Nomads and camels roamed the desert steppes of Kazakhstan, an arid expanse so remote, vast and obscure that it concealed Scientific Research Test Range Number 5. Built at the terminus of an unmarked 28-mile rail spur, the site rivaled Moscow itself in Cold War intrigue, the earth shaking beneath it with increasing regularity by the late 1950s.
It was from here, presumably, that America would be struck first, staggered by the Soviets’ newly operational intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. Until then, communist rockets would carry propaganda payloads instead. One such payload launched Jan. 2, 1959, successfully ushered skyward by the R-7 propulsion system. Its mission was to make mankind’s first dent in the moon.
Lunik, as it was then known, not only humbled the sputtering American rocket program, it reverberated with ominous undertones.
“If the socialist system can outstrip the capitalist system in the appalling intricacies of space rocketry, then surely, say the leaders here, it can be expected to catch up with and eventually surpass the capitalist West in all other fields of earthly existence,” wrote foreign correspondent Osgood Caruthers in the New York Times.
Lunik’s successful launch came, as Caruthers noted, on “the first workday of the first year of the seven-year plan in which every Soviet citizen is being asked to double his efforts toward outpacing the West in other fields besides rocketry.” As it soared boldly toward the final frontier, another Russian propaganda thrust simultaneously descended into the skies above Minneapolis. Nineteen hockey players were the payload, assembled as the first-ever Soviet national team to play on American soil. “Our primary purpose here is to promote more friendly relations with the United States,” Anatoli Tarasov told the Times, but as head coach of a hockey team, diplomacy wasn’t his only mission.
An eight-game tour was scheduled for the Soviets across a wide swath of America. Five of the games were played in big-city hockey hubs – New York, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Two were played at Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor resort and its famed arena, host to the first 10 NCAA Hockey Championships. One was played in Hibbing, a comparatively small mining town on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.
With a population hovering around 17,000 and its arena seating about 3,500, Hibbing offered the Soviets a taste of small-town America. Though no stranger to big-time hockey, it was certainly an outlier among the aforementioned burgs. So how was it that Hibbing came to host a game of such magnitude? Some suggest that the game was originally scheduled for Duluth, a much larger city 80 miles to the southeast and the hub of Great Lakes shipping, but Soviet officials balked due to its proximity to the Canadian border and presumably the potential for defection. If that was true, the Soviets were deficient in American geography intelligence since Hibbing was 50 miles closer to the Canadian border with similar ease-of-access to Canada via U.S. Highway 53. Furthermore, 1958-59 U.S. National Team schedules list Hibbing as original host to the game, leaving the defection-from-Duluth theory wanting on proof. Regardless, Hibbing was the destination and, following a 5-5 tie against the American Nationals at Madison Square Garden and an 8-3 victory at Minneapolis’ Williams Arena, the Soviets were on their way. Traveling with them was an interpreter, Roman Kiselov, who was asked by reporters if he knew much about their northernmost stop and the predicted weather that awaited them. “Yes, I have heard of Hibbing,” he said. “It is like Africa compared with Moscow in winter.”
As the sun dipped below Minneapolis’ skyline, Kiselov and the Soviets, led by 34-year-old team captain Nikolai Sologubov, commenced the dreary business of a long bus journey. Playing cards soon splashed across a makeshift table.
Borrowed from Vienna in the mid-1800s, Preferans had become the card game of choice in Russia, at least among those with idle time, which Sologubov and his teammates most definitely had as their bus trundled northward. Hibbing and the Androy Hotel awaited them, 200 miles distant. Sologubov turned toward the frosty glass, brushed it clean and gazed into the night. The city lights were already far to the south, leaving only a blur of forest lit by the moon’s white glow as it pierced the cold, clear sky. High above, Lunik skittered agonizingly close to the source of Sologubov’s light. Commanded by the Russians to plant itself and its payload on the moon, Lunik instead veered 3,700 miles off course, missing the moon entirely and carrying two metallic pennants emblazoned with the Soviet Coat of Arms into a slightly less triumphant space odyssey.
The Russian team bound for Hibbing was assembled from the Ministry of Defense Central Athletic Club, the Soviet Wings, Locomotiv and Dynamo. Sologubov led the way in skill and experience, a former wounded war hero turned defenseman. He was complemented by a young speedster, 21-year-old Veniamin Alexandrov, considered the best skater outside of North America. A product of European football, quick-legged Nikolay Puchov, 28, patrolled the pipes. Having lost just once in their previous 14 IIHF World Championship games, the Soviet team was clearly among the world’s premiere hockey powers.
