Sunday, May 8, 2011

Top 10 Czech-Russia hockey games of all time

On the heels of their victory over their friendly rivals from Slovakia on Friday night, the Czechs renew a rivalry on Sunday that has, historically, been anything but. There will surely be a lot of emotion on the ice when the Czech and Russian teams take the ice in Bratislava, but in the context of the tournament and history, this game is not really that important. The Czechs are already assured a spot in the quarterfinals and, while the Russians have struggled so far, they will probably be there in the end as well.

Teams that played under the banners of Bohemia and then Czechoslovakia became one of the best teams in Europe in the early twentieth century and by the late 1940s, were challenging Canada for international hockey supremacy. Around this time, the Soviet Union was starting to build a hockey program and called upon their Czechoslovak friends to teach them the game.

The Soviet Union made its debut at the World Championships in 1954 and promptly won the gold medal. From then on, games between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were often big games in the standings, but things were elevated to a whole new level in 1968, with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia which effectively ended liberal reforms that had been initiated in that country. For the next 20 years, match-ups between the two teams were nearly wars on ice, coming to a head with an enormous on-ice brawl at the 1972 Izvestia Cup in Moscow.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Communist Bloc in Europe, and the subsequent break-up of Czechoslovakia, the dynamics of the rivalry have changed, but to be sure it's still there. In that context, I have attempted to compile the ten greatest games in Czech-Russian hockey history. As the IIHF considers these countries to be the successors to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, I will treat them as the same entities.

Feel free to disagree with any of my choices.

10. Tampere 1965

The 1965 World Championship was the first time that the Soviets and Czechoslovaks won gold and silver at a tournament. It was the highest finish for the latter since 1949, after which their team was decimated by the arrest and incarceration of several of their best players. By the mid-sixties they were ready to challenge for gold again and met the Soviets in the second-to-last game, each having perfect 5-0 records. The Soviets won 3-1 and ultimately held on for the gold, while Czechoslovakia won its last game over Sweden and the silver.

9. Ljubljana 1966

The two teams took it a step closer the following year, meeting on the final day of the tournament with the gold medal at stake. Since the Czechoslovaks were a perfect 6-0 while the Soviets had tied a game, a tie would have given the gold to Czechoslovakia. However, the Soviets dominated, winning 7-1.

8. Montreal 1976

After trading Olympic gold and the World Championships in 1976, the bitter rivals took their show to North America in September, facing off at the historic Montreal Forum on September 3 as each team played its first game in the Canada Cup, the first tournament to allow the best players from the NHL and Europe to represent their respective national teams. Led by 2 goals and an assist from Milan Nový, the ČSSR won 5-3 in a tournament they ultimately lost in the finals.

7. Stockholm 1969

If it weren't for the political climate, these games wouldn't make the list. The Czechoslovaks defeated the Soviets by scores of 2-0 and 4-3. Though this was a tremendous accomplishment, as the Soviets were the six-time defending World Champions, the Czechoslovaks had beaten them before. However, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, these victories meant everything to the folk at home, and the team returned home to a hero's welcome, despite the fact that they were ultimately unable to dethrone the Soviets.

They were oh-so-close to doing so, however.

The 4-3 victory on March 28 gave meant that the ČSSR was in first place with 16 points, followed by the USSR and Sweden with 14 each. A tie in the final game against the host Swedes would have given them the gold medal, but they fell 1-0. The Soviets then beat Canada 4-2 to create a three-way tie. Based on goal difference, the Czechoslovaks ended up with the bronze medal. Had they won gold, Stockholm '69 might move up to first.

6. Cologne 2010

Still fresh in everybody's mind is the 2010 World Chamionship gold medal game in Cologne, Germany. The Czechs looked shaky in the early part of the tournament, but got to the final via shootout wins over Finland and Sweden. The heavily-favoured Russians were led by star Alexander Ovechkin and both teams were anxious to atone for disappointing showings in the Winter Olympics a few months earlier. 

The Czechs got goals from Jakub Klepiš and Tomáš Rolinek and then rode the goaltending of Tomáš Vokoun, which was the reason they were in the final game. He turned away 35 of 36 shots, not getting beaten until the game's final minute by Pavel Datsyuk.

