Hockey’s Coldest War: Part I

When the Broad Street Bullies faced off against the Red Army team at the height of the Cold War, more than a quarter of a billion people tuned in for the collision of hockey superpowers

Part I


January 11, 1976. Thirty-five years ago, fever seized the city of Philadelphia.

Flyers defenseman Joe Watson could feel the excitement that gripped greater Philadelphia as he made his way to the Spectrum arena located at 3601 South Broad Street. He was the older brother of Philadelphia defenseman Jimmy Watson, who hadn’t slept for two nights prior to the highly-anticipated and historic Sunday afternoon showdown of hockey superpowers – the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion “Broad Street Bullies” versus the Soviet Union’s Red Army team, one of the most dominant programs in the history of sport

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers

Related: Read Part II here.

It remains the biggest international hockey event in history, a game watched by some 300 million people.

It was the final game of Super Series ’76, a ground-breaking, eight-game series matching two Russian all-star squads – the Red Army club (CSKA Moscow) and the slightly-less formidable Soviet Wings (Krylya Sovetov) – against NHL teams.

“The Russians were the envy of hockey in Europe and we were the envy of hockey in North America, and it all came down to a one-game series,” Joe Watson recalled. “We had to uphold the prestige of hockey in North America.

“It was a big story for the NHL and for hockey in general. We got letters from people in Japan and Australia. (The atmosphere in Philadelphia on game day) was electric, it really was.”

After the Flyers had made their way to the morning skate, crowds began gathering on the steps of the Spectrum. Bundled in brightly-colored clothing against 15 mph winds and bitter cold – temperatures were expected to climb no higher than 35 degrees Fahrenheit and to drop as low as 20 — some were picketing the presence of the Soviets. Jewish activist groups marched outside the arena, protesting the USSR’s harassment and imprisonment of Russian Jews. Their gloved hands thrust picket signs into the brittle air demanding “Free Soviet Jews.” Before the day was done, fights would break out and blood was spilled on the Spectrum steps.

Also gathering outside the arena that day were members of the sellout crowd of 17,077 that would pack the 10-year-old arena to cheer their beloved Bullies. They clutched coveted game tickets that depicted the red, white and blue stars and stripes of the United States and the yellow-on-red hammer and sickle of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The two flags were crossed, and the words “May We Live in Peace” were printed on the tickets. A lower-level seat was priced at $7.50.

As he approached the Spectrum, Flyers goalie Wayne Stephenson was experiencing the same nervous excitement as most of his teammates. Subbing for the injured Bernie Parent, the NHL’s top goalie the previous two seasons, Stephenson was in his sixth NHL campaign and was in the process of backstopping the Bullies to the greatest regular season record in franchise history. Still, Stephenson felt unusually uptight the night before a game that would, for the first time, match the league champions of hockey’s two worlds.

“We had everything to lose,” he recalled years later, “and nothing to gain.”

The pressure began building on the Bullies four nights earlier. Despite dealing a 7-3 loss to Toronto in the hallowed Maple Leaf Gardens, the Flyers left the ice at game’s end to an ovation and a frenzied call to beat the Soviets.

“The NHL hated us because they were envious of us and because we won, but the fans in Toronto were screaming at us to beat the Russians,” Joe Watson remembered. “They followed us to our bus and were screaming at us, ‘Beat the Russians!’ I thought, ‘Holy s—, this really means a lot to everybody.’ ”

“We were hated throughout the NHL for what they called our roughhouse tactics,” Jimmy Watson said. “But the other (NHL) teams that had played the Russians hadn’t won, so here we were, suddenly the league’s last hope.”

For Fred Shero, the Flyers’ controversial head coach, the game against the Russians represented the high point of his professional life. Even after claiming consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1974-75, Shero told reporters he would never consider his team world champions unless they beat the Red Army. Defeating the Red Machine on an international stage, he knew, would help dispel the belief that the Broad Street Bullies were a goon squad.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this game,” Shero said. “The thing is building up. It will be greater tomorrow and the next day. The fact that nobody in the NHL has beaten them and left it up to us means something. The players want to do something about it.”

