To Russia With Love
A great goaltender’s mission of peace
People are as important as angles to a goaltender. Players are predictable, and that's why the second-guessing can be just as valid as the goaltending basics. If you know a player
well his moves become less surprising, but if you are surprised it takes a second or more to react properly. And you can’t afford seconds in a game as fast-moving as hockey. By anticipating what’s going to come next you’re playing the odds. And educated odds-making can often approach certainty.
Twice now I have faced the Soviet team, in 1969 with the national amateur team and in 1972 with Team Canada. I played four games in the Team Canada-Soviet series — Montreal, Vancouver, and two in Moscow — and was beaten for 19 goals. Oddsmaking can’t work when you don’t know the people.
That 1 could get to know them goes back to a moment I had in December of 1969, when the national team was playing the Soviet national team in Vancouver. It was early in the second period and the Soviets had already scored four, maybe five times on me. It was my first game against them, and though at first I was nervous and uncertain, those feelings soon evaporated into angry reality with the suddenness and shock of the endless goals. Anger soon became despair over their effortless passing, the ease of the goals, my own failings. A face-off was called to the circle on my left and Aleksandr Maltsev, whose small stature betrayed his efficiency as a player, moved into the slot area directly in front of me. He was poised to slam the puck my way should it come back to him. I was staring at him, only partly as a goalie fixes on an opponent. He looked back blankly, and brightened.
Then he winked.
This moment remained with me as an action totally out of character for a team that consciously solicits anonymity. The Soviet accent can be said to be off flair; every Russian player camouflages himself in an identical red helmet, whereas we’ve learned to recognize a player first by his face. Even those who do wear helmets here at least go in for distinctiveness: Paul Henderson’s Buck Rogers style, Stan Mikita’s dome, Jacques Laperrière’s football helmet. Not the Soviets. Even their names show total disregard for suggested letter formations. They play in units of five and their style of play is geared always toward the open man, no matter who he is,
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so any given player rarely has the puck in his possession long enough for a fan to complete the mathematical problem of connecting a number to a name.
After a game, a sportswriter will corner the Soviet coach, Vsevolod Bobrov. “Don’t you think [Vladislav] Tretiak was unbelievably good in the nets tonight, Coach Bobrov?” he’ll ask.
“The team did play well in goal,” Bobrov will answer.
So with this obvious accent on uniformity, I found it most encouraging that the subtle communication of the Maltsev wink carried over into the 1972 series. It was a sly, discreet rapport that might mean a nod during play, a shy wave on the plane back from the Vancouver loss, a smile. It all seemed so natural that we would become fast friends. Under different circumstances, we had many of the same interests and similar experiences. But it was totally frustrating; they were like people you knew well yet couldn’t talk to. You got the feeling that all you needed to do was put an English tongue in their mouths and you’d have just another one of the boys. And knowing them better as people also meant I would know them better as hockey players.
I would get my chance, though far too late to help during the Team Canada series. Doug Fisher of Hockey Canada suggested I tour the Soviet Union during the off-season to study their hockey styles and philosophies. Next time we meet, I’ll be ready. Perhaps.
Moscow was experiencing the type of summer that is expected for a city of almost eight million in the middle of a land mass. It was uncomfortably hot. Many of the younger people were at pioneer camps; their parents, satisfying the atavistic need of Soviets to get back to nature, were summering or weekending at their dachas outside of the city. But construction was everywhere and the queues seemed as long as they had in September of’72, during my previous visit. Hockey seemed far away.
But there was still much talk about the series. Gary Smith of the Canadian Embassy taught me the difference between the official response and the public one. Initially, he said, the official response predominated. What was emphasized in newspaper and magazine articles was not the high competitive quality of the series — that was expected — but the incidents that were peripheral to hockey. These would include Canadian players berating Soviet players, Canadian players arguing with referees and challenging officials. No point was made of Bobby Clarke’s puck-stealing abilities, only of his intentional injury to Valeriy Kharlamov.
