Russian Classic marks 50 years of Canada-Russia hockey rivalry with 1966 match redux
Sherbrooke Beavers were 1 of only 2 Canadian teams to play on Soviet ice in 1950s and 60s
George Guilbault, a retired hockey player and manager, flips through a yellowed scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings, some from 50 years ago.
"We played like frozen fish," he says, laughing as he recalls a hockey game on an outdoor rink in Russia in 1966.
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The Sherbrooke Beavers were one of only two Canadian teams to play on Soviet ice during the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s.
The Beavers were Canadian amateur champions in 1965. Fresh from winning the Ahearn Cup (a European tournament) in December 1965, the team of 15 slipped behind the Iron Curtain the following month to meet the Central Red Army Sports Club.
But instead of playing the first game in Moscow, as they expected, the team was bussed 150 kilometres northwest of Moscow to an outdoor rink in Kalinin. Guilbault, who played centre for the Beavers, remembers it was -20 C.
"The Soviet bus driver was trying to conserve gas," he said. "Every time we went downhill, he'd turn off the ignition, so there was no heat in the bus either."
As the story goes, the Soviets were wary of losing face on home ice in Moscow. So, the Beavers were shuttled off to Kalinin, named after Mikhail Kalinin, a puppet president of the Stalin era.
The exhibition series helped set the stage for the great Soviet-Canada rivalries to come, like the Summit Series in 1972.
'It was tougher than we thought'
Kalinin is now called Tver. The annual outdoor Russian Classic hockey series held its opening game there last Saturday in commemoration of that 1966 Canada-Soviet match-up.
"We are trying to recreate the same atmosphere to remember it and talk about it, so that people will come to the stadium and have the same experience how it was 50 years ago," said German Skoropupov, president of Russia's Supreme Hockey League (VHL).
"In that time, Soviet hockey was played on the streets and in open stadiums like this one, and, actually, nothing much has changed here since then."
The outdoor rink Tver is still a sheet of ice covering a soccer field. It has the same stands, although the seats have changed, and there's a Zamboni now.
Back in 1966, "it was tougher than we thought," said Guilbault.
First, there was the cold. Then the crowd — the game took place at an army camp, so most of the spectators were soldiers, some brandishing Kalashnikovs, Guilbault recalled.
"The more they scored, the wilder they got. They just never stopped," he said.
Tensions boiled over
The game was rough. The Canadians had their fists high for most of it. As the score for the Red Army team nudged above 10 while the Beavers managed just a couple of goals, the famed Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov showed no mercy.
When the goalie went down, the brawl started.- George Guilbault, centre for the Sherbrooke Beavers in 1966
"In the third period, when Canadians were very tired, I put on the ice my best and most forceful line," he said in a television interview later.
Tensions, already high, boiled over.
"One of our players had taken many penalties, and he got upset at the goalies," said Guilbault. "Going to the bench, he decided to go and spear him. And when the goalie went down, the brawl started."
"It was a stunning sight to see," said Tarasov in a later interview on Russian TV. "In two minutes, all my players were on top of the Canadians. Some were getting their ears yanked; others were getting punched up.
"Something bad could've happened, so I gave the order to my players to release the Canadians."
News of the brawl echoed from Moscow to Ottawa. With the next two games in Moscow, the Beavers were invited to the Canadian Embassy.
"We thought we were going to have some cheese and wine, but first of all, we got a true speech by the ambassador to calm ourselves down."
Canada's ambassador, Robert Ford, warned if there were further disruptions, he'd have to cancel the next two games.
There weren't. The scores got better. While the initial game ended with a 15-4 loss for Canada, the Beavers lost the last game against the Moscow Spartak team by only one goal.
Love of the game
In Tver, last Saturday night, two teams suited up for the friendly match: one in Soviet red, the other in Canadian red and white, both largely made up of retired players and managers. The Canadian team was composed of all Russians but had a Canadian coach, former NHL bench boss Mike Keenan, who's also coached in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
"The curtain is down. Hockey's universal now," said Keenan, referring to the steady stream of players flowing from Russia to the NHL.
We found out that they were no different. We really loved the game mutually.- George Guilbault
A video greeting from Guilbault was played at the match, which ended in a loss for the "Canadian" team reminiscent of the one 50 years ago: 14-6.
"I'd like to congratulate the members of the great event in Russia giving us the opportunity to think back 50 years," Guilbault said.
For him, the 1966 series was one grand adventure.
"We had the opportunity to be with people that really were passionate, as passionate about hockey as we were. And the more we got friendly, through different people helping us to understand, we found out that they were no different. We really loved the game mutually."