Not that it would be easy.

The reigning Soviet champions, HC CSKA Moscow (Central Sports Club of the Army Moscow), also known as the “Red Army” for its affiliation with the Soviet Army, rank as one of the legendary teams in the history of sport. No hockey team, not even “Original Six” royalty like the Montreal Canadiens, is as decorated as CSKA Moscow.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers

Beginning in 1948, two years after the club was founded and up through 1975, the Red Army rampaged to 19 Soviet League championships, was runner-up on eight other occasions, and had skated to nine USSR Cups and six European Cups. It had taken a controversial slashing penalty, a dramatic comeback by a Canadian squad made up of NHL stars – Phil Esposito, Stan Mikita and Ken Dryden – and a late goal in the eighth and deciding game to edge the Soviets in the famed 1972 Summit Series. The Russians exacted revenge two years later when they routed a Canadian squad of World Hockey Association stars – aging Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers – in the ’74 Summit Series, winning the eight-game matchup 4-1-3.

By 1976, the Russians were known internationally as the Red Machine. To many outside the Soviet Union, acrobatic goalie Vladislav Tretiak; winger Valeri Kharlamov, the original “Russian Rocket”; and defenseman Valeri Vasiliev, tough and sturdy as a T-34 tank, represented nothing less than the Red Menace. Though technically enlisted in the Soviet military, the players’ only job was to train, practice and play hockey. They were together as a team virtually seven days a week and 12 months a year. The result was that they were viewed as the world’s preeminent hockey machine, a well-conditioned, well-trained squad that executed its plays with staggering precision.

On May 30, 1975, the Soviet government announced it was sending its two preeminent teams – the Red Army and Soviet Wings – to North America for a three-week, post-Christmas tour of eight NHL cities.

The games were billed as “exhibitions,” but considering that the Red Army would be arriving on the shores of North America amid the U.S.’s bicentennial celebration, everyone involved knew better. The official Moscow party line, as espoused by Wings coach Boris Kulagin – a Russian Lombardi — was that the games against NHL teams were “true friendlies.” Still, the Soviets saw fit to upgrade their vaunted Red Army team by raiding the Moscow Dynamo for stars like Vasiliev and forward Alexander Maltsev, the latter idolized by future Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. The Wings were given a complete forward line from Spartak Moscow – Alexander Yakushev, who was Bobby Hull’s choice at the time as the best left winger in the world, Vladimir Shadrin and Victor Schalimov.

The NHL braced for the Soviet invasion and no team more so than the Flyers, since Philadelphia — the birthplace of the United States and cradle of liberty — was the Red Army’s final stop.

“It will surely be more than just another exhibition game,” Flyers assistant coach and former all-star defenseman Barry Ashbee told Hockey World magazine in its January 1976 issue. “The Russians are preparing for the Olympics and this will give them an excellent chance to get ready. The fans are excited. It means a lot to the players, too.

“The 1972 Series was a great eight games and these eight games will be even better. The matchups of an NHL club, not an all-star or national team, against their individual clubs will be very interesting. I know all the coaches in the league are looking forward to the chance to beat them – everybody wants to beat the best.”

After seven games in Super Series ’76, the best is what the Soviets appeared to be. The Russians rolled up a 5-1-1 record in NHL arenas. Relying on electric passing and buzz saw skating, the Red Army and Soviet Wings lit up the NHL like Katyusha rockets. Fronted by two of the greatest hockey talents in the world – Tretiak and Kharlamov – the Red Army had proved particularly impressive, embarrassing Phil Esposito and the New York Rangers 7-3 in Madison Square Garden and beating the Bobby Orr-less Bruins 5-2 in Boston Garden. Their lone tie had come in a thrilling 3-3 final against Scotty Bowman’s powerful Canadiens in the Montreal Forum. More than three decades later, that game remains in the eyes of many hockey historians the greatest ever.

