Summit Series: Remembering Vladislav Tretiak and the Soviet nightmare
Goaltender defines his life by charity work, friendship with former opponents
Vladislav Tretiak, goaltender for the then-Soviet Union's national hockey team, is photographed in Moscow in January 1972. Eight months later, Tretiak would be a household name in Canada for his performance in the historic eight-game Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit Series.
Photograph by: AFP/Getty Images, File photo
It was 40 years ago Monday that Canada awoke to the grim, gut-punched truth that this hadn’t, in fact, been just a bad dream. No, this nightmare was indeed very real.
Our country’s best professional hockey players, as cocky as they were skilled, had been destroyed the night before by what smug scouting reports had suggested was a rag-tag squad of outclassed amateurs from the Soviet Union.
And if you were witness to the clinical 7-3 dissection of Team Canada at the Montreal Forum on Sept. 2, 1972, you also remember the Sept. 3 anxiety attack that ran from sea to sea.
Canada ultimately would prevail, if only by the thickness of the friction tape on Paul Henderson’s stick, in this landmark eight-game Summit Series.
But in their mismatched equipment and decade-old skates, the Soviets gave the Canadians all they could handle — and much more — in a series that forever would change hockey’s global landscape.
The backbone of the U.S.S.R. squad that romped in Montreal was an unheralded young goaltender who had been dismissed as his team’s weakest link.
But by the end of September, Canadians knew a great deal about 20-year-old Vladislav Tretiak. The netminder from Dmitrovo stoned Team Canada shooters on Sept. 2 and in the seven games that followed.
Tretiak made many miraculous saves on the 267 total shots he would face, his .884 save percentage superior to the combined .859 on 227 Soviet shots fired at Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito.
Today, it’s likely that Tretiak would be more familiar to passersby in Montreal than would Henderson, whose series-winning goal remains, as the goalie wrote in his 1987 autobiography, “the most maddening of all goals scored on me in hockey.”
But Tretiak, since 2006 president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, is a very special case in Montreal. He adores this city, which returns the love generously.
Twice in the past two years, Tretiak has staged gala charity auctions here, in 2010 with Alex Kovalev, then this past winter with Max Pacioretty. Last January, he joined Henderson and Yvan Cournoyer for a ceremonial Bell Centre faceoff to begin 40th anniversary celebrations of the Summit Series; in 2007, he was a special guest of Dryden, his old friend and rival, for the latter’s sweater retirement.
There is no more famous athlete in Russia than this elected member of the State Duma whose 60th birthday celebration in Moscow last April was attended by more than 500 people from every walk of life from the breadth of his motherland and from far beyond.
For 17 years, Tretiak’s foundation has aided, even saved the lives of countless children in Russia. His work and international influence have provided medical supplies, equipment and incubators for prematurely born infants while bringing North American specialists to Russia for urgently needed pediatric surgeries.
Tretiak and I sat for an hour in his Montreal hotel suite last January to discuss his rich life, the thread of the Summit Series stitching our conversation. If those eight games were the centrepiece of a playing career that includes three Olympic gold medals and 10 world championships, his charity work defines his life.
“I can only respect myself,” Tretiak said that day, “when I do things for others.”
Had he stopped Henderson’s frantic, flailing shot 34 seconds from the end of Game 8 on Sept. 28, 1972, I asked him, would he still be revered in Montreal and throughout Canada?
“Canadians respect and value talent,” he replied. “They don’t care what country you’re from. When everybody today is dead, the next generations will speak about 1972.
“People remember me not just from that series, but from other matches. My visits to Montreal are always very special. Something very emotional happens every time. I deeply value my fans in this city. Nowhere else in the world am I greeted as I am here. …
“It is hard to believe that 40 years have gone by since that 1972 series,” Tretiak added. “There were a lot of very special players on both teams. We respected the Canadians, but I didn’t feel they respected us. They wouldn’t even say hello. But today, I’m happy that we are all great friends.”
In his new autobiography, The Goal of My Life, Henderson writes of spending time with Tretiak at reunion functions in the decades since the series.
