While most hockey fans and even the experts will pick Viacheslav Fetisov or maybe Sergei Zubov as the greatest Russian defenseman in history. Some might try to impress by mentioning the names, with good merit, of Alexei Kasatonov, Alexander Ragulin or Vitaly Davydov.
But the most researched experts know the title of greatest Russian defensemen is a coin toss between Fetisov and Nikolai Sologubov.
Sologubov, who was originally quite the bandy player, is an old timer in the truest sense. Born in 1924, he played in the very first ice hockey game in Russia, and along with Vsevolod Bobrov quickly established himself as an early great. Retiring in the early 1960s, he never got the international acclaim others would. And lack of video footage and even Communist-era newspaper archives have left a non-existent legacy for the man some called "The Russian Bobby Orr."
Ironically, Sologubov was not known for playing the Soviets signature team style. Like Bobrov, he rose above the rest during hockey's infancy years in Russia largely because he was an individualist.
"Instead of immersing his style into the Red mass, he let it blossom," wrote Lawrence Martin, author of The Red Machine, the pre-eminent English language source on Soviet hockey history.
According to Martin, Sologubov was definitely not what the stereotype of what Russian defensemen would become, or even of what Canadian defensemen of that time were.
"Sologubov was the first thunderous Soviet body checker. More uniquely, he was one of the first in the world to leave his position to lead attacks into the enemy zone. Both in Europe and North America, the custom of the time, a custom which was to change with the flourishes of, first, Doug Harvey, and later, Bobby Orr, was for the defencemen to stop just inside the opposing team's blueline."
That's some pretty lofty company for a player most have never heard of.
"Sologubov didn't believe that the defencemen's role should be limited to that of fireman. His aggressive attitude, his penetrations, allowed him to become as high a scorer as any defencemen in Soviet history."
In 350 Soviet league games he scored 132 goals, and in 71 World Championship/Olympic games, he scored 18 goals.
Sologubov's totals could have been even greater, but the development of hockey in Russia came late in his athletic life. He was already 25 when the national team was formed, and he played until he was 40. One would have to think he missed some very productive years in his early 20's.
Regardless, Sologubov is a Russian Hockey Hall of Famer who, along with defensive teammate Ivan Tregubov, set the standard for all Russian defensemen for the next few decades. He won Olympic gold in 1956, World Championship gold in 1956 and 1963, and Soviet league championships nine times. He was named the IIHF's best defenseman in 1956, 1957 and 1960. Former Boston Bruin standout Bobby Bauer, who was coaching the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, suggested after the 1956 Olympics that Sologubov was talented enough to play on any NHL team.
Interestingly, Sologubov was a WWII veteran. However, unlike many Canadian players, he never served on a sports platoon or any other arrangement to keep him away from the front lines. He served as a marine in an intelligence finding detachment that would make dangerous runs into Nazi territory. He was severely injured, undergoing as many as 7 surgeries on his feet. He spent 15 months recuperating, returning to his skates just in time to take up the new Russian game of "Canadian hockey."