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Rewind: The WHA's Red-Carpet Treatment in Russia

Reliving the ’76 Izvestia Cup is an experience that only gets more memorable with the passage of time.

The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter had beaten Gerald Ford and was elected the 39th U.S. president, Perrier bottled water appeared on grocery-store shelves for the first time, Apple computers were introduced to the world, and the Winnipeg Jets were set to become the first North American club team to play in the Izvestia Cup – a yearly tournament that took place in the Soviet Union.

The invitational tournament, sponsored by government newspaper Izvestia, was in its 10th year. The participants were the national teams from Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden and the Soviet Union.

Originally, the Soviet federation asked the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to send a team, but the CAHA felt European national teams would overpower an amateur team. Then the Soviet federation invited the WHA to send the Quebec Nordiques, but difficulties involving ownership in the club postponed the decision. The WHA asked if the reigning league-champion Jets wanted to participate, and they agreed to take part in the pre-Christmas round-robin tournament. “We won the Avco Cup and I thought that’s why we’d been asked to represent Canada,” said Jets goalie Joe Daley. “I didn’t know until the tournament started that other teams had turned down the Soviet federation.”

The Jets players and a small group of fans who travelled with the team, including Daley’s father-in-law, stayed at the Rossiya Hotel, a five-star international hotel. It had 21 stories, 3,000 rooms and a police station with jail cells behind unmarked black doors. It was adjacent to Red Square and loomed over the Kremlin walls. On arrival, guests had to hand over their passports, which were only returned after their stay had ended. “The hotel was far from spectacular,” Daley said. “The staff wasn’t able speak English, but I remember they all tried to sneak a peek at Bobby Hull. Once they saw Bobby, it turned into a circus.”

Daley’s roommate was winger Bill Lesuk. “The time difference screwed with some of us,” Daley said. “When it was time to play, I wanted to sleep. When I was sleeping I wanted to play. Billy and I worked out a system, when I was trying to sleep, he’d read in the washroom and vice-versa. I felt like our hotel room was either bugged or wired. It felt like we were being watched and scrutinized.”

To say life in Russia at that time was different would be an understatement. “Experiencing Moscow at that stage of history was unique,” said Daley, who’s now 76 and lives in Winnipeg. “It was at the height of communism. We always felt like the KGB was watching us. I found the grocery-shopping habits of people strange. There were long lines for bread and meat, and if you didn’t buy everything one day the next day it’d be gone. We actually brought over our own meat. Back then, it was customary to eat a steak before a game. On the street, we were stopped by young people asking for bubble gum and blue jeans.”

Winnipeg opened against Czechoslovakia, and despite the Russian crowd urging the Jets to beat the Czechs, the Jets lost 3-2. Following a 4-4 draw with the Swedes, Winnipeg’s next game was against the Soviets, and Winnipeg got a firsthand look at why they were a powerhouse during a 6-4 loss. “They played in units of five,” Daley said. “They did things we weren’t accustomed to in North America. They literally liked to pass the puck into the net. For a goalie who was used to cutting down the angle, it changed how I had to play the game.”

Added Ulf Nilsson, Hull’s sharpshooting winger: “Russia’s top unit with defensemen (Alexander) Gusev and (Valeri) Vasilyev and the line with (Boris) Mikhailov, (Vladimir) Petrov and (Valeri) Kharlamov was their best. Of course, their great goaltender, (Vladislav) Tretiak, redefined the position.”

Daley was impressed with Tretiak (“I watched him carefully to see if I could incorporate his style into my game”), but he was also a fan of winger Alexander Yakushev. “Me and Hull thought he was the best player in the tournament,” Daley said. “He had blazing speed, great size, he could shoot and was an incredible passer.”

Winnipeg’s only victory of the tournament came in its final game, 2-1 over Finland.

The Soviets went undefeated to claim supremacy at the 1976 Izvestia, but the presence of the Jets, who finished fourth, led to the tournament being sold out for the first time since 1969. “At the time we found it annoying having to fly and play in Russia,” said Daley, named the tournament’s top goalie. “It played havoc with our season, but looking back 40 years later it was one of the best experiences of my hockey life.”


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