Apr 082010

What Hockey has Meant to Vladislav Tretiak

IPicture of Vladislav Tretiak was never so happy in my life as I was the first time I was a member of a world championship team. That was in 1970 when I was  18, serving as backup goaltender to Victor Konovalenko, a wonderful goalie with fantastic intuition. I don’t know of any Soviet player of that era who commanded more respect than Victor. He was respected for his sense of fair play, his devotion to hockey and for his valour and steadfastness.Often it seemed the pucks flew into his glove by themselves. He was twice my age but there was a bond between us. He patiently revealed to me the secrets of the goaltender’s art and he knew them all. Hadn’t he played on seven world championship teams? Hadn’t he been an Olympic gold medallist? At that young age, more than anything else, I wanted to be the kind of man, the  cool competitor, that Konovalenko was. I was also helped to the top by such world-renowned players as the brilliant forward Anatoli Firsov and  the reliable defenseman  Alexander Ragulin.

Later on, prior to the famous Soviet-Canada series in 1972, I would meet the fabulous Canadian goaltender Jacques Plante, who was kind enough to give me some tips on how to play the top NHL forwards prior to the Summit Series. Had it not been for that unique tournament, perhaps I would not have had an opportunity to have my own puck stopping abilities compared to future Hall of Fame goalies like Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito. More than any other hockey event, the 1972 tournament made it shockingly clear that there was very little difference between the Soviet national team players and the top NHLers.  Suddenly there was renewed interest in  world and Olympic hockey tournaments, and beginning in 1976, in the establishment of the popular Canada Cup competitions.  Today, as a fitting finale to hockey’s first century, we have the best of professional players competing at the Winter Olympics in Japan with a world-wide audience anticipating a thrilling race for the  gold medals and the coveted title “Olympic Champions.”

If you want to hear more about what the hockey experience was like from his Russian persepctive, you may want to take a look at Vladislav’s book Tretiak : The Legend.  At Amazon, Brian E. Erland says it “…provides an illuminating glimpse of those years… and examines the volatile games that took place when the ‘Eastern Block’ collided with the ‘Powers of the West.’ “

Unlike Victor  Konovalenko and  the other Soviet pioneers in hockey, I have been most fortunate. I have had a chance to become one of many who opened a new chapter in the history of hockey. Beginning with my debut in the 1970 world hockey championships, I competed in the Olympics and many other tournaments against the best hockey players from other nations. The most memorable, of course, was the aforementioned  Summit Series of 1972 when, as a 20-year-old, I played in all eight games against  Team Canada, the thrilling series that was won by  Canada in the last few seconds of the final game when Paul Henderson scored against me. Those of us who competed in those eight games, and the millions who witnessed them, will harbour lifelong memories of  the  event that’s become known as the “Series of the Century.” I think it was my play in that series, more than all  of  the Soviet team’s world and Olympic titles, that brought me a great honour in 1989–induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I remember one night in the Chicago Stadium a few years ago, Brian McFarlane, the hockey commentator, asked me  to describe my feelings when Paul Henderson’s shot crossed my goal line. I told him that it was a beautiful goal and a great surprise to me. Seconds earlier, Henderson had fallen down and slid on his knees behind my net. I didn’t notice him get up and jump into position to score. McFarlane asked me, “Vlad, how often do you  dream about that goal?” I told him with a smile, “I may not dream about it very often but I think about it every day of my life.”

That  series was the initial confrontation between the world’s best amateurs and the stars of the NHL. Now tournaments between pros and amateurs are commonplace and in 1998 the Winter Olympics  at Nagano, for the first time, will showcase the world’s best players, salaried and otherwise, in the hockey event. Such a tournament was inevitable, and I like to think it started with us—the veterans of 1972.

Also for the first time, women’s hockey will be on the world stage at Nagano with a fierce battle for the gold medal anticipated between Canada and the United States. I have strongly supported women’s hockey for many years and had the pleasure of meeting Cathy Phillips, one of Canada’s greatest women goaltenders, a few months ago. Cathy led her team to a gold medal at the first official world championships in Ottawa in 1990.

Hockey is  now a global game, a game Canada invented and dominated at every level for many decades. At the first two Olympic Games, Canada outscored the opposition by 139 goals to four—an astonishing display of scoring prowess.  European teams didn’t begin to catch up until the 1950s.  Our Soviet coaches copied the best features of Canadian hockey and added a few wrinkles of their own. Our most famous coach, Anatoli Tarasov, once said, “The essence of hockey lies in a sensible balance between team work and individual play.  Hockey is a game not only of courage and speed, but of minds. A man can win only if he can make a flash decision at a crucial moment, only if he can orientate  himself like a chess player in the most-complicated ever-changing situations, only if he can choose the correct way out of all the possible combinations every second of the game, only if he can anticipate the development of events on the rink.”

We who grew up far away from North America and the birthplace of hockey salute Canadians for sharing their wonderful game with us, for setting the standards, for introducing us to the joys and wonders of hockey,  an ever-changing game that continues to grow and to expand,  attracting millions of fans around the globe and creating excitement wherever it is played. I cannot imagine a game other than hockey where such passions boil around a hard rubber puck. As a player and now a coach, I never tire of hockey. The game has been the brightest part of my life. It will stay with me forever.

Vladislav Tretiak

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