To the street-hockey player in South Philadelphia and the rink rat in Duluth, the names Kharlamov, Petrov, Mikhailov and Tretiak roll off the tongue almost as easily as Lafleur and Clarke, Trottier and Dryden. They are the veteran stars of the Soviet Union's national team, perennial champion of the amateur world, and they are currently on display at Madison Square Garden against the NHL All-Stars in the three-game Challenge Cup. It is the first such confrontation since 1972, when the NHL defeated the Soviets on Paul Henderson's goal in the final minute of the final game of an eight-game series. "We underestimated the Soviets before the last series," says one NHL official. "Now we know. If we lose this series, we might as well cancel the rest of our season and give them the Stanley Cup."
SHOWDOWN AT THE SUMMIT
Canadian hockey, which was until recently like a mystery hidden behind seven locks, has been unmasked by us. We can understand its traditions, its excessively rough nature. We have found its weak points, and I like to think that on occasion we have taken advantage of those weak points rather well.
from THE HOCKEY I LOVE
BY VLADISLAV TRETIAK
Few people doubted that the North American pros would win the 1972 NHL-U.S.S.R. series eight games to none. One Canadian columnist offered to eat his article if the Soviets so much as scored a goal. (He did, in broth.) Jacques Plante, the father of the face mask, was so concerned about young Tretiak, then 20, being thrown to the NHL wolves that before the first game he went into the Soviet locker room and counseled the goal-tender on how to play against Phil Esposito, Vic Hadfield, Frank Mahovlich et al.
Tretiak thanked Plante, then went out and allowed two goals to the NHL stars in the first seven minutes of play. The rout was on. Only it was the Soviets who did the routing. They left the Montreal Forum that night with a 7-3 win, and the hitherto prepotent world of Canadian hockey was shaken.
The NHL eventually came back to win the series 4-3-1, but the victory was strictly Pyrrhic. The seven locks had been opened, and behind the door was a sport caught with its pants down.
The Soviets had taken Canada's national pastime—hockey—and developed it into their own art form. While slap shots and curved sticks had taken the NHL in one direction, speed and team play had led the U.S.S.R. in another. The newcomers pioneered off-ice conditioning programs. They borrowed strategies from soccer, like passing the puck to an open area of the ice and letting a teammate skate it down. They shunned the spectacular but inefficient slap shot in favor of short, quick passes leading to a single high-percentage shot—making the player without the puck the most dangerous man on the ice.
And now they meet again. It is mid-season, the NHL players are in shape, the games are in an NHL rink, and two of the three contests—the first and third—will be refereed by an NHL official. In short, if the NHL loses its own Challenge Cup, no one will be listening to excuses or disclaimers. And the precious Stanley Cup will be viewed as a trinket squabbled over by also-rans.
Tretiak is 26 now, the finest goaltender in the world and one of seven holdovers from the '72 Soviet team. The exciting line of Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov and Valery Kharlamov also returns for this series and will be in the fore of the Russian attack, as it was in 1972. Kharlamov describes his personal theory of the game by saying, "I love to play beautiful hockey." And he does. A left wing, Kharlamov will line up opposite Right Wing Guy Lafleur in the opening game, and there will stand the two most brilliant players in the sport.
The Soviet system is patterned on speed, and speed goes with youth. The best of the new Soviet forwards are 20-year-old Wing Sergei Makarov and the "next" Kharlamov—Helmut Balderis, a 26-year-old right wing from Riga. Balderis, who plays for Moscow's Central Army Club, will be skating on a line with the Golikov brothers—Vladimir and Alexander—from Moscow Dynamo. Makarov will be working with Center Victor Zhluktov and Sergei Kapustin, his regular linemates on the Central Army Club—the Montreal Canadiens of Soviet hockey.
The areas the Soviets have particularly-worked to improve since 1972 are face-offs and getting their defensemen to play more offensively. Soviet defensemen no longer hesitate to shoot from the blue line. At the same time, they also are tougher around their own net; in this series NHL forwards will not be able to set up light housekeeping in front of Tretiak the way Phil Esposito did in 1972. This new breed of defenseman is best represented by 20-year-old Sergei Starikov, captain of last year's world champion Soviet Junior Selects. Starikov is fast, a punishing checker, and moves the puck out of his own zone well. He is the Soviet Larry Robinson.
There will be two keys to the series. First, the Soviet power play, led by the Kharlamov line, is so devastating that the NHL players must stay out of the penalty box. The second is more interesting. It is based on a fundamental difference in philosophy between the two teams. The Soviets believe in puck control—you cannot score if we have it. The NHL believes in territorial advantage—you cannot score from your own end.
Shooting the puck into the corners and then chasing after it, a common offensive tactic in North America where the rinks are smaller, is almost never employed by the Soviets. If the NHL can forecheck effectively, it will probably win. But the Soviets have been practicing on rinks that have had the corners rounded to more closely resemble Madison Square Garden's, where there is little room to maneuver behind the net. If the Soviets can break out of their zone consistently, their superior passing game and overall team speed may prove too much for the NHL to handle.
This would leave the NHL to ponder the road it has chosen and the words that Tretiak wrote in his autobiography: "The games with the professionals, regardless of the cost, are undoubtably good for hockey...[which] like every other living thing, can develop only through struggle."