A film called Hockey Versus Hockey was shown at daily matinees in the Spe-
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cial Documentary Theatre in Moscow until long after the hockey season ended. Carefully edited film footage showed the Canadian way. then the Soviet way. For instance. Team Canada coach Harry Sinden was depicted behind the bench, tie askew, animated and running, screaming, gesturing. Then the scene switched to the Soviet coach Bobrov. standing calmly beside the Soviet bench, foot up, elbow on knee, fingers stroking his chin pensively. Then to Wayne Cashman along the boards with his hair wild, snarling and with the blade of his stick in a Soviet player’s face. Then to Boris Mikhailov, determinedly making a check, calmly using his stick to cleanly sweep the puck away from the Canadian player.
The other story was the public response; the people, it seems, very much liked the series, especially the quality of play. Smith told me that throughout the winter he often came across kids playing their version of Canadian street hockey and pretending they were Phil Esposito or Henderson as often as they were Aleksandr Yakushev or Maltsev. And if you went to a league game in Moscow during the winter you would see many Soviet fans still wearing their Canadian pins and you might hear them yelling things like “That wouldn’t happen if Esposito was here” as a player flubbed an opportunity in front of the net. 1 learned that in the Soviet Union they play a march before every game, national or local, and it serves as a sort of hockey players’ anthem. Translated freely, it’s titled Cowards Don't Play Hockey and probably says more about the hockey fans’ reaction to the game than anv official version is capable of.
Yet though the people still talked about hockey, we were obviously in search of a game that had left town. The teams I had hoped to see were involved in dry-land training at the Black Sea. Fortunately, though, many of the people involved with the game had stayed, people like Viktor Khotochkin. International Secretary of the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, and our official host and interpreter. Tall (six-foot-two), thin, mid-thirties, with a bit of the Tony Perkins look to him. slightly unathletic, Viktor was nonetheless deeply involved with Soviet sports. I remember Viktor particularly for two reasons: one, that he always wore a Detroit Red Wing tie clasp (apparently a gift from Red Wing owner Bruce Norris); and two, because Viktor assumes the “consensus” opinion. He always speaks in his capacity as a federation official. Others of higher positions can afford the luxury of strongly held personal convictions which may not portray the position of the group. Viktor avoids personal opinions and instead is very candid while expressing the views of the federation.
1 asked Viktor about the 1972 series. “You know,” he said, “time heals many things. When it was first over, many people were not happy because there were too many, ah. incidents. We were very concerned about the behavior of your sportsmen and trainers [coaches]. You showed no discipline. But Bobrov went to the Stanley Cup finals and came back and told us that he had seen none of these incidents. He enjoyed the matches and he especially liked the Montreal Canadiens. He said that of all the Canadian professional ice hockey teams they played most like us. So now we think it is better to play against your club teams. Then the bosses [owners] w ill be able to control their sportsmen.”
1 also said I had been impressed with their commitment to a style of play that was decidedly their own. not Canadian at a time when Canada was recognized as by far the world’s best. And 1 asked him why they just didn’t copy our style.
“Ah,” he answered, “that w'ould be too easy. We’d be Soviets playing a Canadian way and that isn’t our nature. Now you take [Anatoli] Tarasov [who coached the national team before Bobrov], he saw all this clearly, and when we were losing all those years to Canadian amateur teams he knew w'e were doing the right thing. This is the type of man Tarasov is. He is a very hard man; he can be a bad man; but Tarasov is a smart man.
“Tarasov’s favorite sportsman is Bobby Hull, and in all his theories he used Bobby Hull as an opponent, knowing that if it worked on Hull it w'ould w'ork on the best Canada had. Tarasov once told me. ‘Viktor,’ he said, ‘let us take a Canadian team with Bobby Hull. Give Hull the puck. With his ability and strength, give him 100 points — he cannot be matched. But when Hull has the puck, his centre is only moving at 45 points, and so too his right winger. And his defensemen perhaps only 30 points each. His team totals 250 points.
“ ‘Now take our team and give [Anatoli] Firsov the puck. Firsov is good, but he is not Hull. Give him 70 points. But we play as a team, and so Firsov’s centre is not just following the play, he is involved. Give him 60 points, so too the
right w'inger. And give the defensemen 50 points each. Our total is 290 points. So you see. we can beat a team with one Bobby Hull or with many Hulls.”
