When we lived in Moscow back in the late 1970s, there wasn’t a lot to do. Russian television was of course broadcast in Russian, which I didn’t understand, and seemed to be mostly state propaganda. I read voraciously from the school library, but for family activities, we were pretty limited in what we could do. One thing we did is go watch hockey.
It seemed that Russians loved their hockey as much as Canadians did. The stands were always pretty full, and when a foreign country came to play, the stands were packed.
The Soviet Union had the Championship League with several hockey teams in it, and they would play each other. Players were supposedly amateurs working at factories, but were essentially hired to play hockey and were professionals. This subterfuge was necessary so that they could play in the Olympics as “amateurs”, back when that mattered. I remember the Red Army team – CSKA Moscow – as being a strong team. Dynamo was another name I remember.
As foreigners, we stood out like sore thumbs from the crowds of Russians in their bland gray or black coats and we attracted attention. We always made sure to wear Canadian flags somewhere so that it was clear we weren’t American and therefore mostly harmless.
Before games, the Canadian embassy would give us flag pins and such to hand out to Russians and they were eagerly received by the Russians outside the hockey arenas. My dad collected Russian army medals and he would often trade for them there.
One thing the Russian kids always asked for was gum. “Gum? Gum?” I guess Russian gum must’ve been terrible. We usually didn’t have any to give but we would share what we had. I’m not a big gum chewer anyway.
The Izvestia Cup
The Soviet Union hosted an annual tournament, the Izvestia Trophy, which is now known as the Channel One Cup. The tournament included teams from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden, Poland, and Canada.
We always attended those games and it was interesting to see the contrast between Canadian fans and Russian fans. All of the Canadians were seated together and we were a spot of colour in an otherwise mostly colourless sea of brown and gray coats. We were also very noisy.
It was clear that Russians weren’t really encouraged or even allowed to celebrate their team’s successes. When the Russians scored, you wouldn’t know it from the crowd’s reaction – or lack of reaction. However, when the Canadians would score, we’d cheer and the Russian crowd would respond by whistling – loudly – trying to drown us out.
During the two years we were there, Canada didn’t win the cup (we did, once, in 1987) but we did win bronze in 1978 and I remember that being a Big Deal. There was a big celebration at the Canadian embassy afterward. My dad gave me a hockey stick signed by some of the players. I’m not sure where that ended up, but I do have a goalie stick signed by Guy Lafleur when he visited Moscow.
Something To Do
I wasn’t “into” hockey, or really any other sport, but I remember liking the games and it was something to do in Moscow in the winter. The city can be bitterly cold in the winter, as Napoleon found out, and outdoor activities tend to be quite limited.
Today hockey is still strong in the former Soviet Union and many Russian hockey players compete within the NHL. Great players like Vladislav Tretiak and Vyacheslav Fetisov have passed the torch to players like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Dmitri Kulikov.
I have fond memories of watching hockey in the USSR.
For more “Moscow memories”, see: