Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January 11, 1976: Bullying the Soviets

PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia defenseman Ed Van Impe stepped out of the box, his penalty over. Coming his way was Red Army star Valeri Kharlamov. Van Impe delivered a crushing blow to Kharlamov, causing the Russian to lay prone on the ice for more than a minute. The Soviet coach was furious that no penalty was called, and he pulled his team off the ice. The Flyers offered no apologies; the Soviets had said they wanted to know what it was like to play an NHL team in an NHL rink under NHL rules. Now they knew.

The Super Series was a novel idea, a great opportunity to grow the sport of hockey during a time when there was little to no cooperation between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. The Soviet's Red Army team was considered the best team in the world, believed to be capable of beating even the best professional teams. However, they had never actually played the best.

So in the winter of 1976, the NHL and the Russian KHL organized the Super Series. Two teams from Russia - CSKA Moscow (better known as the Red Army Team) and Soviet Wings - would come to North America and each play three NHL teams. The games would be televised live internationally. They were among the most anticipated hockey games ever played to that point.

The Red Army team started the series with a victory over the New York Rangers. On New Years Day, they travelled to Montreal to play the Canadiens, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season. In one of the greatest hockey games ever played, the Red Army managed a tie against Montreal despite being outshot 38-13. The magnificent play of Vladislav Tretiak kept the Red Army in the game and drew rave reviews from people who had never seen the magnificant goaltender play before.

With the Red Army team having three games under their belts and Soviet Wings done with their four-game set, the final game of the Super Series was set for Philadelphia on January 11, 1976. The Flyers were the defending Stanley Cup champions and their matchup against the Red Army was the most anticipated of the three. With their reputation as the Broad Street Bullies firmly intact, the Flyers planned to give the Soviets a first-hand look at exactly how hockey was played in North America.

The final game was almost ruined, though, after Van Impe's devastating hit. When no penalty was called, the Red Army team left the ice, refusing to return. The NHL delegation demanded they return to the ice or else the Soviets wouldn't get the fee they had been promised. The Soviets tried to negotiate further, asking that the penalty they had just received for too many men on the ice be overturned. Again, the NHL said no. Reluctantly, the Soviets returned.

The delay was designed in part to get into the Flyers' heads. All it did was make them angry. Inspired by the knowledge that they had sufficiently intimidated the Red Army team, Philadelphia took off, scoring the first goal of the game on the power play shortly after the delay ended and cruising to a 4-1 victory.

The end result of the Super Series was that everything that had been believed about the Soviet team ended up being true. The Red Army team and Soviet Wings went a combined 5-2-1 against NHL teams, showing North America that they had the talent to skate with the best. The thrashing they received at the hands of the Flyers, though - and the Red Army team's reaction to the beating - confirmed the stereotype that the Soviet players were soft, not used to the physical play common in the NHL.

January 11, 1987: CLEVELAND - Things seemed perfect for Cleveland. They had a 20-13 lead, and Denver had just botched the kickoff. The Broncos had to drive 98 yards in 5:32 to tie the AFC Championship Game, and they had to do it on the road. What happened next has become known as The Drive. Fifteen plays later, Denver's Mark Jackson made a sliding catch on his knees of a John Elway pass, tying the game with 39 seconds left. Denver would win in overtime, and the Browns fans still haven't recovered.

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