This article was originally written in February, 2014.
When Alan Eagleson brought the 1972 Summit Series to fruition, North American hockey fans quickly learned that the rest of the world had some serious talent. The Canadians severely underestimated the quality of the Soviet Union. Fans were exposed to Soviet legends Valeri Kharlamov, Vladislav Tretiak, Boris Mikhailov, and others.
From that point on, a greater appreciation was given to international hockey stars, specifically the Soviets. But, there are still a number of underrated hockey players that proved their merit years before the Summit Series. They starred in Olympic games and World Championships. However, little attention is given to these underrated hockey players compared to the later Soviet players. While the records for most points are occupied by familiar names like Selanne and Kharlamov, the performances of these players in past Olympics deserves to be recognized.
Harry Watson, LW (Canada, 1924 Olympics)
Nicknamed “Moose”, Harry Watson was a star amateur hockey player for the Toronto Granites. He led them to the Allan Cup (the championship for the Ontario Hockey Association) two years in a row from 1921-23, making the first all star team both years. When he joined the Canadian Olympic team, few could imagine the dominance the team would have.
In five games, the Canadians outscored their opposition by a combined score of 132-3, with Watson scoring 36 of those goals. That total includes the game winner against the United States when he had been knocked unconscious earlier in the game! Canada’s hockey program was that far advanced compared to the rest of the world. That mark still stands as the record for not only the most goals in one tournament, it is also the most goals that any player has scored all-time at the Olympics over all tournaments.
Watson was seen as a must-have player in the newly formed NHL, and teams clamored over him. The Montreal Maroons even offered him $30,000 (a staggering number for the day), which would have made him the richest man in hockey. Yet, Watson turned them all down and announced his retirement in 1924. Known for his dazzling speed and stickhandling abilities, Watson is known as one of the finest amateur hockey players ever. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and IIHF Hall of Fame in 1963 and 1998 respectively.
Vsevolod Bobrov, LW (Soviet Union, 1956 Olympics)
Believe it or not, Bobrov did not even know what the sport of ice hockey was until the age of 23. In his life up until that point, he was a famous soccer and bandy player for the Soviet Union. Bandy is a sport that is very similar to ice hockey, but it is played on a much larger rink with a ball, and different sticks. He was first exposed to the sport of hockey when he was on tour in England with a Soviet soccer team. They stumbled upon a hockey game when walking the streets of London one day, and they were immediately interested in the sport.
By 1948, Bobrov had cemented himself as the most dominant player in Soviet hockey history to that point. He led the Soviet league in goals with 52, with the runner-up scoring just 23. In the 1952 Summer Games, he represented the Soviet soccer team and scored five goals in three games. Four years later, he starred in the 1956 Winter Games where he scored 9 goals and 3 assists in 7 games en route to leading the Soviets to gold. One of the greatest snipers in history, Maurice Richard, remarked “Bobrov is an outstanding individual and a great player. I consider him being one of the ten best players in hockey history”. When his career was finished, he had scored 332 goals in 189 Soviet league and international games.
Erich Kühnhackl, C (West Germany, 1972-1976 and 1984 Olympics)
Although Leon Draisaitl is one of the most hyped German prospects ever, he will have to best Erich Kühnhackl. Voted the best German ice hockey player of the 20th century, Kühnhackl scored an amazing 1,431 points in 774 career German league games. Blessed with great size at 6’5″ 214lbs., Kühnhackl was the biggest reason that West Germany was able to remain in the top division in the Olympics in the 70s and 80s.
In the 1976 Olympics, Kühnhackl was third in points, outscoring Valeri Kharlamov and Czechoslovakian superstar Milan Novy. At the 1984 games, he managed to lead the entire tournament in points over future NHLers Slava Fetisov, Pat LaFontaine, Dave Gagner, and Pelle Eklund.
Erich Kühnhackl was offered a contract to play with the New York Rangers in the 1970s, but turned it down to remain in Germany. He is the father of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Tom Kühnhackl.
Despite their tremendous international exploits, these three remain underrated hockey players in a historical context. Had they been able to ply their trade in the NHL, playing against the best in the world for their entire careers, perhaps they would be more appreciated. It is unlikely they would have had the same level of sheer dominance, but all three possessed the talent to be stars at the next level.