5. Prague 1978

In the history of the Czechoslovak-Soviet rivalry, it wasn't often the case that the Soviets were considered the underdog. But at the 1978 World Championship, that was the case. Czechoslovakia was now the two-time defending champion, and were playing on their home ice at Prague's Sportovní hala. They beat the Soviets in the round-robin stage by a 6-4 score and finished with a perfect 7-0 record, outscoring their opponents 44-15. The loss to the Czechoslovaks was the only blemish on the Soviets record, heading into the medal round.

The two teams met again on the last day of the tournament, May 14, with the gold medal on the line. The Czechs needed only a point to secure a third straight gold. It was the Soviets, however, who silenced the crowd with a hard-fought 3-1 victory to re-claim the gold medal. They wouldn't relinquish it again until the Czechs took it back, on home ice again, in 1985.

4. Sarajevo 1984

 The Soviet team was a juggernaut in 1984, and hungry to recapture the Olympic gold that they surrendered to the USA in 1980. They met Czechoslovakia in the gold medal game.

The Soviets won the game 2-0, in what was legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak's final game. The Czechoslovaks played valiantly and had the support of most of the Yugoslav crowd, but couldn't score on a Soviet team playing at the top of its game. 

3. Prague 1972

The Soviets entered the game with an unprecedented nine straight World Championships and were seemingly unbeatable. They'd also won the Winter Olympics a couple of months before the 1972 World Championships in Prague. For Czechoslovak fans, this was their first chance to see the rivalry up close, and they were treated to quite a historic victory.

The two teams met in the second-to-last game, tied at the top of the standings with 15 points each. The winner would clinch the gold, as the best the loser would be able to do is even the points again on the last day but lose the tie-breaker. A tie would mean both teams' fortunes would rest on the final day, but Czechoslovakia scored a dramatic 3-2 win to beat the hated Russians and win the gold in front of an ecstatic home crowd.

After the game, the crowd took to the streets and celebrated well into the night, and the players earned a place in history with the streak-breaking win.

2. Innsbruck 1976

1976 might have been the defining year in the history of Czechoslovak-Soviet hockey, and it began with a face-off for the gold medal on the final day of the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

Both teams entered the final game having won all of their games, but the Czechoslovaks forfeited their 7-1 victory over Poland due to a positive drug test from centre František Pošpisil.

That being the case, the Soviets had 2 more points and would win the gold if the game finished tied. A victory for either team would claim the gold medal. The Soviets were looking for their fourth-straight Olympic gold, while the Czechoslovaks were after their first ever.

The ČSSR went up 2-0 on goals by Milan Nový and Ivan Hlinka and had a glorious opportunity to extend their lead midway through the second period with a 5-on-3 power play. However, the Soviets killed it off and, with momentum on their side, tied the score late in the second. When Eduard Novák gave the Czechs the lead back with 8:58 to play, it looked like they might finally get that elusive Olympic gold. However, Alexander Yakushev tied it for the Soviets on a power play and then Valeri Kharlamov scored the tournament winner only 24 seconds later.

More on the game can be found at World Hockey.

1. Nagano 1998

Politics was not an issue when the Czech Republic and Russia took to the ice for the gold-medal final of the 1998 Winter Olympics, but it had historical significance nonetheless.

The Czech Republic and Russia met for the gold medal in the first Winter Olympic tournament to have unlimited access to NHL players. With both countries' best players now playing in the NHL, this was the first time in years that they had put their best lineups on the ice against each other. Having been denied by the USSR in the final games in 1976 and 1984, the Czechs were still searching for their first Olympic gold. 

As usual, the Russians were favoured, with a high-powered offence led by Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. The Czechs had Jaromír Jágr, but the key to their success in 1998 was defence, which began with goaltender Dominik Hašek. In the final game, Hašek stopped all 20 shots he faced, while the Czechs got their lone goal with less than 12 minutes to play on a slapper from the point from veteran defenceman Petr Svoboda.

The Czechs immediately flew back home to Prague to celebrate the victory at Staroměstské náměstí.


  1. I am not quite sure Czech were teaching Soviet union, as their first game together in 1948 Moscow-Prague teams was finished with the victory of Soviet union.

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