WAYBACK WHEN (LGS) — With the Buffalo Sabres clinching their first divisional title in a decade and their first regular-season conference title since 1980, I began wondering about what was the greatest accomplishment in franchise history. Although the Sabres have twice played for Lord Stanley’s Cup, I believe that the Sabres' victory over the Soviet Wings in an exhibition game played on January 4, 1976 remains the greatest achievement in franchise history.
Beginning just after Christmas 1975, with the Cold War still very hot, two teams from the Soviet Elite Hockey League toured eight NHL cities. This “Super Series” featured the league champion — the Soviet Central Red Army — and the league runner-up — the Soviet Wings. The Soviets also added other league All-Stars to supplement both clubs prior to the tour.
The Wings and Red Army dominated the early part of series. In their first game, the Red Army defeated the Rangers 7-3. They played a speed game with short crisp passes leading to quick wrist shots, and the Rangers could not find a way to slow the Russian attack.
Employing an attack similar to the Red Army’s, the Soviet Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-4 in the second game of the series. After trailing 5-0 early in the second period, Pittsburgh began to aggressively forecheck and managed to outscore the Wings 4-2 the rest of the way.
In the third game, the Montreal Canadians, employing an aggressive forecheck and speed, outplayed the Red Army. They outshot the Soviet team 38-13 but blew a two-goal lead in the third period, resulting in a 3-3 tie.
The clash between the Sabres and the Wings was the first game of the series in 1976. Rick Martin, in a March 2003 interview with Hockey Digest, said the Sabres players watched the Wings during their morning practice and stared “in amazement as they were just throwing the puck to spots. They were buzzing around, but they were throwing it blind. It was obvious that this was why some of these plays often looked so good.” However, Martin and the other Sabres knew they could skate with any team and that they had one thing that the Soviet team didn’t: size on defense.
The Sabres featured four large but talented players on defense who played well in their own zone, checked hard and even helped on offense. Bill Hajt, Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry Korab and Jocelyn Guevremont all stood at least 6’2” tall and weighed over 200 pounds.
Sabres’ GM Punch Imlach’s plan for the game was simple — hit them hard, hit them often and outhustle them to the puck.
The crowd that night was simply electric. The atmosphere was as intense as the Cup Finals the season before. Korab remarked that, "We came out onto the ice, and it had to be several minutes until it quieted down. We were so excited we could almost feel the ice shake."
In the lockerroom before the game, Imlach told the team how much he wanted a victory over the Russians, and from the first drop of the puck the Sabres delivered. They put constant pressure on the puckhandler and then utilized the trap on defense. Anytime a Wings player tried to enter the Sabres’ zone, Schoenfeld, Guevremont and especially Korab would hit him.
In the Hockey Digest interview, Martin described Korab’s huge contribution to the Sabres that night. “The guy who really set the tone for the physical part of the game was Jerry Korab. He was a tough defenseman. They called him "Kong" because he was so big and strong. He was hitting everything in sight. He hit Alexander Yakushev, the Russians' main weapon, about six or seven times. I mean he hit him with some thundering checks. Clean, but hard.”
In the first period the Sabres scored two early goals. Guevremont put the Sabres on the board at 6:10 of the first. Gilbert Perreault converted a Korab pass at 7:10 to put the Sabres up 2-0. French Connection linemate Martin scored to put the Sabres up 3-0 before the Russians finally broke through. Martin and the Wings’ Kapustin exchanged goals late in the frame, giving the Sabres a commanding 4-2 lead after one.
The onslaught continued in the second period. Five different Sabres tallied, included Rene Robert, Peter McNab and Danny Gare. Current Sabres broadcaster Jim Lorentz and Korab chipped in power-play goals as the frazzled Soviets completely lost their composure and starting taking dumb penalties. The team finished the second with an insurmountable 9-4 lead.
The Sabres didn’t let up until the final horn. The Wings showed some life in the first half of the third with two goals. However, the Sabres simply elevated their play again and scored three more times to complete the 12-6 shellacking. Fred Stanfield tipped in a Martin slapshot for the Sabres’ 10th goal. Gare picked up his second of the night, and then Brian Spencer capped the scoring at 18:04 of the third.
Martin, who finished the game with two goals and three assists and was voted the games first star, said, “You could tell they didn't like the fact they got outskated. When we were out on the ice, they all had this dumfounded look on their faces. They didn't expect that... When we saw that we could skate with them, we just went for it and it worked.”
At the time, the loss was the worst ever suffered by Soviet team in international competition. Following the game, the Soviet coach was so humiliated by the loss that he placed his team in seclusion. The result was so impressive that before the Sabres' next game they received a standing ovation from the fans... in Montreal.
“I had never been so fired up for a game” said Martin. “I had played in a lot of big games. But that truly was the game I’ll never forget.” Punch Imlach called the game the highlight of 1975-76 campaign and the highlight of his career. In Budd Bailey’s "The History of the Buffalo Sabres," Imlach also said that the game “was the all-time high point for the Sabres.”
- The Soviet Wings rebounded from the loss and defeated their next two opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 and the New York Islanders 2-1. The Red Army went on to defeat Boston 5-1.
- In the final game of the series the defending champions of the two respective leagues faced off. The Flyers, utilizing the same physical style they employed against the speedy Sabres in the Cup finals, literally pounded the Red Army 4-1.
- The Sabres played Soviet teams six times from 1976 through 1991. After beating the Wings in 1976, the Sabres beat the Red Army 4-1 in 1980 and 6-5 in 1989, split against against Dynamo Moscow losing 7-4 in 1986 and winning 4-2 in 1990, and finally losing their final game against a Soviet team (Khimik Voskresensk) 5-4 in 1991.