Their opponent through the opening trio of tour contests was a plucky American squad that averaged 22 years of age. Coached by the combustible Marsh Ryman, they were 10-3-1 entering the Soviet series, having played a disparate collection of opponents ranging from university teams (Minnesota, Michigan Tech, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth) to minor pro teams (Green Bay) and senior amateur teams (Taconite, Fort Frances, Fort William). Several of the Americans had played together, on and off, since the 1956 Winter Olympics, forming a somewhat cohesive on-ice bond. Among those most long-tenured was Weldy Olson, a Michigan State product who played an instrumental role in both the offensive attack and the penalty kill.
“Through those years, there were so many players that played together and against each other regularly,” said Olson. “So we all knew each other. You knew what a guy could do. Bill Cleary and I killed penalties together from 1957 to 1960. Unless we were involved in the penalty, we were on the ice killing it. And I played with Pauly Johnson in probably 100-some games. Picked up a lot of his garbage, because he could really pump it. And he always knew I’d be around the net when he let it go.”
Familiarity bred a degree of continuity and confidence among the players, but with a new coach came new ideas, new systems and new styles. Every season required fine tuning. Sologubov and his teammates exposed the Americans in Game 2 and Ryman pondered adjustments en route to Hibbing. “The only way we’ll beat the Russians is by confusing them,” he told the Associated Press prior to departure.
The teams’ busses rolled into Hibbing late Saturday night, unceremoniously depositing their cargo outside the Androy Hotel. A four-story Italianate gem designed by Spencer Rumsey and built by the Oliver Iron Mining Company, its 160 rooms and stately arches were covered by a flat, corbelled roof that brought a sophisticated flair to Howard Street. Nearing its fortieth birthday, the Androy retained its cachet as Hibbing’s finest establishment.
The Soviets’ arrival, in particular, would have been greeted with more fanfare had it not only been late but also coinciding with temperatures plummeting more than 40 degrees below zero. The stiffening cold worsened throughout the night and, as Sunday dawned, Hibbing was the United States’ coldest city, checking in at minus-45 degrees Fahrenheit. Word of Kiselov’s African climate comparisons reached Hibbing Daily Tribune reporter Elmer Courteau, who eagerly sought the Russian interpreter’s opinion of winter on Minnesota’s Iron Range. “That was a joke,” said Kiselov of his earlier comparison. “Now that I’ve been here, I say the weather in Moscow and Hibbing is same.”
As of Friday, tickets remained for Sunday’s game. The last of them were scooped up at Hyde Supply and Furlong Oil, while those paralyzed by the cold could listen to the game on WMFG, the Iron Range’s first radio station, which began broadcasting in 1935 from the Androy. Opening faceoff was set for 2:30 p.m. at the Hibbing Memorial Building, a Public Works Administration project completed in 1935 as America wallowed through the Great Depression. Like many of Hibbing’s civic structures, it was surprisingly impressive for a town of 17,000, with long arched curves, tall lobby windows and a Streamline Moderne starkness indicative of the austere economic times and simultaneously stylish in a hygienic sort of way.
Butch Williams, who would later play in the NHL with St. Louis and the California Seals, was six years old when the Soviets rolled into Hibbing. He and his family drove from Duluth to watch his brother, Tommy Williams, a future Boston Bruins standout, in uniform for the Americans.
“I remember it was cold – somewhere we have a family photo of us all in the arena, wearing our heaviest coats – and the other thing that made an impression on me was the Russians playing with only three or four eyelets laced on their skates. After that game, I tried it a few times,” said Williams.
The Soviets made an impression off the ice as well. An Androy waitress who served the pre-game breakfast marveled at their orange juice consumption, a trend that repeated throughout their tour stops. Massachusetts’ Ben Bertini, a trainer who worked with the Soviets during their time in Boston, told the Globe that “they really love our orange juice” and “they drink about three gallons of it after a game.” It seems that even for elite Soviet sportsmen the coveted tang of a fresh-squeezed orange was difficult to procure behind the Iron Curtain, so in America, they indulged.
As the opening faceoff in Hibbing drew near, an almost-capacity crowd hugged its coffee and hot chocolate. Sologubov was presented with a miner’s hard hat by the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce, sparking laughs as he donned it and skated to the Soviet bench. He turned serious soon enough, helping his teammates pepper American goalie Don Cooper with 14 first-period shots compared to just seven for the United States. Only one eluded Cooper, giving the Soviets a 1-0 lead at the first intermission. During the between-period break, a collection of local girls took to the ice for a figure skating exhibition that proved memorable as some of the Soviets emerged from the locker room early and skated toward an unscheduled rendezvous with the teen-aged ice ballerinas. Tense fathers edged a bit closer to the ice and “the girls looked as if they wanted to scream when the big Russians loomed up, arms outstretched,” according to the Daily Tribune. The suddenly explosive moment was diffused just as suddenly, however, as the Russian players revealed the souvenir pins they were attempting to present as a symbol of appreciation. Said one of the girls afterward, “I was scared. We didn’t know what was happening.” Such was the state of Soviet-American relations in 1959.