And in reference to the amount of time it took the Soviets to come from obscurity to the top of hockey, Viktor again referred to a Tarasov anecdote:
“Tarasov was talking to Ludek Bukac. the Czech coach, and he asked. ‘Ludek. how many years have the Canadians played ice hockey?’ and Bukac guessed about 75. Tarasov then asked, ‘Ludek. how many years have the Soviets played ice hockey?’ and Bukac this time guessed about 25.
“‘You’re wrong. Ludek.’ said Tarasov. ‘The Soviets work 11 months a year, the Canadians seven or eight. We work three or four hours a day, the Canadians two. We work with great intensity always. the Canadians do not. You see. Ludek, we’ve played for 75 years too.’ ”
Actually. Tarasov’s mathematics notwithstanding. the Soviets have only been playing in world championships since 1954. My own first experience of watching their style of play came when I was 10 years old. It was 1957, and I was watching the television in the family living room as the Whitby Dunlops defeated the Soviet national team 7-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
In goal was Nikolai Puchkov and he was unforgettable. He played goal gymnastically and instinctively, with none of the refinements and polish that distinguish the great goaltenders from the mediocre ones. In the 1959 world championships, he astounded people by limbering up during lulls in play by putting his hands to the crossbar, bracing himself and jumping cleanly over the net, back and forth.
As it is with all former athletes, time has made all things possible — for Puchkov his shortcomings have long since melted away and are now dismissed from memory. His exploits have become legendary and in the public mind he is recalled as the best Soviet goalie ever, despite excellent modern goalies such as Tretiak and Viktor Konovolenko.
I got to know Nikolai during several days we spent in Leningrad, where he coaches the city’s Army Club which plays in the Soviet first division. He’s in his mid-forties now. though he looks at least 10 years younger. The sandybrown hair is closely cropped in a style that until recently was thought of as having an athletic neatness to it. His face bears few scars though he never used a mask in his playing days. Perhaps the ultimate damnation of Soviet shooting — at least in the past.
When I arrived at the Army Club he was on the ice. cajoling players, joking and yelling in a loud, raspy voice, the victim of too many poor defensemen
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and too many cold, damp rinks. When he saw me, he immediately came over, apologizing for his poor English. Fortunately, I had with me Ludmilla “Luda” Markina, our interpreter, and I was able to talk with Nikolai about his rise to a top coaching position in a country where it is extremely rare for old players to become coaches. And I well knew that in North America a goaltender has much less chance of running a team than do players in other positions, presumably because it is thought that goalies play too “specialized” a position to understand “real” hockey. I asked Nikolai whether the same feelings existed in the Soviet Union.
“Yes, yes,” he answered. “But not for me. I was too good a goaltender. No one would dare criticize my selection to be coach.”
He seemed most happy to hear that one of the NHL’s best coaches is Emile Francis of the New York Rangers, a former goalie.
“And is he a good coach?” Nikolai asked.
“Yes, very good.”
“It doesn't surprise me. You know, I think that goalkeepers are very intelligent men, don't you?”
I agreed, of course. (The International Goalkeepers Union is obviously very much alive and well in Leningrad.)
Puchkov says his training program differs little from those of other coaches such as Bobrov and Viacheslav Starshinov, and like them feels Tarasov works his players too hard. And like them also he uses physiologists and psychologists to periodically test individual players. This, he says, gives him a better understanding of the person he trains. One aspect of the Puchkov system that fascinated me was his insistence on rating every player in an arbitrary, threecategory system. Tactics, he uses to represent the player’s ability to understand and anticipate action; technique, for the ability to physically carry out the basics of hockey, such as skating, shooting and passing; and heart, a more abstract category, standing for Puchkov’s assessment of a player’s character and desire to win.
“Most important is what you have inside [and he pointed to his own heart]; the other things you can learn.”
Kharlamov and Esposito rated ver^ good in all categories, but Tretiak, the brilliant young goaltender, was rated surprisingly low: “Technique, good and will be better; tactics, only fair; heart, I don’t know. I think only fair.” Puchkov seemed almost apologetic for this condemnation, but when he tried to soften it by adding “Well, he’s only a boy . ..” he sounded even more damning.
