trophy winner, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, and regarded by many to be one of the best forwards in the world. - Sergei Fedorov
What do these three players have in common? They all played for the Red Army Club, the Soviet Union’s national ice hockey team. Not to mention, the accomplishments above are just some of the incredible achievements these storied players accomplished. Ice hockey was introduced to the USSR in the 1940s, but the sport wasn’t popularized until the ‘50s. Within 14 years of its introduction, the Soviet Union created the greatest hockey team to ever play the game, winning nearly every international game they played between 1954 and 1991.
The Red Army represented the peak of what the USSR had achieved. The battle between Capitalism and Communism, the United States of America versus the Soviet Union, lasted 45 years. At that time, the USSR and its domination of international play showcased the Soviet hockey system and style of play as the best in the world. The Soviet Union’s leaders used their control of the game as propaganda to demonstrate that their economic and social system was also the best in the world.
The development of the Soviet hockey system began with a man named Anatoly Tarasov. Known as the “father of Russian hockey,” Tarasov's innovations changed the game, an evolution that persists today. Combining the physicality of Canadian play with the finesse of Russian hockey created a team that rarely lost. Instead of the quintessential “dump and chase” of the North Americans, intricate passing was the staple of the Red Army’s play. In addition to evolving the game and leading the Red Army as head coach, Tarasov developed the Soviet hockey machine. The early recruitment and training of young athletes proved quite effective. Tarasov led the Red Army to 18 national championships and 11 European championships. Removed from the head coach position after pulling the USSR out of a game because of a disallowed goal, Tarasov was relegated to watching the system he set up from afar.
The head coaching position was taken over by Victor Tikhonov in 1977. He inherited the best ice hockey team in the world and in his first Olympics as head coach, Tikhonov suffered a great loss. Americans remember the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics as a defining triumph over Communism, but no matter what political ideologies were attached to it; it was just a hockey game. The United States of America and the Soviet Union, on a sheet of ice, in Lake Placid, New York. Your classic David and Goliath story, a team of amateur American college players defeated the unbeatable Red Army, 4-3. The United
States team had lost 10-3 to the Soviets just weeks earlier in an exhibition game. It was, quite frankly, a miracle. The Americans went on to clinch the gold medal.
It might well have been one of the greatest moments in sports history. A great achievement for the down on their luck Americans, the Soviets saw it a bit differently. A devastating loss for a team that didn’t lose, Victor Tikhonov fired the team’s veterans quickly thereafter. Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, and Alexei Kasatonov made up what was left of that 1980 team. A deadly five-man unit, these men led the Red Army to win after win. When the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics rolled around, the Soviets had not lost a game in two years. They went on to beat Czechoslovakia to win the gold medal. Tikhonov’s legacy is receiving ready-made stars and continuing to win with them.
After the loss to the Americans in 1980, Tikhonov ran his players into the ground. They were being overworked, prevented from seeing their families, and being coached by a man who didn’t respect them. These miserable conditions, along with the dissipation of the idealistic belief that was the Soviet Union’s economy, led to discontent amongst the players on the Red Army team.
The first Soviet to defect was Alexander Mogilny. Drafted 89th overall in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres, Mogilny decided that his growing success with the Soviet national team wasn’t enough. After the 1989 World Championships in Sweden, he boarded a plane to the United States and went on to play 16 seasons in the NHL for four different teams. Many other players followed in his footsteps, including Sergei Fedorov.
A huge problem for the USSR, the defection of one could lead to the defection of the many, not just highly prized hockey players. It could create huge political unrest in the country. Instead of letting that happen, the Russian government adopted the practice of Perestroika. This policy restructured the government and put reforms in place that meant unprecedented freedom for the Soviets. Members of the Red Army Club were now allowed to play in North America, with the condition that much of the money they earned went back to their cash-strapped nation. This practice stopped in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and disbanded the Soviet Union.
Although the Soviets were now legally allowed to play in the NHL, that didn’t mean they were accepted. Players, coaches, and owners ostracized them. Making it worse, the Soviets found it hard to blend in with the North American playing style. They passed when they should have shot, got too fancy with their plays, or were simply too slow.
Soviet resentment did not get better until the Detroit Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman put together a five-man unit of former Red Army stars. The “Russian Five” consisted of Vladimir Konstantinov, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, and Vyacheslav Kozlov. Designing their own type of plays, North American defenses were unable to stop them. This five-man unit was a major contributor in the Red Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup Championship.
The Red Army Club is a huge part of hockey history. Their players and game style influenced the North American game exponentially. Hundreds of Russian hockey players have been drafted since 1989. And the game of hockey wouldn’t look the same without them.