It may not have counted in the standings, but the Buffalo Sabres encounter with the Soviet Wings in 1976 had the atmosphere of a playoff game.
At the height of the Cold War, coinciding with Russia’s growing hockey reputation, the NHL began experimenting with an eight-game “Super Series” between their teams in North America and the top two seeds of the Soviet Elite Hockey League – namely the Soviet Central Red Army (CKSA Moscow) and the Soviet Wings (Krilija Soviet Moscow).
Stemming from the revered 1972 Summit Series, in which Team Canada defeated the Soviets in Moscow, the NHL felt the publicity the Russian teams were getting were unfair. While the Russians had largely dominated international play since the 1950s, the NHL argued that it was because the Soviets were professionals and faced mostly amateur teams.
In 1975 the NHL finally agreed to a showdown. The two Russian teams would each play four games in the United States and Canada, mid-season.
In the first two games it looked as if the NHL was out of its league.
The Red Army destroyed the New York Rangers in the first game, 7-3. The Pittsburgh Penguins hardly fared better, losing 7-4 to the Wings.
On New Year’s Eve the Montreal Canadiens withstood the Russian’s fast play to hold on for a 3-3 tie in the third game of the Series, but still could not defeat the Red Army.
Then the Russians came to Buffalo.
On Jan. 4, 1976, the Sabres handed the Wings what turned out to be their worst defeat in international play - a 12-6 trouncing at Memorial Auditorium.
The game was among Buffalo’s most memorable performances to date with The French Connection – Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert – producing the offense with nine points (4+5) while Jerry Korab led with the physical play that the Russians could not overcome.
The Sabres slowed down the high-speed Soviets by plugging up the neutral zone and hammering them with hits along the boards. It was a style the Russians were unaccustomed to and one they could not conquer.
The loss was so bad that the Wings’ coach kept the team secluded for three days because of the embarrassment he was said to have felt.
The Sabres were the first – and among the few – to defeat them in the NHL.
The Russians went on to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, respectfully. In fact, the Soviets only lost one other game in the 1975 Super Series – a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers where the physical onslaught was again the deciding factor.