The Buffalo Sabres, Bane Of Soviet Hockey

The cold war comes to upstate New York


On the evening of May 3rd, 1989, Alexander Mogilny was celebrating his team’s sweeping victory at the Ice Hockey World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden when he quietly slipped away from the banquet.

The following day, instead of boarding a flight back to Moscow with the rest of the Soviet squad, he was on a plane to New York.

The 20-year-old prodigy became the first Soviet hockey player to defect to the West, stunning the hockey world as much as his communist overlords back home.

Sitting next to him on the way to JFK were the Buffalo Sabres’ general manager, Gerry Meehan, and the team’s director of amateur evaluation and development, Don Luce. The previous year, they had recruited Mogilny as the 89th pick in the 5th round of the NHL draft.

BUY- Alexander Mogilny Buffalo Sabres Rookie Card 1990-91

Mogilny wasn’t the first Soviet to leave for the NHL- Sergei Pryakhin joined the Calgary Flames just 2 months earlier, but with official permission.

Mogilny’s departure was clandestine, though, and his decision helped reshape the landscape of professional hockey as waves of players from the East would follow, abandoning the crumbling Soviet system. 

The Cold War saw some of its most tense sporting events played out on the ice sheets of Europe and North America. And while the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in sports history, the U.S. hockey team was far from being the biggest thorn in the Soviets’ side.

At the time, international ice hockey titles and bragging rights ran through Moscow. Between 1963 and 1975, the red machine captured 13 of 14 world championships, including 3 gold medals at the Winter Olympics.

But when the Soviet Wings faced off against the Sabres in the first clash of the Super Series exhibition games, the puck handlers from behind the iron curtain found themselves checked against the wall.

From December, 1975 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Super Series featured 9 ice hockey tourneys (98 games) played in North America between the best Soviet clubs and those in the NHL.

From thrilling triumphs inside the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium (the ‘Aud’) to the defection of Alexander Mogilny, the Sabres always found a way to frustrate the Big Bear.

Do you shop on Amazon? Support us at SPORTS HISTORY WEEKLY by clicking here for ANY of your purchase needs

The opening game that kicked off the Super Series on December 28th, 1975 saw Red Army trounce the New York Rangers 7-3 inside Madison Square Garden.

The Americans were up against a formidable Soviet lineup that included future NHL Hall of Famers, Sergei Fedorov and goalie, Vladislav Tretiak.

The New York Times described the Rangers’ lackluster performance that night:

“…they did not prove quick enough, accurate enough, sharp enough, or tough enough to cope with the disciplined Soviet squad.”

The 2 visiting clubs- Red Army and Soviet Wings- played 8 matches against 8 different NHL teams, topping the inaugural Series 5-2-1.

BUY- Vladislav Tretiak signed trading card 

The only squads to outscore the Russian ice masters were the Philadelphia Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres, winners and runner-ups, respectively, of the 1975 Stanley Cup.

On January 4th, 1976, in front of a sellout crowd of 16,000 at the Aud, the upstate NY franchise defeated the Soviet Wings 12-6, handing them their worst defeat ever in international competition.

The Times wrote: “Pouring in more goals against the Russians than any other NHL team had before…the Sabres forechecked the visitors into helplessness and broke up their formations at center ice.”

Sabres alumni who played that day reflected on the game as being a very heated matchup. Forward Jim Lorentz recalled:

“When we played the Soviet team, that was like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. That’s the way we approached it. There was genuine hatred, I think, for the Russian team.”

Some 4 years later, just weeks prior to the historic Olympic battle at Lake Placid, Red Army and Dynamo Moscow were in North America for the Super Series rounds.

Once again, the puck and stick titans played 9 games to top the Series 5-3-1. And once again, Buffalo was on the winning side of the equation, beating Red Army 6-1.

At the Aud on January 3rd, 1980, Tretiak was guarding the Russian goal but his ice cohorts had no answer for the home team, which saw Danny Gare and Ric Seiling score 2 each, and Don Edwards hold the net on his way to win the Vezina Trophy.

Do you shop on Amazon? Support us at SPORTS HISTORY WEEKLY by clicking here for ANY of your purchase needs

The Sabres were in top form that season. They would lead the Prince of Wales Conference in points and make a run through the playoffs until taken down by the Islanders in the semi-finals.

The following season, the Sabres drafted Mike Ramsey and Rob McClanahan, 2 key members of the U.S. National Team that upset the Russians at the ‘Miracle on Ice’ showdown.

Buffalo’s third encounter with the Soviets took place in 1986. Though, with their best years behind them, they succumbed to Dynamo Moscow 7-4. That year, they also ended at the bottom of the Adams Division and were shut out from the playoffs.

1989 witnessed the Sabres regain their dominance at the Super Series with a 6-5 victory over Red Army. It was the final match of the exhibition tour and an exhilarating finish that evened the 14-game Series that year to 6-6-2.

Tied 5-5 in overtime, Sabres defenseman Phil Housley fed a pass in front of the net to Ken Priestlay, who scored for Buffalo to win it in front of a packed crowd at the Aud.

The game-ending drama was remarkably similar to Paul Henderson’s 1972 winning shot, one of the most famous in hockey history, that gave Canada a 6-5 victory against the Soviets in the eighth and final match of the Summit Series in Moscow.

BUY- Sergei Fedorov signed trading card 1993

The Sabres played 2 more matches in the Super Series, avenging their loss to Dynamo Moscow with a score of 4-2 in 1990, but falling to Khimik Voskresensk 5-4 in 1991.

At that point, the sun was already setting on the Soviet empire and the NHL was transforming into a new force with the influx of fresh talent from the collapsed Soviet bloc.

While the tournaments ended after 16 years with an aggregate tally of 55-33-10 in favor of the Russians, Buffalo managed a winning record of 4-2, tying the Edmonton Oilers as the 2 best performers among the 21 participating NHL teams.

The Super Series remains a window into the cold war when the two ideological foes fought their battles on the ice. But if anyone succeeded in stymieing the Big Bear, it was the Buffalo Sabres.

This article was written by Kevin Earley, history major and senior at Alfred University, New York. After graduation, Kevin hopes to work as a researcher in a museum, or library. Contact:



Winter 2020

Spring 2020

Spring 2021

Winter 2021


Winter 2020

Spring 2020

Spring 2021

Winter 2021


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's