Tretiak's Olympic intrigue, best first-passers, more notes

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Vladislav Tretiak might be the Olympic hockey general manager who is coming in from the cold.

Tretiak, president of the Russian ice hockey federation, was named Monday as his country's GM for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. While this clearly is an upgrade over Pavel Bure in Turin 2006 -- at the time, we noted that Bure was known as the Russian Rocket and not the Russian Rocket Scientist -- Team Russia still would have been better served by tapping into one of the great hockey brains: Igor Larionov, The Professor, who has a superior handle on the NHL players who will represent Russia. As an added fillip, Larionov, who played in Vancouver, is revered in that city, but then Tretiak has been worshipped in Canada pretty much since the 1972 Summit Series.

On one of those Red Army tours in the early 1980s, Tretiak shut out the Montreal Canadiens and received perhaps the longest standing ovation at the Forum afforded a player not named Maurice Richard or Guy Lafleur. (The Canadiens would later draft Tretiak although he retired before ever having the chance to play in the NHL. In 1989, he became the first Russian elected to the Toronto-based Hockey Hall of Fame.) The goalie has been embraced as an honorary Canadian, which gets us to the point.

A former member of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and a Montreal journalist who covers about security issues write in a new book that CSIS suspected Tretiak of recruiting Russian sympathizers in Canada to provide intelligence during his frequent visits to the country in the 1990s.

This isn't as sexy as the revelations that figure skater Katarina Witt was obliged to cooperate with Stasi, the East German spy agency, but odds are excellent that next February the man who has was the Order of Lenin will be asked about the authors' contention before he is asked about the power play.

(The second question for the three-time Olympic gold medal champion: why did coach Viktor Tikhonov take you out after the first period of the Miracle on Ice game in 1980?)

Even if Andrei Markov is unavailable -- the Canadiens defenseman suffered a torn tendon in his opening game -- Russia looms as one of the pre-tournament favorites in Vancouver, along with the host nation. Russia has beaten Canada in the past two world championships, including in Quebec City in 2008, and seems to have put aside the squabbling that has routinely torn apart its teams. Led by the irrepressible Alex Ovechkin, the Russians no longer seem to need more than one puck on the ice at a time to keep everyone satisfied. Its defense is not as deep as Canada's, but no country has more high-end forwards.

Five of the top seven NHL, through Monday, were Europeans. Last season Europeans finished 1-2 (Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin) in scoring, and there were four Russians in the top 10 at a time when fewer are leaving that country to play in the NHL. Given the importance of the European players in the NHL, how long before another European head coach takes over behind the bench?

Pittsburgh assistant GM Jason Botterill doesn't see it in the immediate or mid-term future. And the failures of the only two Europeans who have held that job -- Alpo Suhonen in Chicago (2000-01) and Ivan Hlinka in Pittsburgh (2000-01 and part of the next season) -- have little relevance to current NHL thinking.

"What you are seeing, I think, is the great communication skills of some of the younger coaches in the league," says Botterill, mentioning the Penguins' Dan Bylsma and Minnesota's Todd Richards. "With the league getting younger, I think they really know how to relate (to players). Plus, there is a wealth of talent now coaching in the AHL."

There is, however, a new European coach in the league this season: Capitals goalie coach Arturs Irbe, a citizen of the world who happens to be Latvian. With Semyon Varlamov, the goalie that was named later, in Washington's rotation, GM George McPhee brought in Irbe to communicate with his rookie in the goalie's language.

The standard question from hockey players when they are being interviewed for an SI story: "Am I going to be on the cover?"

The standard answer from On The Fly: "Maybe, as soon as you learn to throw a tight spiral."

This is football season in Pigskin Nation, and the odds of the late Sid Gilman making the cover in October are only slightly worse than the odds of the very-much-alive Sidney Crosby ending up on it. (For those who keep track of these things, the last time the Stanley Cup appeared on the cover of SI was Raymond Bourque's win with Colorado in 2001. Since then there have been three national SI hockey covers: the Red Wings for the 2001-02 season preview, the death of a young fan in Columbus, and the Hanson Brothers in a Where Are They Now? issue.)

Anyway, our standard flip answer about tight spirals got us thinking about passes. Sure, praise is ladled out to some of the leading assist men in the game, invariably centers such as San Jose's Joe Thornton and Boston's Marc Savard, but what about the men who make the dazzling first pass?

With the focus for defensemen on hits, blocked shots and yes, points, the first pass -- smartly clearing the zone and starting an attack -- is the least appreciated art in the sport.

"If your (defenseman) isn't making that first pass, putting the puck on the tape," says Flyers' fourth-liner Ian Laperrière, "then your team is going to be chasing the puck all night. A good first pass makes a huge difference."

"If the first pass is bad, in a guy's skates or whatever, the chances are the second one will be, too," adds Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. "The third one is probably just turning the puck over."

In compiling a list of the defensemen who make the best first pass in the game, it is no shock that they generally are the top blueliners. Indeed, perhaps the only elite defenseman not noted for a superb first pass is Calgary's Dion Phaneuf, who often skates the puck out of the zone instead of moving it or hangs onto it a little too long and dishes it when his forward is covered.

Pronger is on the list. "Prongs never makes a pass that puts a forward in trouble, and it's always a laser on the stick," says the Flames' Craig Conroy, a former teammate in St. Louis.

The first pass is really an exercise in applied mathematics. "You've got to be aware of the defenders around the guy you want to pass it to, how he opens his blade for the pass, how quickly he's skating, where the puck needs to be," Pronger says. "Really, it's just like a quarterback."

So without hope of a cover, here's a working list (in no particular order) of the best first-passers in the NHL:

Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Pronger, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, Washington's Mike Green (yes, despite his fabulous wheels and impulse to skate the puck, he threads some terrific passes), Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen, Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar, Detroit's Brian Rafalski and Montreal's Markov. Until he returned home to play in the KHL this season, ex-Dallas blueliner Sergei Zubov might have topped the list.

Goalie Vesa Toskala has a 5.56 goals-against average and subterranean save percentage of .812 for the winless Maple Leafs, which makes him an easy (and legitimate) target. But Toronto's defensive woes extend way beyond the feckless Toskala to include a pair of high-end defensemen signed as free agents: Mike Komisarek (a penalty-taking machine) and François Beuachemin (minus five).

What do the two have in common, other than -- at the moment -- indifferent play?

Well, Komisarek played with Markov in Montreal and Beauchemin played with Niedermayer in Anaheim -- brilliant defensemen who took the pressure off their partners and camouflaged their shortcomings. True, Toronto signed two first-pair blueliners, but got the B-side.

My mistake: Last week On the Fly congratulated the Minnesota Wild on ending their dopey captaincy rotation and awarding the C to Mikko Koivu on a permanent basis. The Wild, in fact, has not done this.

Their mistake: The Wild has yet to hand the C to Koivu permanently.