When Vladislav Tretiak lit the Olympic Flame in Sochi Russia on Friday, I was struck with a flashback to September 2nd, 1972 and to some memorable moments Vlad and I spent together.
Where were you on September 2nd, 1972? If you’re a Canadian, you probably remember. Many people remember where they were when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 or on the day that John Kennedy was assassinated. But That day was the beginning of a new era in the Hockey World.
Personally, there are several important dates for me that year. The Atlanta Flames selected me as their first pick in the NHL expansion draft on June 6. Only a few weeks later, on July 22nd, I was married to Nicole, my wife of 41 years. In September, we were preparing our move to Atlanta to begin a new life and a new career with the Flames where I played for 6 years.
In the midst of these important events, was the Summit Series between Canada (made up of NHL players) and the Soviet Union (basically the Red Army team). Game one was to be held in the Montreal Forum on, you guessed it, September 2nd.
I remember that day vividly. It was an unusually hot late summer day but hockey was on the mind of most Canadians. It wasn’t just another series. It was a competition, a war between two different cultures. There were so many myths floating around about Russia, their hockey and their politics.
The headlines centered on how poor the goaltending was for the Soviets. The scouting report was that our NHL Canadian players would be able to score at will. Their goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, wore #20 which was an anomaly in itself based on our exclusive little world then.
I arrived at the forum early so that I could watch the warm up. I wanted to see and evaluate for myself. I was able to watch from up close and the first thing I noticed was how the Russian players were always shooting high with quick, hard, accurate wrist shots (Only a goalie would notice that) and how well they skated. They seemed to all skate with the same smooth stride and handled the puck extremely well. Their drills were regimented, very fluid with constant movement. I was amazed how quick Tretiak was and how competitive he was.
The forum quickly filled up to capacity with 18,818 confident, patriotic fans, many wearing the Red and White. This would be the chance for our Canadian Heroes to finally display their superiority to the world.
The game started as predicted. Canada took the lead in the first minute. Already, many Canadian fans had visions of a rout. When Canada scored again to make it 2-0, you could see the pride and a certain self-satisfaction that WE, Canadians, the NHL, had the best hockey players in the world and that finally, it was going to be proven.
Yes, it was a hot night in Montreal and inside the Forum; it was very hot and humid. But the heat was no match to the cold reaction and the frigid disappointment felt by the fans when the Soviets rallied and won the game 7-3.
Tretiak recovered after giving up the first two goals. He faced 30 shots and many of his saves were spectacular. There was no more doubt that goaltending was not the Soviet’s weakness and I became a big fan. I loved his technique and his sometimes acrobatic style.
The series was one of the most memorable in international competition with Canada prevailing in the final minutes of the eighth game when Paul Henderson scored his historical goal. It was a great victory for Canada but it was also a victory for the Soviets and European Hockey who proved that they could also play OUR great sport and be competitive.
I met Vlad several years later when I volunteered to work with him at the Tretiak’s Goalie School at the “4 Glaces Arena” in Longueuil. He didn’t speak much English then. He had to have an interpreter with him at all times. We had a great time working together during the day and socializing at night, often making appearances set up by Leo Bourgault who had arranged for Vlad to work his school. We bonded to the point where we didn’t really need the interpreter, especially when we talked about goalies and after a couple of Vodkas…
Vlad is a massive man with great strength and balance. More importantly, he has a great personality combined with a vivid sense of humor and a strong sense of accomplishment. His charisma is magnetizing. People are attracted to him and want to hear what he has to say. I learned Russian words like “Rabota” which means “Work”. He used to yell out “Rabota, Rabota” to the kids encouraging them to work hard. He would tease me by calling me “Starre Vratar” …”Old Goalie” …emphasizing that I was 4 years his elder.
We later worked together with the Chicago Blackhawks and each time we meet is very special. I keep found memories of him and his family.
Vlad never played in the NHL although the Montreal Canadiens tried to convince to play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have been an NHL star.
Tretiak is now the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia and was the general manager of the Russian 2010 Winter Olympic team. His status in Russia can be compared to that of Wayne Gretzky in Canada. He is recognized and idolized wherever he goes. He is still a STAR and I will always consider him a friend.
HAVE A GREAT HOCKEY DAY!