With much of the NHL landscape now a scorched earth, the Red Army rolled into Philadelphia for the Super Series finale. Awaiting them were the reigning Stanley Cup champions, a team reviled by the rest of the NHL as an outlaw band of brawlers but one suddenly being called upon to defend the honor of the league. It was an unfamiliar position for an outfit derided by hockey purists as heathens who had stormed the citadel and seized the game’s Holy Grail – Lord Stanley’s Cup – in 1974 and ’75.

“The Soviet Union game was a classic,” Flyers winger Bill Barber said. “North America was on the shoulders of the Flyers for that game.”

Bossed by center Bobby Clarke and emboldened by fist-first enforcers Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Andre “Moose” Dupont, Bob “Mad Dog” Kelly and Don “Big Bird” Saleski, the ferocious Flyers gained infamy as the “Broad Street Bullies.” It was a nickname coined by Philadelphia Bulletin scribe Jack Chevalier and headline writer Pete Cafone on January 3, 1973 following a bloody beat down of the Flames in Atlanta.

Wrote Chevalier: “The image of the fightin’ Flyers is spreading gradually around the NHL, and people are dreaming up wild nicknames. They’re the Mean Machine, the Blue Line Banditos, and Freddy’s Philistines.” On the flight back to Philadelphia, Chevalier had a moment of inspiration. Calling the Bulletin newsroom, he asked that his “Blue Line Banditos” reference be changed to the “Bullies of Broad Street.” Cafone seized on the phrase and wrote the accompanying headline for the next day’s edition: Broad Street Bullies Muscle Atlanta.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers

As the Flyers fought their way to two Stanley Cup titles, Shero’s system of organized mayhem enraged the league. The Bullies beat the hell out of opponents, went after them in waves and pounded them into submission. They elevated fighting to a tactic by embracing Conn Smythe’s maxim: “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.” The Bullies’ slam-bam style scarred — and scared — opponents.

“It wasn’t just two or three guys you had to worry about, it was 20 guys,” former Maple Leaf muscleman Borje Salming told “You would see their sticks come flying at you. If they hit you, you’d be dead. … They really tried to kill you. They really tried to force you out of the game. If they did some of those things today, they would be suspended for life.”

Shero didn’t apologize. “If we can, we’ll intimidate our rivals,” he said. “We try to soften them up, then pounce on them. There are a lot of ways to play this game. Our way works.”

Schultz, the team’s top bully boy and Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of opposing players and fans, glamorized the role of the goon. Fans in opposing cities held up placards reading Flyers: Animals on Skates. Life-sized dummies dressed in Flyers’ jerseys were hung in effigy in NHL arenas. When the Bullies arrived in enemy cities, newspaper columnists warned the populace to hide their women and children — the barbarians are at the gates.

Yet, confronted with a Soviet steamroller in 1976, NHL players, coaches and fans rallied en masse behind the Bullies.

“It was their all-star team against our regular franchises, and they were winning,” Flyers founder and chairman Ed Snider said. “They came in here and we were the defending Stanley Cup champions. We were the team everybody was hoping would finally beat these sons of bitches.”

Schultz believed the same. “Establishing a puppet government behind the Iron Curtain was one thing,” The Hammer said in a 1999 Hockey Digest article. “But come over here and skate circles around us – this was serious.”

Said Clarke, “In those days, it was (about) defeating the Communist lifestyle. The Cold War was on.”

A goodwill banquet before the game was instead fraught with tension. Soviet players were seated at a table next to where the Bullies were sitting. Jimmy Watson recalled “daggers” being stared across the way by both squads. The game, Watson thought, represented nothing less than the free world versus the Communist Bloc; North American hockey versus European hockey.

“It really built a lot of pressure,” he said.

Inside the Spectrum on game day, technicians and broadcasters of the Canadian Broadcasting Company were preparing for a worldwide audience. Ralph Mellanby, the man responsible for the production of Hockey Night in Canada, had picked the Flyers-Soviet game as the highlight of the Super Series when the schedule was announced. Mellanby instructed CBC to use just one camera for each of the previous games, including the New Year’s Eve classic at the Montreal Forum. But for the Flyers-Red Army collision, Mellanby had four additional cameras installed inside the Spectrum.

