Exploring the weird, complicated relationship between Russia, the US and the hockey world

There’s a long history of politics being played out on the ice.

You don’t have to agree with promotional materials from 2004’s “Miracle” promotional materials, which call the USA Hockey’s upset win over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics: “The greatest moment in sports history.” Because we’re all sports nerds here, though, it’s hard to argue against it being a quintessential US sports moment— and one that stands out amidst an era of Cold War nationalism. From this point onwards, it became a part of pop-culture, filling YouTube with seven year-olds impersonating Herb Brooks and prompting a generation of Americans to shout out that now-rhetorical question about believing in miracles.

Forty years removed from that game, a significant overlap remains between Russia and the rest of the hockey world. In the last few weeks, it’s taken a much different turn, with the Chicago Blackhawks’ front office citing anonymous security officials’ concerns from that country as a somehow justifiable reason not let any of their players wear a rainbow jersey for 15 minutes on Pride Night.

We’re not here as a blind patriots that are nostalgic for a game that many of us — the author included — weren’t even alive to see. Nor is it a war cry to Americans, encouraging them to hate-tweet the person running the Blackhawks’ Twitter account or even a rehashing of the alleged reasoning behind that decision.

What I do want to talk about, though, is how this is a historically weird-ass decision. Despite the fact that the Russians and the US weren’t always close politically, in the past, sports were just that: sports. Politics sometimes impacted the logistics of where and/or when the game was played, but rarely did it affect the relationships within the sport.

See, it wasn’t always like this. At risk of sounding like your US History teacher, the US and Russians have had a contentious relationship since WWII, of which sports played an important role. The publicized nature of popular sports automatically makes them political, and as fans/staff/players of an organization project their opinions in these public forums, sports have the opportunity to demonstrate and aggravate the problems placed upon it by society. If the very best players your nation has to offer go out onto the ice and play their hearts out and get absolutely railroaded 10-1 by a bunch of fourth-liners from Canada, what commentary does that inherently spark about the merits of your national training programs? The physical ability of your youth? Where the recreational/entertainment budgets of your government and your fans go?

According to Cold War, Hot Ice by John Soares, geopolitical issues started colliding with ice hockey just following WWII, especially as Czechoslovakia hosted (and won) the world championships in 1947. At that time, the Czechs were a democratic government with a strong Communist influence from the Soviets before becoming an all-out communist state in 1948 just before that year’s Olympics.

Later, in 1956, geopolitics also impacted the game, as the Soviets hosted the 1957 world championships in Moscow one year after the USSR triumphantly debuted their ice hockey on the international stage and won gold at the Olympics. Prior to the championships, the Soviets invaded Hungary, and the Western countries (including the US, Canada, and Switzerland) all boycotted the tournament. When the American team finally went to the Soviet Union in 1959, they ate dinner at tables decorated with models of Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s satellite that beat the US to space.

The Soviets also had a chance to boycott the Americans in 1962, when the US hosted the world championships in Colorado. Because the Western nations did not recognize East Germany as a country, the Allied Travel Office did not issue visas to them— and the Communist (Soviet and Czechoslovakian) teams boycotted the games out of sympathy.

In recent history, the hockey programs of the US and Russia have mimicked the structures and values of their respective governments. For the Soviets, ice hockey was an opportunity to win important athletic (and ideological) victories from scratch— they did not compete in international ice hockey competitions until after WWII, and they created a unique and ruthlessly effective system for “collective hockey” that was a practical application of communist principles.

And they were very, very good. From 1963, the Soviets won nine straight world or Olympic championships, and 14 of the next 17. Unlike other national hockey teams in this era of amateur players, many of the Soviet’s best players trained full-time with the national team, were given lengthy periods of scheduling breaks to prepare for international tournaments, and were compensated heavily for their accomplishments. These teams dominated at all-star tournaments in the 1970s, narrowly lost the famous 1972 Summit Series, and in 1979 (one year before Miracle) they humiliated the NHL all-stars at Madison Square Garden by playing their backup goalie and still winning 6-0.

