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SOVIET MASTER : Tretiak May Have Been Greatest Goaltender in History of Hockey

Times Staff Writer

Jacques Plante thought about it. Yes, it would be the best thing to do. He would speak to the boy. It would be only fair to spare the kid.

It was 1972, and Plante was in his last NHL season and regarded as the premier goaltender of the time. The occasion was the Showdown Series--the first time Soviet hockey players faced players from the National Hockey League.

Plante knew, as did every professional player and hockey fan in North America, that the NHL was far superior to the inexperienced Soviets.

Everyone knew that the Soviets had little chance to win even a game from the powerful NHL teams. Russians might be able to throw the discus or execute a back flip on a three-inch wedge of wood, but it was laughable to think these burly, clumsy soldiers on skates would do more than learn a humiliating lesson from the pros.

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That’s why, before the first game Sept. 2 in Montreal, Plante walked into the Soviet dressing room and sought out their 20-year-old goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak. This gangly kid would be facing shots from NHL snipers such as Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito.

Plante sat down with Tretiak and offered suggestions on playing the Montreal Canadiens. He told Tretiak what kind of shots to look for and what offensive sets Montreal ran. Certainly, Plante thought, the young Tretiak would blanch at these sophisticated gunners.

Tretiak was polite and nodded. Through an interpreter, he thanked Plante and then continued his preparation for the game.

Plante left the dressing room, wondering if he would soon witness the horror of a boy thrown to wolves.

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Ken Dryden, another household name among goalies, was in net for the Canadiens that night. A sellout crowd of 18,818 in the Montreal Forum watched, thrilled and proud to see the sport that was invented in their city reach such international proportions.

Later, there was a shocked silence. Tretiak and the ragged Soviet team, using musty and ancient equipment, beat the Canadian NHL All-Stars, 7-3, in Montreal.

It was a stinging slap to the red face of the proud National Hockey League. Shock at the loss was all the deeper because the signs had been there. Tretiak led the Soviets to World titles in 1970 and 1971. In 1972, the Soviets won the World Championships again and swept to a gold medal in the Olympic Games at Sapporo, Japan.

Key to it all was Tretiak. Soviet Coach Anatoly Tarassov plucked Tretiak from the juniors at 18 to play in the World Championships in 1970.

Tretiak ultimately spent 15 years on the Red Army team--a team without peer in hockey in the U.S.S.R. He became a lieutenant colonel in the Red Army, but in international hockey terms, Tretiak was simply the best goaltender--ever. He was the great intimidator.

“The Russians come to Canada in 1972 and everyone thought only ‘How badly are we going to beat them?’ ” said Rogie Vachon, general manager of the Kings and former goaltender for Team Canada, between games here at Rendez-Vous ’87, where the NHL All-Stars beat the Soviets Wednesday night and will play them again tonight.

Vachon played against Tretiak in 1976, in a rare game that the Soviets lost. But Vachon remembers the shock of that first loss in 1972.

“They came out in their bad equipment and their bad skates. They didn’t look as professional as we did,” Vachon said. “After the first two series, everyone knew where we stood with the Soviets. They changed our way of preparing. They were in such great condition.”

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It was Tretiak who made the strongest impression on the players in those early years of Soviet-NHL exchanges. The high-speed, multiple-passing style of Soviet hockey became a trademark. But Tretiak’s style in goal was unconventional.

“For a European, he had a totally different style,” Vachon said. “He was more Westernized. He’d challenge the shooter a lot more.

“He was very, very quick. He had great feet. He was able to be so quick and stay on his feet. His style was a combination of stand-up and butterfly. He’d go down in close range and he’s stand up on the rush. He had a good glove hand. He’d butterfly in and kick out the puck.

“Of course, he had a tremendous team in front of him. They played together for many years.”

Few players could match Tretiak’s record over his 15 years in international competition. He played on 13 World championship teams, 13 Soviet league championship teams--the equivalent of winning the Stanley Cup 13 times.

Tretiak’s Olympic record is no less impressive. He participated in four Olympics, winning three gold medals and one silver.