As the clock ticked toward the 1 p.m. EST face-off, an estimated quarter of a billion people were tuning in. There were one million viewers in the Soviet Union, where the time was fast approaching 9 p.m.

“There has never been a hockey game, other than perhaps a Stanley Cup final game or an Olympic final game, that created so much interest,” Flyers announcer Gene Hart, who would be doing the national broadcast with Rangers announcer Marv Albert, wrote in his book Score!: My Twenty-Five Years with the Broad Street Bullies.

Fred Cusick, for 40 years the voice of the Boston Bruins, summarized the collision of conflicting styles that had captured the imagination of millions:

“The Russians came over, nobody had ever seen that kind of hockey,” he said. “The Broad Street Bullies, nobody had ever seen anything like that before.”

The Soviets and Flyers represented two distinctly separate and unique ways of interpreting the same sport. The Red Army style was less linear, less straight-on than the North American approach that favored power over precision. The Soviets were highly skilled and highly disciplined, their style based on speed and passing. Hockey as played by the Flyers was an immense physical struggle; an ancient siege. They loved to hit and be hit. They fought for the puck along the boards, in the corners and in front of the nets, and because they were bigger, stronger and tougher than their opponents, by power and skill they emerged from the mayhem with the puck.

What everyone was waiting to see was how the Red Machine would cope with the Broad Street Bullies.

“In the Russians and Flyers,” New York Times hockey writer Gerald Eskenazi noted, “the fan has the two classic examples of the different ways the game can be played.”

Writer Larry Bortstein agreed. In a 1975 Hockey magazine article titled “The Russians Are Coming”, Bortstein wrote that the encounter in Philadelphia would provide a contrast in strategies:

“The Flyers play a hitting game that seems to crowd out the opposition by sheer force. The Russians play a skating and passing game that works best in the larger European rinks.”

As referee Lloyd Gilmour skated to centre ice and prepared to drop the first puck between Bobby Clarke and Alexander Maltsev, the Western and Eastern superpowers knew this showdown was something special.

“It was,” said Clarke, “more than just a hockey game.”

“We have been told,” Kharlamov admitted, “it would be very bad for us not to win.”

Joe Watson recalled NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell going out of his way to make it to the Flyers dressing room before the game.

“He didn’t even want to be on the ice with us after we won the Stanley Cup the previous two years,” Joe Watson said. “But he came into our dressing room before we played the Russians and told us we had to win this game — at all costs.”

The Flyers responded in true Bullies fashion.

“We told him to get the hell out,” Watson said with his trademark booming laugh. “We knew what we had to do.”

The Red Machine

Bobby Clarke knew better than anyone in Philadelphia the immense challenge the Flyers faced in the Red Army. Clarke had been a fourth-line center for Team Canada in the historic 1972 Summit Series, a series the Canadians entered overconfident and under-conditioned.

“No doubt, the Soviet players were much better prepared physically than us,” Clarke told writer Slava Malamud in 2006. “Another thing that played against us was probably the arrogance (of Team Canada). There was not a player on our team who doubted we’d win easily. And, of course, we were quickly proven to be wrong.

“Most of us had the s— scared out of us. After the first period (of Game 1) we realized that we could not keep up with the Russians.”

After five games, the Soviet Nationals led the series 3-1-1. Vladislav Tretiak impressed with stunning saves in goal, but it was left winger Valeri Kharlamov, the idol of thousands of Russian youths – including Pavel Bure — who dazzled the Canadians.

“He was fast, so hard to defend against out there,” Team Canada defenseman Don Awrey said. “He kept everyone on their toes.”

Team Canada coach Harry Sinden had helped build the Big Bad Bruins of the early Seventies. He had seen his share of great players in the NHL, had coached the legendary Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, and was not easily impressed. But even Sinden was awed by Kharlamov’s blurring speed and slick stick work.