Perhaps it was professional jealousy — the all-time great taking time out to rate the new star — or it could be that Puchkov was basing his opinion on
three sub-par performances in world championships. And while Puchkov would acknowledge that the young goalie played very well in the Team Canada-Soviet series, he insisted on adding that he felt Tretiak was much less effective in the last half of the eightgame series, that part played in Moscow.
“A good goalkeeper does not give up goals in close games or at the end of games,” he said. “Tretiak did both. And very often.”
We also discussed the great strides the Soviet Union had taken in hockey, allowing them to come so far in so few years. “We have not improved so much as you think,” he countered. “You see, it is your opinion of us that has changed. We always thought we were good, but it is just now you have come to realize it.
“It’s too bad, but you Canadians are just not progressive,” he continued. “You are the same all the time: very conservative, very rigid, very structured.
You still do all the things that you did
back when I was playing. Your style has only a very few things that we should use. I like the character you show when you play — very strong, very consistent, very masculine. We have worked too much on technique and tactics. We must build up our strength, since your strength hurts our style. But if we meet your strength with our strength — with our tactics and techniques, we will win.
“You know, if you Canadians had Tarasov as your coach you would never lose a game.” He paused as if in thought, then smiled and added, “No, I’ve changed my mind ... if you had Tarasov for a coach you would all go on strike.”
We talked about Canadian training methods, and I gave him a general outline of the year beginning with training camp in September and ending with the Stanley Cup play-offs in May.
“And what is your program in summer?” he asked.
“Well, that’s all up to the individual.”
“You mean you do not train as a team for three or four months?”
Puchkov just shook his head and grinned. “I guess that makes us more professional than the professionals.”
I got to know two of the better known “professionals” — Viacheslav Star-
shinov and Aleksandr Yakushev — through a meeting arranged back in Moscow' by Viktor Khotochkin, of the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation. The Spartak team was back from their dryland training and Viktor set up a lunch with the team’s player-coach. Starshinov, and star player. Yakushev.
Twenty-six-year-old Yakushev arrived first. Four weeks in the southern sun had deeply tanned his ruggedly handsome facial features. 1 guess he is the biggest of the Soviet players, but he seemed much shorter and much thinner than he appeared on ice (perhaps I remembered him as larger than life because he had scored four times on me during the series). I suppose Canadians remember him so well because they tended to see him in their own image of what a hockey player should be: big, rangy, with a hard shot, a fluid and graceful skater. While there was occasionally the suggestion that the other Soviet star of the series, Valeriy Kharlamov, was too small to withstand the rigors of a full season in the NHL, there was never any doubt that Yakushev would hold up.
Starshinov, who arrived shortly, was a player whose style belonged to a passing era of Soviet hockey. While he was a plodder, very strong, very physical, almost rough, unflamboyant, modern Russian players emphasize speed, mobility and finesse. I can remember Starshinov from the days I faced him in 1969, a player whose main merit was tireless work. He was very self-assured, and, unlike other Russians, not at all surprised by the outcome of the 1972 series. He saw no mysticism in the NHL, no magic that existed apart from the realities he had seen. If you asked Yakushev if he would like to play in the NHL he’d jump at it; if you asked Starshinov he’d say, “Why would I want to play there when we play good ice hockey in my own country?”
Nonetheless, Starshinov was very aware of the NHL. “Is Mr. Molson still the owner of the Canadiens?” he asked me. I told him no, that the team had been sold to the Bronfmans who own Seagrams' distilleries.
“Ah,” he said, “keeping it in the family I see.”
“I suppose so,” I said. “Perhaps someday the team will be sold to the Stolichnaya Vodka Company.”
“You wouldn’t want that,” he countered. “Then you’d never win.”
As tamadar (“master of the table”) Starshinov was acting as toastmaster and the salutes began to come more and more frequently. And they weren’t mere rituals, often being of considerable length, sometimes serious such as, “May the Team Canada-Soviet series be the first of many competitions between our two countries and may they be held in
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the spirit of friendship and sportsmanship.”
And sometimes sentimental: “To our wives and families who in our work we get to see so rarely.” (Little wonder, the lunch lasted from 1 p.m. to 4.45 p.m.)
