Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Summit Series 1954?

I recently picked up a copy of the 1986 biography of Francis “King” Clancy by author Anne Logan. It’s chock full of great anecdotes about one of the all-time greats. One of these stories stood out as a new oneto me. Apparently, the Toronto Maple Leafs just about went to Moscow after the 1953/54 season to play the Soviets. This of course would have pre-dated the famous Summit Series by almost twenty years, alas it never did come to pass.
The Leafs would finish third that year in King Clancy’s first season as coach with a 32-24-14 record, ten points behind eventual Cup champs Detroit. It appears that in early March of 1954 there was a cable sent by the Chairman of the Board of the Gardens to the Soviet ambassador in Ottawa;
“The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club is prepared to play Russian hockey teams in Moscow, early in May. Particularly Moscow Dynamos who have recently won the world championship….part of a European tour to promote international goodwill and would give U.S.S.R. an opportunity to see Canadian hockey at it’s best.”

The impetus of this “challenge” is thought to be a game that took place a few days prior in the world hockey championships. The Senior B club, East York Lyndhursts were trounced by the Soviets in the final game by a 7-2 score. This was the Soviets first time entering the World Tournament having begun focus on ice hockey only in 1946. A group of prominent sports-minded Torontonians formed a committee to raise money to send a professional squad to Russia. Mayor Allan Lamport stated, “A tour by the Leafs could clear up a lot of false impressions about Canadian hockey.” The Leaf players themselves were willing to go along, but the majority were concerned that they would not be paid and receive only expenses. This was the age when most players held down summer jobs to supplement their hockey income and a month unpaid in Russia would cut into their yearly earnings.

Leading scorer Tod Sloan said that he “would never go to Russia alone, but would be happy to have a chance to see the Soviet as a member of a hockey team.”
Right-wing, Eric Nesterenko of Ukrainian background was the most enthused by the proposed trip, “I have a pretty good idea of things behind the Iron Curtain from talking to people who came out of there. But I would like to see it for myself so I can tell people in Canada from personal experience.”
Alas, within a few days, the series was called off. The Toronto Telegram headline of March 9, 1954 proclaimed: “NO ICE, NO DICE, RUSS GAME IS OFF.” In 1954 there was no artificial ice in Moscow, and by the time the Leafs would get there in early May any outdoor ice rinks would have melted away.

It is interesting to wonder what in fact would have happened if the proposed series actually had come to pass. The Leafs of 1953/54 were the best defensive squad in the NHL, led by Vezina Trophy winner Harry Lumley. He had played all but one game that season, posting a 1.86 average and 13 shutouts. Leading scorer Tod Sloan with his 43 points finished 13th in league scoring while goal leader Sid Smith and his 22 goals were 7th overall. Other stars on that year’s squad were Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong and a 24 year old Tim Horton.
The world champion Soviets were led by Vsevolod Bobrov who was one of the all-time Russian greats and would later coach them in the ’72 Summit Series. Bobrov was voted top forward of the 1954 tourney scoring 8 goals and would score an amazing 94 goals in 59 career international games. On top of that, he notched 254 career goals in 130 Russian Elite league games.
Centre, Viktor Shuvalov tallied two goals against Canada and seven overall in the ’54 Worlds. He also scored 40 goals in 51 career international matches. Alexey Guryshev was another top player and would score 379 goals in 300 Russian League games including five in the ’54 championships.

The Russians were certainly a fine team, but a lot of these great numbers were put up against weaker European competition. The Leafs in the Spring of 1954 were certainly one of the top teams in the world and were infinitely superior to the East York Lyndhursts. We’ll never know if in fact if the Leafs would have gained revenge for Canada or if the Russians would have taken another step forward to world hockey dominance, but it is interesting to speculate.
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