“I’ve seldom seen anyone come down on two NHL defensemen and beat them to the outside, go around them and then in on the net,” Sinden said. “It just isn’t done.”

Except Kharlamov did it. By Game 6, played in the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium, Team Canada assistant coach John Ferguson had seen enough.

“Kharlamov had incredible skills,” said Feguson, a former enforcer with the Montreal Canadiens. “I looked over at Kharlamov and said, ‘Someone needs to do something about this guy. He needs a little tap on the ankle.’ … I didn’t think twice about it. It was Us versus Them. And Kharlamov (three goals, four assists) was killing us. I mean, somebody had to do it.”

And in Ferguson’s eyes, that somebody was the Flyers’ captain.

“Nobody else would do it but Clarke,” said Ferguson, one of the NHL’s top muscle men in the 1960s. “That’s the way he played the game, too. Clarke had the tenacity about him. He played to win.”

Kharlamov was one Russian who played with an intensity similar to that of the NHL stars. Matched against Kharlamov’s line, Clarke was familiar with the Soviet winger’s feisty style; he had felt Kharlamov’s hockey stick in his stomach more than once.

Rare footage of the play shows Clarke closing on an unsuspecting Kharlamov in predatory fashion, then cutting him down with a two-handed slash that would have felled a small tree.

“I kind of hunted him down,” Clarke said, “and gave him a whack across the ankle. He speared me and I slashed him. I didn’t try to break his ankle. … It was something done during the heat of battle and I did it.”

Kharlamov, his left ankle fractured, had to be helped by teammates to the bench. The Soviets seemed stunned.

“I am convinced that Bobby Clarke was given the job of taking me out of the game,” Kharlamov said later. “Sometimes, I thought it was his only goal. I looked into his angry eyes, saw his stick which he wielded like a sword, and didn’t understand what he was doing. It had nothing to do with hockey.”

Kharlamov played the rest of the game, but missed Game Seven and was ineffectual in Game Eight as the Canadiens rallied to the narrowest of victories. The advancing armies of Napolean and Hitler had been stopped at the gates of Moscow, but with Kharlamov neutralized, Team Canada became the first foreign army to conquer Russia.

Asked by venerable hockey journalist Dick Beddoes about the slash, Clarke, a native son of the gritty mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba, shrugged it off.

“If I hadn’t learned to lay on a two-hander once in a while,” Clarke said, “I’d never have left Flin Flon.”

The ’72 Summit Series launched the 23-year-old Clarke’s career into superstar stratosphere. Already the youngest team captain in NHL history, Clarke left Moscow with an enhanced reputation among his fellow Canadians and with newfound confidence that he belonged among the NHL’s elite. He also left with a greater understanding of hockey behind the Iron Curtain.

At the time, the Canadians played a vertical game — “North to South” — from one goal to the other. They would get the puck and try to find the shortest way to the opponent’s goal. Canadian hockey was direct and aggressive. In Europe, because of the larger rinks, the emphasis was on a horizontal game — “East to West” — between the boards. Russian players held the puck longer, passed it to each other and moved it between the blue lines. Their style was in direct contrast to the Canadians, who would storm the blue line and launch laser-like slap shots in the style made famous by Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. Where the Soviets would backskate and reform their attack, NHL players had a dump-and-chase mentality. The difference between the Russian game and Canadian game was not in the complexity of each side’s strategy, but in its direction and speed.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers

The direction of the game as played in the U.S.S.R. was first choreographed by Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey. To some, he was a dictator who ruled Russian hockey in the same iron-fisted manner that Soviet strongman Josef Stalin ruled the Eastern Bloc. Under Tarasov, players were treated as human chess pieces in a grand strategy. He received from his players total dedication to his team and his stratagems.

“He viewed hockey as art, with the coach as choreographer, the players as performers,” Roy MacGregor wrote in the Ottawa Citizen. “The principles of dance and piano – endless practice, repeated movements, perfected technique – would create a base from which true artistry could grow.”

