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Soviet Hockey: KLM, the Best Hockey Line Ever?

By Edited Sep 14, 2015 0 0

Hockey teams play units of center, left wing and right wing forwards and two defensemen. Often the fans nickname the forward line or units. The Production Line of Gordy Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsey of the Detroit Red Wings are an example. The Triple Crown Line of the LA Kings with Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer was another. Perhaps the greatest offensive hockey line was the Soviet KLM line of CSKA Moscow, the Red Army hockey team.

During the cold war they played individual series against American and Canadian teams. These matches were considered as cold war battles. One of these was the 1987 Canada Cup and some consider them the best hockey games ever played.

Soviet Hockey

Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and 1980s were a potent force on international hockey rinks. The best of these was CSKA Moscow, the Red Army team. The Soviets formed the CSKA in 1946 to play in Soviet and European hockey leagues. Every able-bodied male in the Soviet Union had to serve a term in the army, and the army transferred the best hockey players to CSKA. The Soviet League existed 46 years and the Red Army team won 32 international titles. The most titles won in the NHL are 26 by the Montreal Canadiens.

Soviet  Hockey Stamp

The KLM Line

From 1981 through 1989, CSKA had the KLM line, one of the most potent hockey lines ever. KLM referred to the last names of the three forwards which consisted of right wing Vladimer Krutov, center Igor Larionov and left wing Sergi Makarov.  Defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexi Kastanonov with the forwards were the group known as the “green unit” because of the green practice jerseys they wore.

Krutov’s nickname was Tank because of his stocky size. He was fast and had a powerful wrist shot. He was good in the corners and in front of the net. Larionov had an on ice intelligence and a knack for directing play. He was knicknamed the professor. Makarov was the fast, had great puck handling skills and able to solve problems to score. He holds the record of scoring the most points for CSKA. 248. Opposing coaches played their fastest forwards to try to keep up with the KLM line. This was true during the NHL – Soviet matchups.

1987 Canada Cup

Some consider the finals between the Soviets and the Canadians in the 1987 Canada cup to be the best hockey games ever. It was played in Canada with Canadian officials. The Canadians matched the KLM line with a line that included Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Some consider game two of the final matchup the best hockey game ever played. The two teams tied their round robin matchup. All three games of the finals were 6-5. The Canadians won two of these games. The USSR won game 1 in an over time, Canada won game 2 in a double overtime. In game 3, Lemieux scored the winning goal with 1:26 left in regulation play. Canada held the lead to win the game and series. It was the last series with “cold war” overtones.

Makarov and Krutov were on the Olympic team in 1980. That was the United States “Miracle on Ice,” year. Larionov was on the Olympic team in ’84 and ’88 when the Soviets won gold medals.

Freedom

The Russians had offers to play for the NHL, but Soviet officials refused to let players go. Several players kept pressuring the government to release them to play for the NHL. Viacheslav Fetisov was one of the most persistent, and the first Soviet to play in the NHL when the Soviets became less restrictive. He played for the New Jersey Devils in 1989. Other Soviet players followed him to the NHL.

NHL

Krutov and Makarov weren’t fluent in English which added to their discomfort. Larionov was. All three had trouble adapting to smaller rinks and the NHL dump and chase style of hockey. Dump and chase is shooting the puck into the opponent’s zone and chase after it hoping to regain control and score. The former KLM line members were used to precision passing, skillful puck handling and speed to score. The Soviet trainers kept players under strict regimentation, while the NHL was more lenient and less restrictive. The Soviets also played fewer games per season. These differences affected the Russian’s play and slowed their adapting to the NHL style. The fact that they were on the tail end of their prime didn’t help.

Krutov played with the Canucks for a year and quit. He didn’t adapt. Makarov won the Calder trophy for best rookie. The next year the NHL changed the rule so that the Calder winner had to be younger than 26 years old. Larionov adapted and finished his three-year contract with Canucks.

A Larionov and Makarov reunion came in 1993. The San Jose Sharks acquired Larionov from Switzerland and Makarov from the Hartford Whalers. The two teammates were happy to play together again. With Swede Johan Garpenlov, they formed the Sharks GLM line. They helped the Sharks beat the Red Wings in the playoffs and took the Maple Leafs to seven games before losing.

The Detroit Red Wings picked up Larionov early in the 1996-1997 season. Coach Scotty Bowman saw the value of pairing Russian players. Larionov became part of the Russian Five with forwards Sergi Federov, Vyacheslav Koslov, and defensemen Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. Forwards Larionov, Federov and Koslov was known as the comrade line. Larionov was part of the Red Wings team that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

NHL hockey hall of fame.

The NHL Hockey Hall of Fame inducted Larionov on June 17, 2008. Krutov and Makarov are mentioned in relation to Larionov by the NHL Hall of Fame. They don’t have their own exhibit. The KLM line remains one of the great hockey lines of all time.

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