Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tretiak: The Legend

I've wanted to read this book by Tretiak for a long time, and was particularly interested in getting a Soviet perspective on Canadian hockey. However, the English version of this book appeared in 1987 when the Soviet Union was still intact, so in many places the book reads like propaganda. Advice given by coaches is often trite or couched in language that reeks of ideology.

When the Soviet team fell behind in a game against the Canadiens, "the coaches suggested that our players skate faster and be more accurate with their passing."

In another game they said, "Lock up your opponents in their zone, force the goalie to make mistakes, fool the defensemen, and most importantly, show your character."

I assume the book was vetted by Soviet censors, making it impossible to know how accurately it reflects Tretiak's views. I have no doubt he is patriotic, so it is possible his words are genuine.

After retiring, he became a political worker with the Central Red Army Sports Club. And though he dismisses as "ridiculous" the suggestion that Soviet athletes were engaged in subversive indoctrination, he also says:

Athletes are, in fact, on the main line of the ideological fight of two social systems. Our athletes have to prove constantly that they are not only the strongest and most talented, but, more importantly, they must let the world know that behind them is the strength of Communist ideals, the all-triumphant truth of Soviet morality.

Hockey Thuggery

A number of Tretiak's complaints while playing in North America are similar to those made by Dryden, Esposito, and others while in Moscow during the 1972 Summit Series -- complaints about food, officiating, and accommodation. But Tretiak's harshest words are reserved for the "gladiator psychology" of NHLers.

The dirty tricks, punches, threats to the referees, and after-the-whistle hits were all tactics that the Canadians demonstrated without any trace of shame. They employ their tested weapon -- dishonest, dirty hockey. [They have] malicious, twisted faces, foaming at the mouth.

Tretiak overstates his case, but there is some truth in what he says. In The Game, Ken Dryden provides a careful analysis of the differences between the Russian and the Canadian styles. Because Russian hockey developed differently, it was able to avoid the limitations of the North American game, where (Dryden says) "violence had been allowed to make sense."


Tretiak has many gracious things to say about us. He's particularly complimentary about Bobby Hull: "The legends about him are told for a reason. What a shot!"

Gerry Cheevers is "fearless, skillful and calm."

Bobby Clarke: "To look at him, you'd swear that Bobby was a wanted murderer, but once you got to know him, you realized what a very friendly and kind fellow he was."

Phil Esposito: "...his superb ability to control the puck, his powerful game in front of the net, and his astounding intuition were, as always, distinct Esposito trademarks."

He refers to the Montreal Forum as "a great hockey citadel" and suggests that Russians "could learn from the Canadiens everything that concerns respect for fans and players."


Tretiak, like all the Russians, did an incredible amount of dryland training. This included having someone hit tennis balls at him with a racket. During games he watched the eyes of incoming players so intently that he was accused of hypnotizing them.

Before the first game of the Summit Series, Jacques Plante made a surprise visit to give him tips on how to play the Canadian forwards.

He was fascinated by Gerry Cheevers, who smoked a cigar before games, and had a clause in his contract permitting him to drink beer between periods.

He addresses Ken Dryden directly, responding to comments made in Dryden's first book, Face-Off at the Summit. "You're right, Ken. We all had the same feelings..."

The Stanley Cup: "a huge, paunchy, glittering trophy that looks like a Russian samovar."


"Vladik" retired in 1984, stating that he never wanted to play in the NHL. "It wouldn't suit me, as an officer and Soviet citizen..." This may or may not be the truth.

The Wikipedia entry on him indicates he may have retired because he was not allowed to go to the NHL, and also because he no longer wanted to play for Tikhonov. It was Tikhonov who pulled Tretiak during an Olympic match against the Americans in Lake Placid (the "Miracle on Ice"), after Tretiak had let in a weak goal at the end of the first period.

In 1987 there was a reunion of the Summit Series players. Tretiak writes:

Now there was no trace of the old antagonism. We had become wise and kind. We looked at one another's aging faces and couldn't hold back the laughter, thinking about what bullies we had been in 1972.

Tretiak is one of the most admired and respected hockey players in the world. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.

The following year he became the goaltending coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. Among those he tutored are Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, and Dominic Hasek. Any goalie wearing number 20 does so as a tribute to Tretiak.

In 2006 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Governor General.

He runs the Vladislav Tretiak Elite School of Goaltending in Toronto.

The translation is by Sam and Maria Budman.