The last time we saw a large contingent of Russian-born hockey players in the same Canadian city at once was during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city of Vancouver played host to the Olympics, and Russia sent a very good squad over to Canada to compete for a gold medal. While they fell short in their quest to capture Olympic gold, there was nearly another Russian invasion into the city of Vancouver back in 1970 that would have seen some serious changes in the National Hockey League. Surprisingly enough, the national Russian hockey team were almost Canucks.
I know it seems hard to believe that the entire Russian hockey team would suddenly emigrate to Canada, especially in the 1970s when the Cold War was at is height, but the expansion of the NHL left a few general managers and owners somewhat worried in terms of the talent level of the players they needed to ice an NHL team.
According to Sports Illustrated's Scorecard on December 15, 1969, Punch Imlach had a radical and somewhat controversial idea in how to make the newly-founded Vancouver Canucks immediately competitive.
"Expansion franchises in the National Hockey League have been awarded to Vancouver and Buffalo, but the question of where to find players of adequate stature to put on major league ice has yet to be solved.That is some phenomenal reporting, and a simply astounding revelation in Vancouver Canucks' history. From all I've read about Imlach, I knew he was wired a bit differently, but this? This is absolutely insane! He wanted to rent a national team to play as an NHL team!
"George (Punch) Imlach, former manager and coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose move to Vancouver is anticipated, had an idea, though. In his Toronto Telegram column Punch disclosed that he had offered the Russian national hockey team $300,000 to 'rent' its 20 best players to Vancouver from Sept. 15, 1970 to May 15, 1971. The players would split $200,000; the Soviet sports federation would get $100,000.
"Imlach met in a Montreal hotel room with Andrei Staravoitov, chief of the Ministry of Physical Culture's hockey committee and, through an interpreter, put his dollars on the table.
"'It was suggested,' he explained in his Punchy way, 'that the Russians would be as a whole much better than the garbage that would be available to Vancouver in the draft. Also the Russians would be a great drawing card.'
"The Russians have, of course, dominated international hockey in recent years and have expressed an inclination to meet a few NHL teams in exhibitions if the Soviet eligibility for 'amateur' and international competition would not be endangered, a question that must be considered in the Vancouver situation, also.
"Another question arises. The Vancouver team was to call itself the 'Canucks.' Will it now be the Vancouver Russkies?"
It's hard to imagine that players such as Vladislav Tretiak, Valery Kharlamov, Alexander Maltsev, and Valery Vasiliev could have been Vancouver Canucks, but that's exactly what Imlach wanted to do - bring the Soviet national team to Vancouver, and let them compete as the Canucks in the NHL. Innovative, interesting, and downright insane are the only terms I can come up with to describe Imlach's idea.
Gems like this that are buried in hockey's history are exactly why I love this game! Of course, Vancouver would be a landing pad for Soviets in the late 1980s as Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov joined the Canucks in 1989 after years of living under Viktor Tikhonov's regime in the Soviet Union. They, along with two others, would be the first Soviet players to legally move from the Soviet ice hockey program to the NHL.
This is one of the coolest stories I've heard in a long time, and it's one of a number of excellent tidbits of historical info in the Sports Illustrated vault. I recommend spending some time sifting through it! You might find something like this that just seems unbelievable!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!