With normalcy restored, the second period began and Olson quickly knotted the score at 1-1 by whacking home one of his signature rebound goals. Unfortunately, it was the only American goal of the day. Sologubov gave the Soviets a 2-1 lead late in the second and the third period turned into a rout with Sologubov scoring two more, interspersed with three from his teammates, for a 7-1 final and two Soviet wins against one tie with the Americans.
“We were just pleased that they were coming over to the U.S. to play us,” said Olson. “We weren’t too concerned with the outcome at that time because we were still a month and a half from the World Championship.”
After the game, the teams remained in Hibbing for a reception during which Soviet team manager Vasili Sysocu turned diplomat. “We would like everyone in this country to know how grateful we are for the warm reception,” he said. “I am certain exchanges such as this one will help better relations between our countries. I say that unconditionally.”
After the reception, several of the Soviets ventured to Hibbing’s State Theatre where they watched The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw to mixed reviews since none of them understood English. Most found their way back to the Androy, and perhaps its plush Crystal Lounge.
Monday morning dawned to more orange juice and a mesmerizing practice after which observers buzzed about the Russians “flipping the puck up in the air and keeping it there for over a minute, batting it back and forth with their sticks.” Bound for Detroit and a Tuesday game against a combined squad of Wolverines and Spartans, the Soviets departed Minnesota’s frozen north in the early afternoon. In Detroit they beat the college boys 7-3. Then it was off to rollicking party at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs where they savored delights of the American west and beat Colorado College 11-5 on Friday, Jan. 9. In addition to American orange juice, the Soviets also showed a taste for American blondes, naming Colorado College’s Margie Uggerby, a 20-year-old zoology major, as the festival queen for their matches at the Broadmoor. The next night, they played Denver, the defending NCAA champions, to an epic 4-4 draw, the legend of which is still told today. Two days later, the Soviets humbled Harvard by an 11-1 count in Boston. Their tour ended in Philadelphia with a 3-3 tie against Rocky Rukavina and the Eastern Hockey League’s Philadelphia Ramblers. Upon their departure, Kiselov bid America a farewell, telling the Times that “the most interesting feature of our visit was the evident virtue of true sportsmanship of the American people.”
With history made by hosting the Soviets, Olson and the Nationals got back to work. After a few more state-side exhibitions, they departed for Europe on Jan. 27 where they played an 18-game tour in preparation for the World Championship, winning 12 times against six losses. Olson, who was in the Air Force, chronicled the journey in the Air Force WAVE GUIDE, calling the Prague-hosted IIHF showdown “the finest organized and executed championships” in which he had ever participated. Fittingly, his American team made a solid showing in then-Czechoslovakia, beating Sweden, Finland and the host Czechs en route to a fourth-place finish (mere percentage points behind a Czech team they defeated) and Fair-Play Cup coronation. After a pair of exhibition games in Moscow, two in Germany and one in Scotland, the campaign was finally complete. The Americans had played 55 games across 12 countries in 110 days, establishing a reputation as dangerous underdogs on the national scene. And despite amassing a rather convincing four victories and a tie against the Americans in 1959, Tarasov took notice. “Two years ago, the Americans had an outstanding goalie (Willard Ikola) and an outstanding forward (Bill Cleary),” he told the Associated Press. “Now they have excellent teamwork and balance between the offense and defense.”
While his praise may have sounded like that of a head-patting sportsman at the time, it would soon prove valid at his own expense. The seemingly endless string of Soviet propaganda victories – both on the ice and off it – was about to be interrupted. Rumors of lagging missile production and rampant misfires emerged as Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, beaming about communist successes but also, according to Fred Kaplan in his book 1959, secretly harboring worries. “For all his bluster, Khrushchev knew that his country was in trouble. Labor productivity was down. Agriculture production was off by 4 percent over the previous year…and he confided to his son, Sergei, that if the Soviet Union were forced into an arms race with the United States, ‘we’ll lose our pants.’” He also liked our orange juice, symbolically, admitting his envy of Americans’ high standard of living and calling it “capitalism at its best,” according to Kaplan.
Meanwhile, Olson and his American hockey compatriots, enjoying ample orange juice and similarly modest capitalist luxuries, began dreaming about Squaw Valley and another shot at the unbeatable Russians. In just a few months, they’d exceed their wildest dreams, beating the vaunted Soviets for the first time ever on their way to claiming the United States’ first Olympic hockey gold medal.
– Jayson Hron