Vladislav Tretiak, the incomparable Soviet goaltender, looked frustrated. He twisted his mouth and cocked his head, genuinely upset at the question I'd asked. Some months earlier, Wayne Gretzky, who had visited Tretiak in Moscow in the summer of '82, had told me that Tretiak's desire was to play in the 1984 Olympics and, afterward, to get permission from the Soviet government to play in the National Hockey League. Tretiak had asked Gretzky if he, Tretiak, might make as much money as Denis Potvin, the New York Islanders' All-Star defenseman whose annual salary is approximately $350,000 Gretzky said he thought so Now standing alone beside Tretiak outside the Moscow apartment building in which he lives with his wife and two children I had just repeated all this and then asked if the story were true When Tretiak finished nine through his series of faces he said impatiently in Russian "I told you I cannot dispose myself as I wish."
That was the second time he had chosen to use that phrase, and his eyes asked me why I could not understand such a simple answer.
Some people were coming now, led by the sharp-eyed Vladimir Nosenko, an official with the international sports relations department of Tretiak's team, the Central Army Club. It was early March in Moscow, and a light snow had begun to fall. Tretiak took Nosenko by the arm as we entered the apartment building. Tretiak glanced at me, then murmured to his countryman, "Do not leave me alone with him again."
I had been warned not to ask Tretiak about his playing hockey for an NHL team. Two hours earlier, as we watched the Central Army Club practice, Nosenko had said, "Do not ask him about playing for the Montreal Canadiens. If you ask, he will walk out. Two West German journalists were here yesterday, and according to them and the Canadian papers, it is common knowledge that Tretiak will play for Montreal. Vladik says he never said that. He says the Central Army Club is his team for as long as he can play for them."
November 14, 1983
"How long will that be?" I asked.
"He told another journalist that this year's world championship might be his last."
Might be. Tretiak never looked better than he did in the 1983 world championship in Munich last spring, allowing just four goals in seven games as the Soviet Union coasted to its 19th title. When he skates into the goal crease for the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Tretiak will become the first Soviet hockey player to appear in four Winter Olympics. He is still, at 31, the best goaltender not only in the U.S.S.R. but also in the world, and when he retires, an era will end—not just for the Soviets, but for the sport itself. Tretiak belongs to the sport—not just to a team or to a nation—and is as respected in Montreal as he is in Moscow. A generation of hockey fans will never forget the things he has done in the nets.
The rumors that Tretiak would seek to join the Canadiens, who did, in fact, draft him last June, began on New Year's Eve, 1982, in the midst of the Soviet National Team's most recent tour of NHL cities. Tretiak had shut out the Quebec Nordiques and the Canadiens, two of the league's most explosive teams, in back-to-back games. After his team was beaten 5-0 on New Year's Eve, Montreal Forward Mats Naslund said, "I have never played on a team that had such a good game and didn't score a goal." It was familiar praise for Tretiak, who always seemed to save his greatest performances for the Montreal Forum: the 7-3 Soviet upset of an NHL All-Star team in the opening game of the 1972 Summit Series, the 3-3 New Year's Eve classic in 1975 and the 8-1 final of the 1981 Canada Cup, to cite three. When Tretiak was named the first star of that 5-0 game, the Montreal fans gave him a standing ovation that lasted four minutes. Twice Tretiak was forced to skate out from his line of red-sweatered teammates and wave to the crowd. It was an astonishing reception, surely the warmest ever accorded a Soviet athlete on this continent.
Canadian reporters asked Tretiak if he would like to play for Montreal should the Soviet ice hockey federation give him permission. Through an interpreter Tretiak said. "I would Ute that because the Canadiens are very much like my team, the Army Club, in being many times champions. Also, it would be nice to play before such a great crowd." A photographer snapped a picture of Tretiak holding the No. 29 jersey formerly worn by Canadien Goalie Ken Dryden, and it appeared on the front page of a Montreal tabloid. When Tretiak returned to the Soviet Union, he found himself in hot water with the authorities. Besides being a national sports hero, Tretiak is a member of the Central Committee of the Young Communist League a rare distinction. As for his wanting to play hockey in Montreal Tretiak denied ever saving such a thing, claiming he'd been misrepresented by the Western press.
Thus, Tretiak was somewhat suspicious of my intentions when we met at his team's training facility, a drab, unpretentious building within the Army Club's athletic complex on Moscow's Northwest side. The interior is appealing, well lit and simple. A slogan painted in red Cyrillic letters on one wall translates as: OUR SUCCESSES IN WORK AND SPORT TO OUR MOTHERLAND AND THE PARTY. Figure skaters practiced in the adjacent rink. They, too, are members of the Army Club's sports program, which includes more than 5,000 athletes from age five on up.
The hockey practice, just completed, had not been the mechanical, regimented affair that the Soviet version of the sport is misconceived as being. The Army Club had held an intrasquad scrimmage that was essentially unsupervised. Coach Viktor Tikhonov seldom blew his whistle. There had been no closing windsprints, no unusual drills.