(There are dozens of free YouTube documentaries about this, but if you want a quick highlight reel with that beautiful ‘70s TV quality, here you go):

In contrast, the pre-Lake Placid Americans were a mess. The organization was a structural nightmare, and in 1948 two teams showed up at the Olympics, both claiming to represent the US. The US teams were run by volunteers and private sponsors, and their rosters were full of talented amateurs who were used to playing for multiple teams at once, unlike the Soviets. They only got a top-three finish twice in world hockey from 1961 through 1979. However, as we all know, they eventually got their act together— and at times they were actually aided by the Soviets.

Individual players and coaches from the US and Soviet/Russian teams actually had amicable relationships, despite the geopolitical pressures during the Cold War. In the 1960s, some American players befriended their Soviet counterparts, saying they were “real friends” who “don’t talk about Communism. Like us, they talk about hockey, and girls.” During the 1960 Olympic games, Soviet captain Nikolai Sologubov even went into the US locker room after the 2nd period when the US was losing to Czechoslovakia in the gold-medal game, and encouraged them to use oxygen to combat the altitude— who knows if it helped, but the US went on to beat the Czechs 9-4, and Sologubov took pictures with the winning team after the game.

But hockey is hockey, and the sport’s inherently aggressive nature isn’t exactly suited for détente politics. Surprisingly, tensions often escalated because of America’s neighbor to the north, as Soares explained:

“Europeans had long regarded the Canadian style of play as rough to the point of barbarity. In I960, the Canadian ambassador in Stockholm wrote home that Canadian hockey players’ conduct in their Olympic preliminary round game against Sweden had so outraged Swedes that it actually undermined Canadian diplomacy. In 1972, Team Canada’s conduct in the Summit Series struck some observers as thuggish to the point of caricature. One Canadian player made throat-slitting gestures at his Soviet rivals, the coach threw a chair on the ice, a team official got into a fight with Soviet militia in Moscow, one Canadian player threatened to decapitate a game official with his stick, and Canadian player Bobby Clarke—acting on instructions from the assistant coach—deliberately broke the ankle of Soviet star Valéry Kharlamov in the sixth game.”

It wasn’t just the Canadians, though, the Soviets had their fair share of violent players, and the Americans were also notoriously violent, too. In fact, the Soviet team walked out in the middle of the Red Army/Philadelphia Flyers game in 1976, at the height of their “Broad Street Bullies” era, just because of their “barbarity” (then they came back, and the Flyers dominated the game 4-1. The Soviets said they played “animal hockey,” and while most Americans applauded the Bullies, one journalist compared the game to Al Capone’s mob ambushing the Bolshoi Ballet dancers).

A Soviet children’s cartoon, depicting the Flyers with clubs.

Here’s a nice video showing the brutal highlights from that game, with some good political context:

And a really cool, animated cartoon giving the game superhero treatment, can be found here.

Interestingly, despite the genuine political tensions taking place between the 1940s and 1990s, there is not much evidence suggesting that politicians from either country ever ordered their players or coaching staff to make any political stances— normally, success on the ice was sent a strong enough ideological message.

And that’s why the Blackhawk’s Pride Night jersey situation is notable. The censorship law that the Blackhawks’ front office seems so afraid of is designed to limit the spreading of LGBTQ+ “propaganda,” but it’s not a criminal offense— it just results in a fine. Many Russian players have worn these jerseys before, without repercussions:

Even the NHL’s deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, said that the league does not have any information to suggest that Russian players or their families are at “material risk” in Russia or elsewhere if they participate in Pride Night.

Historically speaking, though, it’s weird that a North American hockey organization in a part of the world that has historically not given a shit about what the Russians think of them, is suddenly referencing a minor law to prohibit the wearing of a themed jersey. There are first times for everything, of course. So, if Chicago’s front office has legitimate reasons for these concerns, they should speak out and give some real reasons. But the odds that they do it?

Well, do you believe in miracles?