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The occasion was the first ever visit of the USSR's national team to the Empire Pool & Sports Arena in the London suburb of Wembley on December 1 1955. The contest was the curtain-raiser on a series of four games against English club sides to be played in London and Paris by the Russians, who were preparing for their very first attempt at the Winter Olympics.
Ice hockey, as we Brits call it, had been a big attraction for two decades in arenas in London and on the south coast in Brighton. Its most fanatical supporters, led by Bob Giddens, the editor of the weekly Ice Hockey World, were pushing for it to become a national sport, as it was in his native Canada. Apart from a handful of venues in Scotland, however, this was proving a tough ask.
Burly defenceman Roy Shepherd was one of the few Englishmen to hold down a regular place in the five-team National League. Growing up near the Empire Pool, he was selected for Wembley's junior squad after World War Two. Showing a precocious talent, by 1951 'Shep' was representing Great Britain in the World Championships, performing so well that he was chosen again twelve months later.
Apart from Roy, a Scotsman and another Londoner, the Lions were composed entirely of Canadians, many of whom were to remain in Europe for several seasons, achieving more fame there than they enjoyed in their native country. One exception was Gerry Moore who coached in the States throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, mostly in the minor leagues but in 1974-75 with Indianapolis Racers of the WHA.
The Empire Pool & Sports Arena, now the SSE Arena, Wembley
The tour was arranged by the British governing body's secretary, Bunny Ahearne, who also ran a travel agency in London's Mayfair district. Yes, the same Bunny Ahearne who was for many years the driving force behind the International Ice Hockey Federation, and the bête noire of the CAHA.
The 12-team British League had collapsed in the off-season, leaving the five remaining clubs (four English and one Scottish) with gaping holes in their schedules. To overcome this, Mr Ahearne put his negotiating and business skills to use by bringing over some crack national teams. The USA, Sweden and Czechoslovakia also visited during the campaign.
This was the Cold War era, of course, and the Russians were keen to show off their sporting prowess to the decadent West. What's more, after shocking the hockey world by winning the 1954 World Championships, seemingly coming out of nowhere to do so, they were also smarting from the 5-0 whitewash dished out in the 1955 Worlds by the Canadians - represented by the Penticton Vees - which forced them to settle for silver. This tour was an ideal opportunity for the Soviets to get a good work-out against Canadian opposition.
The Reds' first two games took place on the other side of London from Wembley, against the Racers in Harringay Arena. (A replica of Maple Leaf Gardens, the building was sadly converted into a warehouse three years later.) On November 26, a Saturday, the Racers made the mistake of trying to stay with the swift-skating Reds and were humbled 11-1. But they learned fast and two nights later the difference was only one in a 5-4 defeat.
The tourists were greeted by a packed crowd of 6,000 and the BBC's TV cameras when they arrived at the Empire Pool, which was (and still is) only yards from the world-famous Wembley Stadium, the sacred home of soccer. They must have thought they knew what to expect as all the league's clubs iced similar Canadian-dominated line-ups and the circuit was highly competitive. We'll let the Ice Hockey World reporter tell the story:
"There are dents in the Iron Curtain tonight. Painful, bruising, shattering dents. True, the Russians beat the Wembley Lions 3-2 with a late goal by acting captain Babich. But it will be a long time before they forget those fierce bodychecks handed out by Lions' defenceman Roy Shepherd.
"They came here to learn more about the Canadian style of hockey. They did, but by the irony of fate, it was a Scotsman and an Englishman who showed them the way Canadians like to play. [Scot] Lawson Neil started it in the first period, handing out a stiff check to Uvarov, and another on Pantyukhov.
"Then in the second period Shepherd got going. He's about three stone [42 lbs] heavier than Neil and the Russian forwards got the benefit of every last ounce of it. The Siberian speedster Khlystov, he of the little woollen hat, came in like a rocket - only with his head down! As he hit the Wembley blue-line, Shepherd hit him.
"The reverberations must have made the folk back in Moscow think that H-bomb experiments were being conducted in Wembley. In brief it was the best bodycheck seen in years. They took Khlystov off and it was obvious the Russians didn't like it.
"This was even more obvious when Shepherd repeated the dose and Uvarov had to be helped off. Neither of the Russians came back for more."
The visitors, who had seldom experienced the like before, withdrew to their bench and lengthy discussions ensued between the experienced referees Ernie Leacock and Fan Heximer and the Soviet delegation. On the Russian side, these see-sawed between threats to refuse to resume play and pleas for the Lions to tell their big blueliner to desist. Eventually, however, the game was completed without further disruption.
It was not the fashion back then for journalists to rush round the arena collecting quotes from the players and officials, not even from the man at the centre of attention, so no written record exists of what was said and felt at the time. But we can record that in the Winter Olympics in the Italian Alps two months later, the USSR's tour of England seemingly paid off as they overturned Canada/Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen 2-0 in the final round on the way to their first ice hockey gold medal.
Please forgive us British hockey fans then if we indulge ourselves by believing that Shepherd's shattering hits in a mid-1950s game in London, England taught the USSR a valuable lesson, helping them to adapt their fast, skilful game to cope with the more rumbustious Canadian style.
Roy Shepherd was inducted into Britain's Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999. He died in 2008.
USSR tour 1955
26 Nov Harringay Racers-USSR 1-11.
28 Nov Harringay Racers-USSR 4-5.
1 Dec Wembley Lions-USSR 2-3.
3 Dec Brighton Tigers-USSR 1-2. Played at Palais des Sports, Paris as the Sports Stadium in Brighton had insufficient capacity to cover the costs of staging the game.
Ron Kilbey (Kitchener); Vic Fildes (Montreal), Lawson Neil (Ayr, Scotland), Sonny Rost (Winnipeg), Roy Shepherd (London, England); Les (The Rimouski Rocket) Anning (Ottawa), Frank Chiarelli (Ottawa), Gerry Moore (Ottawa), Gordon Scott (Winnipeg), Kenny Booth (Montreal), Pete Rayfield (London, England), Cliff Ryan (North Bay, Ontario), Gerry Hudson (Michigan). Guest: Chick Zamick (Winnipeg) from Nottingham Panthers.
Nikolai Puchkov; Alfred Kuchevsky, Dmitry Ukolov, Nikolai Sologubov, Ivan Tregubov; Aleksey Guryshev, Nikolai Khlystov, Yuri Pantyukhov, Aleksandr Uvarov, Yuri Krylov, Valentin Kuzin, Viktor Shuvalov, Yevgeny Babich, Viktor Nikiforov. Injured: Vsevolod Bobrov (knee).
Source: Ice Hockey World (editor Bob Giddens), London, England, December 10 1955.
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