It’s hard to believe that next week will mark the 38th anniversary of the famous Flyers exhibition against the Soviet Red Army. The game was played at the Spectrum on January 11, 1976, and it was one of the proudest moments in Flyers history.
The game didn’t count in the standings, but it doesn’t do the game justice to call it “just an exhibition.” The Cold War was still very hot in 1976. It was just one year after the fall of Saigon, and the idea of the world being divided between American and Soviet spheres of influence was still a reality to most observers.
Although Canada managed to edge the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series, the Russians had dominated international hockey and beaten a team of WHA All-Stars in 1974. The Soviet Red Army was widely considered the best team in the world.
The NHL scheduled Super Series ’76, which had the Red Army and the Soviet Wings play four games each against NHL clubs. The Red Army started their series of games with a dominant 7-3 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, a 3-3 tie with the Montreal Canadiens and a 5-2 win over the Boston Bruins. That left the Red Army 2-0-1 against three Original Six franchises that had all made the playoffs the previous NHL season.
The Flyers were the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. They were also the NHL’s last hope to beat the Red Army and salvage some pride for the league and for the North American way of playing hockey.
The two opposing teams had very different styles of play. The Flyers were at the height of their reign as the “Broad Street Bullies” and had battled all comers with their elbows, sticks and fists in winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Red Army featured precision passing to set up quality scoring chances. They may not have taken many shots in a game, but their attempts would almost all be quality chances from an open man in close to the net.
There was already some bad blood between the Russians and Philadelphia captain Bobby Clarke. It was Clarke who had deliberately slashed Valeri Kharlamov in the ankle and knocked him out of the 1972 Summit Series. This would be a chance for the Russians to get even.
The Flyers would be playing without goalie Bernie Parent, who missed most of the 1975-76 season due to a neck injury that required surgery. Wayne Stephenson was in the net for Philadelphia while the legendary Vladislav Tretiak was between the pipes for the Red Army.
The Flyers were determined to play a physical game against the Russians. Joe Watson recalled that Flyers coach Fred Shero instructed his team to be tough. “Freddie said, ‘we’ll show them a real Iron Curtain’ before the game and that’s exactly what we did,” defenseman Joe Watson told Bill Meltzer of the Flyers' official Web site.
Shero was also willing to let the Soviets possess the puck and instructed his players not to chase them as long as they stayed on the perimeter. Shero knew the Red Army’s system well, as he was one of the first NHL coaches to extensively study their style of play. His response was designed to prevent the Red Army from outnumbering Philadelphia defenders in the Flyers zone.
The game started out with the Flyers dominating, as they took 12 of the first 13 shots on goal and played a physical style that the Russians were not accustomed to seeing. They delivered solid body checks that disrupted the Red Army’s precision passing.
Midway through the first period, Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe delivered a hard check to Kharlamov that triggered the most famous incident of the game.
“It was a sucker pass,” Van Impe told Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News. “I could see the play developing. The winger made a sucks pass and Kharlamov had to turn his head to get it. I remember watching it almost in slow motion. And the same time the puck connected with Kharlamov, I connected with him and flattened him.”
Kharlamov stayed down on the ice for a few minutes, although Van Impe wasn’t sure why. “It was perfectly legal,” Van Impe said after the game. “There was no reason why he should have stayed down, it was an act.”
No penalty was called on the play, which left the Red Army disgusted. With the game tied 0-0, the Soviet players and coaches left the ice and their bench and headed for the locker room. They said they would not return to the ice because of the Flyers' roughhouse tactics.
The Russians remained in their dressing room for 17 minutes and only returned to the ice when Flyers chairman Ed Snider told them they wouldn’t be paid the $200,000 they were owed for the four games they played against NHL clubs unless they completed the game. The Red Army reluctantly agreed to finish the game.
The Flyers took the lead just 17 seconds after the Red Army returned to the ice when winger Reggie Leach scored. Rick MacLeish made it 2-0 Flyers about five minutes later.
The Flyers made it 3-0 2:44 into the second period when Joe Watson put home the rebound of a Don Saleski shot.
Viktor Kutergin scored for the Red Army midway through the second period to keep his team in the game, but then Larry Goodenough scored 4:01 into the third period to give the Flyers a comfortable 4-1 lead and end the scoring.
The Flyers dominated the Red Army that night, outshooting them 49-13. This was a game where the shots on goal did indicate the dominance of the Flyers.
“If it weren’t for Tretiak, we’d have hit double figures,” Flyers forward Gary Dornhoefer said.
The Flyers had salvaged some pride for the NHL with the win. It was also one of the rare occasions in the Broad Street Bully era that the rest of the NHL players and fans were actually rooting for the Flyers.
Thirty-eight years later, it remains a classic moment in Flyers history.
Bobby Clarke summed it up best after the game when he told Meltzer, “This doesn't prove Canadian hockey is better than their’s. It just means the Flyers are better than their best.”