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1979 Challenge Cup Opening Ceremonies, Continued

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Unofficially, it’s called The Embarrassment. There aren’t any books about it. No one issued any cards to commemorate it. In fact, you can barely find any record of it.

It was the best of three 1979 Challenge Cup series between a team of NHL All-Stars and the Soviet National team. The international showdown preempted the NHL’s regularly scheduled 1978-79 All-Star Game.

The Challenge Cup was billed rightfully as the ultimate showdown. The NHL drew on its finest talent – whether Americans, Canadians or Swedes – for the unprecedented confrontation against hockey’s version of the Big Red Machine.

The league iced an incredible array of talent – Mike Bossy, Guy Lafleur, Gilbert Perreault, Bryan Trottier, Larry Robinson, Bobby Clarke, Bob Gainey, Denis Potvin, Darryl Sittler, and Serge Savard, to mention a few. Who could’ve imagined this Hall of Fame collection of talent would come up empty?

The Soviets meanwhile were unknown to most hockey fans. Still the line-up included Hall f Fame goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, right-winger Boris Mikhailov, Valery Kharlamov, and Vladimir Petrov. Future NHLers, Sergei Makarov and defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov also manned the Soviet squad. Makarov contributed a goal and two assisted in the three games, while an injury forced Fetisov to sit out.

Sure, the Soviets were talented, but no one expected the NHL to lose. Instead of celebrating a decisive victory and winning global bragging rights, the NHL’ers wrung their hands as they watched the Soviets clinch the Challenge Cup with a 6-0 victory in the third and final game.

After losing the opener 4-2, the Soviets rallied from a two-goal deficit to win the second game, 5-4. Then they put on a clinic in the 6-0 clincher.

The Challenge Cup was played on an NHL-size ice surface (which was smaller than the Russians were used to), with an NHL referee in two of the three games, in front of an NHL crowd and scheduled on NHL terms.

“We all felt the Russians had a big disadvantage because of the ice surface and the home ice,” says Hall of Fame left winger Bob Gainey. Still, by series end, the hockey Gods had defected to behind the iron curtain.

“We got blown out,” recalls Darryl Sittler. “I just remember when we were defeated as soundly as we were in the 6-0 game, how demoralizing it was. We just took it for granted for so many years that we were the best.”

Sergei Makarov remembers the Soviets joyous celebration. “We were very happy. It wads the first time we played against an NHL All-Star team. I have a lot of good memories from that trip.” Outclassing the NHL, the Soviet Union captured the unofficial world championship. No longer could the NHL profess the Stanley Cup to be the symbol of world supremacy. Instead, the Stanley Cup was relegated to they symbol of North American hockey supremacy, period.

“We can’t say anymore that hockey is ours, ” Serge Savard said in the aftermath. “We have to start teaching our young players the fundamentals again.”

Series such as the Challenge Cup now are a thing of the past. The last time the NHL All-Stars and the Soviets met was 1987 at Quebec City, splitting the two-game Rendez-Vous series.

The next season, Soviets began to trickle into the NHL. Now it’s a flood with more than 200 Soviets on this side of the Atlantic. Fifteen years ago, most North Americans believed the hockey here was better. While the results of the Challenge Cup didn’t change everyone’s opinion, it definitely opened some eyes. It certainly opened the eyes of the NHL, which still would love to forget about The Embarrassment.

(courtesy of RussianHockey.net)


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