Not only was it one of the biggest days in Flyers history, but it was one of the biggest days in all of hockey history. Forty four years ago today, the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Soviet Red Army team 4-1 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
For that one day, everybody in North America outside of the city of Philadelphia went from absolutely detesting the Flyers, a.k.a the Broad Street Bullies, to being their biggest fans.
The year was 1976. Back when Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Free World couldn’t have been much higher. The Russian Red Army team was to tour the United States and Canada in what was being billed as a “goodwill tour”.
But, it was a Goodwill tour in name only. What it really was was a contest between the Soviet Union and North America to prove who in fact was Superior in the sport of hockey. The Soviets were to tour Canada and the United States playing many of the best teams in the NHL. These were exhibition games that didn’t count in the standings. But these games had the ferocity of a Stanley Cup final game with national pride being on the line.
The Soviet Red Army team beat some of the best teams in the NHL like the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins. Just before playing the Flyers, the Soviets played the mighty Montreal Canadiens. The Canadians were in the beginning stages of becoming one of the greatest dynasties in hockey history. They would finish the 1975 76 season with an astounding 127 points in only 80 games. They only lost three games at home that whole year and finished with a + 153 goal differential. Compare that to the team that leads the NHL in goal differential this year , the Washington Capitals who are a +30, and that gives you an idea of just how dominant that Canadians team was. The 1975-76 season is when the Canadiens won the first of their four consecutive Stanley Cups. But even the mighty Canadiens could only manage a 3-3 tie with the Soviets.
The Soviet Red Army team was on the verge of finishing their tour of North America withoutout tasting defeat. The only thing that stood in their way was the two time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers at that time were by far the most hated team in hockey and maybe even the most hated team in all of the four major professional sports. They were notorious for how they bludgeoned their way to two consecutive Stanley Cups. Those Flyers teams set all kinds of records for penalty minutes, and bench clearing brawls were a regular occurrence in a lot of their games. A fan in Los Angeles once held up a sign at a Flyers Kings game that read, ” hide the women and children, the Philadelphia Flyers are in town”. So that gives you an idea of the level of hatred that the rest of the league had towards those Flyers hockey clubs.
But for that one day, January 11, 1976, everybody in Canada and the United States loved the Flyers. The Flyers were the last chance for the NHL to salvage one game from the Soviets.
The atmosphere in the Spectrum that night was electric . Al Morganti, who has covered the Flyers for 50 years, said that the Spectrum was the loudest building that he has ever been in to this day and according to Morganti, some have said that it’s the loudest any building has ever been in the history of sports. All of North America would have their eyes on the Flyers and the City of Philadelphia as the defending Stanley Cup champions were set to face off against the seemingly Invincible Soviet Red Army team.
The style of play between the two teams couldn’t have been any more different. The Soviets were known for their speed and grace and the Flyers for their brute strength. When the Sovets would get the puck in their own zone, they liked to execute a lot of short, crisp passes as they weaved in and out. NHL teams would make the mistake of trying to chase them as they were doing that. As a result of distracting their opponents with all of their intricate passing and puck-handling skills , the Soviets were able draw their opponents too deep in to the offensive zone and were able to generate a breakaway or odd man rush the other way.
Fred Shero, the coach of the Flyers, had studied Russian hockey for years. So he knew this tactic all too well. So instead of aggressively forechecking them, he would only send in one forchecker and then clogged up the neutral zone with his remaining four players in a 1-3-1 set up. The idea was to provide just token pressure on the Soviets as they were doing all their weaving in and out, but as result of having the neutral zone clogged up, the Soviets wouldn’t be able to spring anybody on breakaways or odd man rushes. It was a tactic that would prove to frustrate the Soviets.
The Flyers also used their physicality to their advantage as well which also frustrated the Soviets. It all came to a head when Flyers defenseman Ed Van Impe delivered a hard but clean hit on Valeri Khalamov. Frustrated with what they saw as the Flyers brutal tactics, the Soviets pulled their players off the ice and went back to their locker room in protest. They were threatening not to play the rest of the game. The only thing that got them back on the ice was Flyers owner Ed Snider telling them if they don’t come back, they don’t get paid.
As a result, the Soviets returned to the ice with about 7 minutes remaining in the first period. The game was scoreless at the time but soon after Flyer forward Rick Macleish opened the scoring on a breakaway goal. I have to laugh whenever I see that goal. Flyer forward Gary Dornhoffer clearly set a pick that allowed Macleish to go in all alone on Russian goalie Vladimir Tretiak. It’s a play that would have been called instantly for interference in today’s game. But that was allowed back then.
The floodgates opened when Flyers defenseman Joe Watson, who scored less often than the appearance of Haley’s Comet, scored a short handed goal. Said Flyers coach Fred Shero about Watson’s goal, ” that goal alone set Russian hockey back 20 years” The Flyers went on to win easily 4-1 .
The Flyers would finish the 1975-76 season with 119 points, more points than the previous two years when they had won the two Stanley Cups. In most years that would have led the entire NHL. For instance take the 1984-85 Flyers. They finished first in the entire NHL in points with 113. But even with finishing six points better than that 84-85 team that finished first in the entire league, the Flyers finished second in the NHL in points, 8 points behind the Canadians. Again, this shows the dominance of those Canadiens teams.
The 76-77 Canadiens team was even better. Some consider it the greatest team of all time. They finished with a record 132 points and only lost one game at home all year. They also finished with a whopping. +216 goal differential. The Canadians weren’t just beating teams , they were throttling them . So that gives you an idea of what the Flyers were up against.
The Flyers quest for a “Hat Trick in 76” would fall short. They encountered an immovable force of nature when they went up against the Canadiens in the 76 finals.
The Flyers were swept by the Canadiens in the finals that year but, every game of the series but one was a 1 goal differential. And the other game was only a two goal differential. Also the Flyers were without Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent, 40-goal scorer Rick Macleish, All Star defenseman Jimmy Watson and one of their best checkers in Orest Kinderchuck. It’s not a stretch to say that had the Flyers been healthy, they could have taken the Canadiens to seven games or perhaps even beat the Canadiens had they gotten another Conn Smythe trophy performance from Parent like they had the previous two years . During the regular season when the Flyers had all of their players, they finished 2-1-1 against Montreal.
The Flyers might have fallen short in the end that year, but, for that one day, January 11th, 1976, the Flyers were the kings of the hockey world.