Tarasov developed the weave-and-pass style of play that became the Soviets’ signature style. Together with another legendary coach, Arkady Chernyshev, Tarasov laid the foundation for what became known as the “Soviet hockey school.”

Prior to Tarasov’s being asked to build a national program in 1946, ice hockey had been virtually unknown in the Soviet Union. The popular Russian ice sport since the mid-1800s had been bandy, a sort of field hockey on skates. Bandy is played outdoors, 11 players to a side, on an ice surface the size of a soccer field. In time, it became a popular spectator sport and bandy leagues spread throughout Russia.

In the bloody aftermath of World War II, which had seen the Soviet Union lose a staggering 25 million people, the Russians, wary of the outside world, turned their collective focus inward. The arts – the Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Moscow Circus – flourished and became internationally renowned. So, too, did the sciences and technology, funded as they were by the Kremlin.

While the strength of the Soviet Union was displayed for the world to see via nuclear weapons and armed forces, the U.S.S.R. also sought to display the alleged superiority of communism over capitalism in the athletic arena. Due in large part to the Red Army’s drafting of top young players into the military, Tarasov and Chernyshev built a program that within a decade was producing Olympic and world championship teams.

Working at first with little more than a few hockey rule books, Tarasov and Chernyshev converted bandy players to ice hockey and were soon dominating the international scene with an elegant – and virtually unbeatable – pass-oriented style of play.

“Everything they did was adapted from bandy and soccer,” then Columbus Blue Jackets coach Dave King told the Montreal Gazette in 1999.  “The buildup of the play, the drop passes, the way they see the ice – it all started with bandy.”

By the time the Red Army arrived in Philadelphia in 1976, they were considered by many the premier hockey team in the world. The Soviets had won every Olympic and World Championship Tournament from 1963-72 – they would strike Olympic gold again in 1976 — and their Summit Series with the NHL in 1972 and with the WHA in ’74 proved they could compete with North America’s top professionals.

“I had seen them play in 1972 and they were so skilled,” Joe Watson remembered. “They had a lot of talent. They should have been professionals because they were part of the Red Army (and employed to play hockey). But their big thing was winning the Olympics and World Championships.”

Clarke, the only Flyer to have played against the Russians, knew the skill level of the Soviets.

“Kharlamov was an incredible player and he could play physically, too,” he told Malamud. “What he was doing with the puck was just unbelievably beautiful. But when I played against (Alexander) Maltsev (in 1972), I thought he was the best forward I had ever met on the ice. He was great in everything – from controlling the puck to face-offs to physical play. And (Alexander) Yakushev, I would say he was the best player of the (Summit) Series on both teams. Towards the end I looked at him and thought about the great Jean Beliveau, Alexander resembled him so much. He had that special grace that Jean had. He is one those you could envy in a good way. Everyone would like to play like him: clean, beautiful, precise, strong and with this one-of-a-kind grace.”

Clean, beautiful play and one-of-a-kind grace were not attributes associated with the team that would serve as the Soviets’ final opponent in Super Series ’76. The Broad Street Bullies were awaiting the Red Army’s challenge.

“It was going to be ugly,” Clarke said. “We were going to beat you, and if you were going to beat us, you were going to pay a big price.”

Part II: The Broad Street Bullies and War on Ice.

RELATED: Visit the Collectionary

Read more from Ed Gruver

— 29 years as a sportswriter, the last 14 for Lancaster Newspapers Inc.;
— has reported on all four major sports and covered the World Series, MLB All-Star Games, NFL playoffs, NBA playoffs, Stanley Cup playoffs and heavyweight championship fights;
— has written five books and been a contributing writer to two others;
— has written feature articles for national and local magazines;
— B.A. degree in English and Journalism from York College of Pennsylvania; was editor of college newspaper and named to “Who’s Who Among College and University Students in America”;
— native of north Jersey, reside in Lancaster, Pa., married to Michelle and have two daughters, Patty and Katie.

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