1980 Soviet Union squad was history's greatest international hockey team

There have been a number of great hockey teams from outside of North America. The 2006 Turin Olympic champions from Sweden had a Vezina winner, seven Stanley Cup winners, a Norris winner, three Art Ross winners and a Calder winner. The gold medal-winning Czech Republic team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics had two of the greatest players of the era in Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek.

With the World Cup of Hockey upon us, it's a good time to examine the question of which international team was the best in history. There's really only one answer: the 1980 Soviet Union team.

To be fair, it could be any of the Big Red Machine's teams between 1972 and 1984 because there was so little roster turnover, but the 1980 team melded the dominant teams of the 1970s with what would become the dominant teams of the '80s.

The 1980 Soviet squad still had the Valeri Kharlamov-Vladimir Petrov-Boris Mikhailov line and other '70s stalwarts such as Helmuts Balderis and Alexander Maltsev. The team also featured Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov when they were in their early 20s. And the legendary Vladislav Tretiak was in goal.

They were close to unbeatable. In fact, it took a miracle to beat them.

"Al Michaels could not have summed it up better with 'Do you believe in miracles?'" New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014, referring to the United States' stunning Miracle on Ice upset of the Soviets in the Lake Placid Olympics. "That was absolutely, positively a miracle. That's what made it so special. Because the Russians were that good."

How good? In February 1979, they faced an NHL All-Star team that featured an astounding 20 future Hall of Famers in a three-game series. The Soviets won two of the matchups, including Game 3 at Madison Square Garden in a 6-0 rout.

In Eric Zweig's book, "Twenty Greatest Hockey Goals," Fetisov said the 1980 team was "probably the best team ever put together in the Soviet Union. We never thought of losing, never thought it could happen. That's why they call it a miracle."

The NHLers were the only ones really able to put up a fight. For example, the Finns played 66 games against their eastern neighbor between Jan. 1, 1970, and Dec. 31, 1980. They won two times and tied once.

"They dominated the game," said Juhani Tamminen, a former Team Finland captain who played in the WHA. "It's almost not even up to discussion. In their time, they were superior to everybody else."

The Finns had access to Russia, and several coaches made study trips to Moscow. They came back with the same shocking realization.

"They practiced and trained around 1,200 hours a year," said Alpo Suhonen, former Team Finland head coach and the first NHL head coach from Europe. "In Finland, we practiced about a third of that, and the Swedes were about 100 hours ahead of us.

"They [the Soviets] skated three times a day, perfecting both their individual skills and their teamwork. They had their set five-man units so everybody knew what the others were doing."

While the Soviet players were thought of as robots because of their advanced tic-tac-toe plays and lack of wild goal celebrations, Suhonen says the foundation laid by Russian hockey coaching pioneer Anatoli Tarasov was based on creativity and getting the puck into an empty space.

"The thing that Viktor Tikhonov added when he became the head coach was military discipline," Suhonen said of the coach who took over the Soviet national team in 1977.

Tarasov, known as the father of Russian hockey, had to be creative when launching the Soviet system after World War II. He looked to the arts -- theater and ballet, for example -- and to other sports, such as a game played on ice called bandy, to create a unique style.

"They arrived in the international stage with a completely new way of playing hockey, which changed the sport," said Leif Boork, head coach of the Swedish team that reached the Canada Cup final in 1984. "And, as Tarasov liked to say, a copy is never as good as the original."

In the Soviet Union, it was also easy to draft the right players to the Red Army team -- draft being the operative word -- that was the core of the national team.

"They were together for 11 months of the year," Boork said, "and I remember seeing the players rush out of the Luzhniki Palace of Sports, the famous hockey arena in Moscow, and into the park just outside to meet with their family and friends quickly because it was time to leave again."

Hakan Sodergren, a former Team Sweden forward, estimated that the Soviets were a generation more developed than the competition.

"They were so far ahead of us both physically and medically," he said. "They were skilled, strong. They were individually excellent and played together as a team. And they had a great goalie in Vladislav Tretiak." In short, the Soviet way consisted of pooling the best talent into one team, practicing three times as much as the nearest competitor and working year-round.

"They were the best team, even at the 1980 Olympics. They just happened to lose at the wrong time," Tamminen said.

It happens.

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