When the practice ended, Tretiak, who's 6'1" and 207 pounds, skated over to do an interview with a Russian television crew. When asked about the remarkable success of the Central Army Club, which had recently clinched its 26th Soviet major league title, Tretiak answered with conviction. "Hard labor, discipline and mutual understanding between the players," he said. "This is the secret. All our working time is devoted to honest labor." Tretiak failed to mention the most important secret of all, however—superior personnel. The Central Army Club, which started this season by winning its first 16 games in its 12-team league, has the pick of all the best young hockey players in the Soviet military, which is to say the entire country since all 18-year-olds must serve in the armed forces. If a young recruit proves talented enough to make the team he is invited to become a lieutenant in the army and make the military his career. It is an offer that few refuse.
When Tretiak came out of the locker room, we shook hands. His eyes were clear and his smile direct. We talked briefly about the practice, then I asked him, through a translator, about his future. He seemed anxious to set the record straight. "I am a member of the Central Army team," he said. "As long as I am playing, I will play for the Central Army team. Next month will be my 14th world championship, and right now that is enough to worry about. Next year will be the Olympics, in which no other Soviet hockey player has played four times. This is very important to me.After that, I will see how I feel I am 20 years playing hockey and I don't want to play badly. Also I am a military man. I am a major in the army. I cannot dispose of myself as I wish."
Twenty minutes later, on the sidewalk outside his apartment building, the snow beginning to collect on his muskrat hat and Nosenko striding purposefully toward us, he would repeat that cryptic yet trenchant phrase to me. It seemed a remarkable confession coming from a man of Tretiak's stature.
The apartment building is built of cinder blocks, eight stories high, dating from the early '60s. Tretiak's manner changed instantly upon entering his home: He became relaxed, proud and polite, whereas before, he had been suspicious and reserved. Tatiana, his wife, blonde, blue-eyed and handsome, greeted us at the door and immediately brought out pairs of tapochi, slippers customarily offered by hosts when you enter a home. As we entered the apartment, Tretiak's son, 10-year-old Dimka, and daughter 6-year-old Irina, peered out from behind the wall that set off the kitchen.
The apartment was smaller than I thought it would be. There were two bedrooms, the kitchen, a modest living room and a hallway dominated by a huge bookcase that doubled as a trophy case. Tretiak began a tour of the premises by showing his medals, which were stacked on top of one another like playing cards. There were the two Olympic gold medals, 1972 and 1976; the silver from 1980; the world championship medals. There was the prestigious Order of Lenin medallion, the highest civilian honor awarded in the Soviet Union. Tretiak is the third hockey player to have received it, preceded by Vsevolod Bobrov and Boris Mikhailov.
The trophy collection extended into the kitchen, in which two hand-painted goalie sticks were hanging above the refrigerator. They were Golden Stick awards, bestowed upon the best hockey player in Europe. Tretiak had been so honored in 1981 and '82. In the children's room were still more awards and mementos—a soapstone Eskimo for being Most Valuable Player in the 1981 Canada Cup, a pewter statuette of a hockey player for Best Goalie in Moscow's Izvestia Cup tournament, a Montreal Canadiens pennant glittering with hundreds of commemorative pins from his travels in Europe and North America. An Oriental-style rug was hanging on one of the walls, and in its center a saber and a shotgun were crossed below the armor of a miniature knight. On the shotgun was engraved: "To the youngest Olympic champion"—a gift to Tretiak in 1972 from the factory workers who made it.
In the living room Tretiak opened his well-stocked bar and poured out generous shots of vodka. "Vahsheh zduhrawv'eh! [Your health!]" he toasted, drinking his down in one easy gulp. The Tretiaks live in comfort because their income is high, although Tatiana, a former Russian literature teacher, no longer works. Central Army Club players are paid a salary of $300 to $400 a month—twice what the average citizen makes—and they also receive bonuses for winning a world championship, an Olympic gold and the like. Tretiak drives a new Volga, not the cheaper, more common Lada, and the family can also do its shopping at stores that are restricted to a select few and that offer meat, dairy supplies, clothing and other staples usually in short supply. Tatiana also showed us Polaroid pictures of the Tretiaks' dacha outside the city, a spacious and elegant two-story summer house.
Tretiak turned on his color television set by remote control. A hockey game was on, the battle for second place in his league between Dynamo and Spartak, and he watched with one eye while we talked. A goal was scored on Vladimir Myshkin, the Dynamo goalie, a long clear shot from the blue line. Myshkin is Tretiak's backup on the National Team, and Tretiak broke a thought off in midsentence. "There's no way he should have allowed that goal," he said, unable to hide the condescension in his tone.
