Few teams have dominated a sport quite so comprehensively and for such a long period as the Soviet Union’s ice hockey stars of the 1970s. The squad steamrollered its way through the decade, winning seven World Championships and two Olympic titles – with victory in 1976 securing a fourth straight gold in the competition.
There’s little doubt the team was helped by the fact that Canada – where the game originated in the 19th century – boycotted the Games in a dispute over the sham amateurs who starred for the USSR.
But the Soviet side was undeniably packed with gifted players such as winger Valery Kharlamov, who, with fellow attackers Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov formed the most dangerous scoring unit in the sport at the time.
Shortly before Innsbruck, Russian domestic clubs CSKA Moscow and Krylya Sovetov had embarked on a historic tour of North America to play professional National Hockey League teams – as had the touring Soviet Red Army squad.
Any doubts that the Soviets would suffer after legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov – the man dubbed the “Father of Soviet Hockey,” who had been replaced over a dispute about player bonuses – were quickly dispelled.
No sooner had the tournament’s first round got underway at the Olympiahalle in Innsbruck than the Big Red Machine, led by coach Boris Kulagin, handed out a brutal 16-3 thrashing to host nation Austria, with eight Soviet strikers putting their names on the scoresheet.
The day before, Czechoslovakia, the USSR’s closest rival, had similarly trounced Bulgaria 14-1, despite an outbreak of flu among the team. It was inevitable that the two countries would meet in the final, a pulsating affair of bodychecks and flying pucks, and not without controversy.
Despite the Czechs leading 2-0 after the first period, the Soviet side fought back in the second period to tie the match, with goals from Petrov and Vladimir Shadrin. Eight minutes before the end Eduard Novák scored a third goal for Czechoslovakia.
But the Soviets quickly regrouped and hit their opponents with two late scores in quick succession from Aleksandr Yakushev and Valery Kharlamov – the team’s catalyst, described as a “poet” of ice hockey – to clinch gold.
After the final, it emerged Czechoslovakia’s captain František Pospíšil had tested positive for codeine, having taken the drug for his flu. He was expelled and the team’s earlier result against Poland was declared null and void – but the decision was taken after the final, so as not to spoil the excitement of the winner-takes-all clash.
While the USSR team savoured collecting their record-tying fourth consecutive set of ice hockey golds, the bronze medals earned by West Germany marked the first time in 44 years that an ice hockey squad from the country had medalled at a Games.