There were only two choices with which to toast: straight vodka or mineral water. I, like Yakushev, chose the latter. Starshinov looked puzzled.
“I have heard much of the Canadian reputation for drinking,” he said, “and yet you drink mineral water. You know, in the Soviet Union we have a saying, ‘If you can’t drink vodka, you can’t play hockey.’ ”
Yakushev was very quiet. Whereas he had been outgoing and eager before Starshinov arrived. I now had to ask him specific questions to get even short answers. He did open up a bit about the Team Canada series, telling me how much Phil Esposito had impressed him, and he expressed great admiration for Bill White. He also asked me a question. “Why do you have so few small players on Team Canada? You have Cournoyer, Parisé and Stapleton, yes, but they are, ah, wide. They are not really small.”
I told him that NHL scouts look for the six-foot-two, 200-pound players, and often the smaller players, though very good, go unnoticed.
“But how can that be?” he continued. “I mean, then they would have missed players like Kharlamov and Mikhailov. Size does not make you strong or give you ability. I think it is better to have players of all sizes, because then you have players who can do many things well. If you have too many big players then your team is too slow. You need a variety. I think there is a place for an Esposito and a Kharlamov on any team. No — I am wrong — there is not a place, there is a need for both.”
I asked Yakushev what he did when practice was over. Both men laughed, and then Starshinov said. “He just goes home to rest.”
Yakushev, faking anger, replied, “Only some days. Other days I go to classes at the institute.” (He’s nearing completion of his degree at the Pedagogical Institute in Moscow.)
It seems all Soviet players have some form of activity that exists apart from hockey. I discussed this at one point with Alexei Flarovsky, the editor of Soviet Union Today, and he said, “In the Soviet Union a profession is very important. It gives the person a status which nothing else can give. We do not consider sports a ‘profession,’ so a sportsman must do something else.”
This is a belief carefully cultivated by the Soviet press; they nurture it perhaps as the final distinction remaining between their amateurs and our professionals. One of the funniest examples of
this occurred during the series, when Phil Esposito was widely quoted in the Russian newspapers as saying, “The Soviet team is made up of excellent sportsmen, and I can’t believe that Starshinov and [Boris] Mayorov both graduated from the Moscow Institute of Aviation and Technology.” To someone who knows Phil, this sounds vaguely contrived, to say the least.
Yet it is widely accepted by the Soviet public that this is in fact the case, even though they do realize that hockey must be very time consuming. I remember asking our Moscow guide, Irina, whether she thought most sportsmen were also students.
“Oh yes,” she answered. “But it is very difficult for them. After all. they train 13 to 15 hours a day. As students they must work so hard they become weak and pale, so it is difficult for them to then be sportsmen.”
People earnestly believe that this great commitment to time and country is justification enough for hockey players leading favored lives. The average Soviet worker earns about 130 rubles a month; a good engineer earns 180 rubles; doctors and lawyers might get 250; cosmonauts and generals receive slightly more (“because of the danger.” says Irina). Hockey players, however, (as well as such other sportsmen as gymnasts and soccer players, and also circus performers and ballet dancers), earn around 400 rubles a month, and on top of this, bonuses for victories in international tournaments.
On top of the great salaries there is also the preferential treatment. Apartments are cheap for anyone, perhaps three or four rubles for one room. And for four rooms it might only go up to six rubles — if you can get them. Hockey players can. To get a new car requires waiting for up to five years. Unless, of course, you are “special.”
But Soviet hockey players are no different from Canadian players. If players have other jobs, or study, they do so only as a pastime. Soviet sportswriters never do profiles on players that delve into their lives off the ice. Because players lead such specialized lives, there is little interaction with other groups. The people have no way of knowing anything different.
When I asked Flarovsky, the editor, why Starshinov, the graduate engineer, would stay on in hockey as a coach, the writer merely smiled, then said: “It’s really very simple. You catch a fever. Starshinov has always been very special, first as a player and now as a coach. He could never be Starshinov. ordinary engineer. I think it is the same with Canadian sportsmen, is it not?” I nodded. He smiled. “You see, we are not so different as we are alike.”
That’s all I needed to know.???