His fame in hockey spread beyond the Soviet bloc. In 1977 he wrote his autobiography, “The Hockey I Love,” and hockey fans snatched it up in French translation.

His lone setback in international competition occurred in 1980, courtesy of a bunch of mostly college kids in the Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. It was reminiscent of the upset the Soviets pulled against the NHL eight years earlier.

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The Soviets were playing the U.S. team in the first medal round, a match thought to be a blip on the Soviet march to their third straight gold medal.

The Soviets were ahead, 2-1, in the first period. David Christian of the U.S. took a shot and Tretiak came out to make a pad save. He made the save but failed to clear the rebound. It proved a fatal error.

Mark Johnson got the rebound and took it behind Tretiak to score.

The Soviet coach replaced his goaltender even before the next faceoff, with one second left in the period.

The U.S. team achieved the Miracle on Ice and the Soviets were left with a silver medal. In 1984, at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the Soviets got the gold back.

Tretiak may have been the first Soviet player to capture the imagination of NHL owners, who saw in their minds’ eyes Tretiak making spectacular saves that led their teams to the Stanley Cup.

One team, especially, didn’t forget Tretiak’s impact. The Montreal Canadiens selected Tretiak in the seventh round of the NHL draft in 1983, reportedly offering him a three-year, $1.5-million contract.

The NHL has an agreement with the Finnish hockey federation to allow players over 30 to leave Finland and play in the NHL. League officials have been trying to work out a similar agreement with the Soviet ice hockey federation, with little success.

During a tour of Canada in 1983, Tretiak said he would like to to play for the Canadiens. After that, he was mobbed by Montreal fans. Later, he backed off the statement and said if he played in the NHL, he would like to play for the Canadiens.

The Canadiens wanted Tretiak. In February of 1984, the general manager of the Canadiens, Serge Savard, flew to Sarajevo with a contract for him.

Marat Gramov, chairman of the Soviet Sports Committee, gave the contract to Tretiak.

Tretiak said that he was an officer in the Soviet army and was looking forward to coaching young Soviet goaltenders upon his retirement.

Since then, NHL teams have been drafting Soviet players, hoping for a change in policy.

Several players on the Soviet team playing the NHL All-Stars have been drafted by NHL teams, although they claim to know nothing of it.

Wednesday, Gramov apparently removed the possibility of those players ever joining the NHL. He announced that to keep hockey at a high level in the Soviet Union, no players would be allowed to play in the NHL.

In the past, some Soviet players have been allowed to play outside their country. For instance, Helmut Balderis, a former star forward on the national team, played in Japan for a while.

Gramov said that those players were permitted to leave only after their careers were over in the Soviet Union. By then, Gramov said, the players would be of no value to the NHL.

“When our players are good, we need them for our team,” he told reporters in a press conference here. “They play until they are 32 or 34. I think they leave when they can’t play anymore. Then they go and work as coaches.”

Tretiak retired at 32. He now coaches the goaltenders for the Soviet national team and, as a Soviet Master of Sport, travels the world, accepting honors and “fostering friendship through hockey.”

Tretiak doesn’t have that well upholstered look of some former athletes. At 34, he’s lean and trim.

But he’s talked about as if he’s an ancient god.

“I think the Soviets have had a lot of trouble finding someone as great as Tretiak in goal,” Wayne Gretzky, hockey player and historian, said. “They may never be able to replace Tretiak. He was one of the greatest goaltenders ever, maybe the best ever. They say that (Evgeny) Belosheikin is going to be a good one, but so far they have not found anyone close to Tretiak.”

Gretzky paid his respect to Tretiak while the Soviet was touring Canada late last year as a goodwill ambassador for Rendez-Vous.

Gretzky invited Tretiak to his Edmonton penthouse on New Year’s Eve and challenged his guest to a game of table hockey--Gretzky’s teams are Team Canada and the Soviet national team.

Tretiak was delighted--until he noticed that the Soviet goaltender was wearing number 17. Tretiak’s number was 20.

“I guess they don’t retire jerseys in the Soviet Union,” Gretzky said.


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