“(Tretiak) is a classy guy, a consummate gentleman, and I’m a big fan of his,” Henderson writes. “I am so glad I got the opportunity to know him better.”
Henderson scored seven goals on Tretiak in the series, including Team Canada’s second in Game 1. It came at 6:32 of the first period, following Phil Esposito’s lightning strike 30 seconds into the match.
“There was so much noise,” Tretiak writes in his book of Esposito’s goal. “I remember the crowd going crazy; people were roaring, laughing, whistling, yelling. Esposito patronizingly tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘OK.’ It was a clear message: ‘Don’t forget who you are playing against.’ …
“When Henderson scored their second goal, the crowd flew into a triumphant rage. The organist played a funeral march.”
Who in Canada suspected the mourning that would come a few hours later?
Game 1 of the Summit Series was in fact Tretiak’s second game on Forum ice, having played one period in his national team’s 9-3 loss on Dec. 29, 1969 against the Montreal Junior Canadiens and a few professionals.
Nine days earlier, the Russians had pounded Canada’s national team by the same score in Vancouver. Tretiak, then 17, was in the visitors’ net, opposite an overwhelmed amateur netminder named Ken Dryden.
“The first time I came to Montreal (in 1969), I remember it the same as yesterday,” Tretiak said two years ago when we met alone for the first time to speak at length, again in his Queen Elizabeth Hotel suite.
“Canada, for us, was a special country. It was very close to Russia on the mental side — we both loved hockey. I remember big cars. Good cars. Oldsmobiles, Chryslers, big Fords. Russian cars were not so big, the design didn’t look so good. Here, big streets, big downtown, big buildings. … The first time I went to the Forum — unbelievable, fantastic.”
Tretiak followed his brilliant 1972 Summit Series performance with another glittering effort on New Year’s Eve 1975, the famous 3-3 tie against the Canadiens. He backstopped the Russians’ 4-1 semifinal win and 8-1 clobbering of Canada in the championship game of the 1981 Canada Cup, then turned aside 30 shots in a 5-0 blanking of the Canadiens on New Year’s Eve 1982.
A city that detested Tretiak for his Summit Series play by now practically worshipped him. Then-Canadiens general manager Serge Savard even selected him in the seventh round of the 1983 NHL draft, a year before the goalie’s retirement, though a transfer deal could never be worked out with the Russians.
To this day, Tretiak is not entirely certain why Canadiens legend Jacques Plante, by then a Toronto Maple Leaf and a French-language TV analyst for the Summit Series, appeared in the Russians’ dressing room with an interpreter shortly before Game 1 at the Forum to brief him on a blackboard about the shooting tendencies of Team Canada.
The two had met for the first time a year earlier in St. Louis, when Tretiak was hustled away from the showers by his coach to watch Plante practice. For his attention, Plante gave him a goalie stick.
Tretiak believes that Plante simply didn’t want a member of the goaltending fraternity humiliated in what most everyone believed would be a Canadian rout.
“I would like to ask Jacques Plante, but it’s not possible,” he told me of the late goaler. “Maybe he felt sorry for me?”
To mark his love of his hockey in Montreal and his games played here, Tretiak purchased a brick — soon to be relocated with the rest — in the Canadiens’ Bell Centre Centennial Plaza. Its three lines read: “V. Tretyak/Moscou-Montreal/Passion Hockey.”
“I don’t wish to upset any other city in Canada, but in my opinion Montreal is a true hockey city. Hockey was born here,” Tretiak said. “The Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups, fans understand hockey, and the whole city lives through its team. Some of my best games were in Montreal.”
None were more important than his otherworldly effort at the Forum 40 years and one night ago, when Canada learned that hockey was not our game alone.
Red Fisher’s feature series on the 40th anniversary of the Summit Series, which started in Saturday’s Gazette, will continue through September as he looks back on each of the eight games on the same dates they were played in 1972: Sept. 4, 6, 8 in Canada, and Sept. 22, 24, 26 and 28 in the Soviet Union. Look for his Game 2 story in Tuesday’s paper. For more on the Summit Series, go to montrealgazette.com/summitseries
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