One of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history—the hockey gold medal in the 1980 Games at Lake Placid—might never have occurred were it not for Myshkin. Mention of the 1980 Olympics still makes Tretiak visibly uncomfortable. In the pivotal U.S.U.S.S.R. game, Tretiak started in goal and played the first period. He made a mistake in the closing seconds, leaving the rebound of a shot from beyond center ice lying in front, where Mark Johnson was able to sweep in, pick it up and tie the game at 2-2. Such things happen, even to the best. Nonetheless, Coach Tikhonov reacted by replacing Tretiak with Myshkin for the last two periods. Myshkin, who faced only eight shots all game, allowed the tying and winning goals in the third period, and neither of them could be described as unstoppable. The U.S. won 4-3.
Tretiak bristled at the memory. "This was unjustifiable to take me out of the game," he said. "I felt fine. I was playing well but not spectacularly. The coach panicked. If I had been able to stay on, who knows what the outcome would have been? In the most difficult moments, I will always help the team, and the team believes in me. I will remember this the rest of my life. For me, this was a catastrophe."
But, Tretiak was also gracious. "I liked the U.S. team," he said. "They gave it their all. It was a very dynamic team, and sometimes sport is a matter of luck. Our fans regarded it as a defeat for us to win the silver medal, but it's very hard to be always first. When we landed back here afterward, we didn't want to leave the plane. But that's the way fans are everywhere." I asked if the political climate at the time was distracting, and he scoffed. "Sport is not politics," Tretiak says. "We always play the game. We were convinced we would win when we went to Lake Placid, but while you should have confidence you should never be excessive in self-confidence."
Soon Tretiak was talking about the visit Gretzky had made to the Soviet-Union the previous summer. Gretzky was there to collaborate with Tretiak on an instructional hockey film, and he had come to the apartment. "I sat here." Tretiak said, motioning to his seat. "And Wayne sat here." He pointed to an empty chair with childlike pleasure. "How much money does he make now? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know. I have seen him promoting everything. I have seen him promoting umbrellas In Montreal you know so many agents came to ask to represent me I had to smile so much my cheeks hurt They recognize me on every corner in Montreal Four policemen had to guard me Seventeen thousand people came to watch us practice and after our game they gave me applause that lasted 10 minutes I did not know how to behave Four times I had to skate out of the circle."
Tretiak could be forgiven his exaggerations. He was justifiably proud of his popularity in Canada. And while his skills are appreciated, by now countless NHL-ophiles have tired of the league losing to the Soviets and hope he'll retire soon. Always, it seems, Tretiak has been the difference. During the last tour, for example, the Soviets were 4-0 with two shutouts when Tretiak played goal. With Myshkin in goal, the Russians were 0-2.
Technically, what sets Tretiak apart from other goalies is his skating ability—the single most important facet to goaltending. He flows about the crease seamlessly. "A goalie must be a virtuoso on skates," Tretiak wrote in his autobiography. The Hockey I Love. "He does not stand in the crease, he plays in the crease." Tretiak's superior skating enables him to cut down angles a fraction more quickly, to set himself for a rebound the moment the first shot is stopped. And when he does leave his feet, Tretiak recovers almost instantaneously. He never seems out of control. It is not, however, technical matters that define greatness in goaltending—it's the intangibles Tretiak has a sort of genius for his position a love of the game an unwillingness to fail and the absolute conviction that he is a better man than the shooter he is facing There is something almost regal about great goalies on great teams—Dryden comes to mind—an air of dominion that starts at the crease and emanates outward.
Tretiak is not the product of a superior Russian system; there are not dozens like him waiting to appear on the scene. There is not even an heir apparent. His greatness is individual and irreplaceable. Tretiak became a goalie in the first place not as a result of an exhaustive Soviet talent hunt. He was simply an 11-year-old kid who wanted a hockey uniform.
Tretiak's mother was a physical education teacher at the Central Army Sports Club, and one day Tretiak tagged along to her swim class. While he was there, he saw some youngsters in new hockey uniforms, and that night he said to his mother, "I want to have a hockey uniform, too."
The next day the club was holding a hockey tryout for boys Tretiak's age, and there were 20 entrants for each available spot. Tretiak, a fine natural athlete, was one of those selected. He played forward. More than a month went by, and still Tretiak didn't have his hockey uniform. There weren't enough to go around. So he went to his coach, Vitali Yerfilov, and made a bargain. There was still no goalie on the team, and Tretiak said, "If you give me a real uniform, I'll be the goalie."
"Aren't you afraid?" Yerfilov asked.
"What is there to be afraid of?" wondered the boy, more naive than brave.
After Tretiak had told this story, he spotted Irina peeking her head around the corner of the living room. He called her over. She ran to him and sat on his lap. Tretiak sniffed at his daughter's neck.
"Irina, who gave you that perfume?"
The child let loose a peal of delighted laughter. "Gretzky!" she squealed.
Tretiak laughed. "My daughter was born the 29th of December," he said, "and the New Year's Eve celebration is the biggest holiday in my country. I have never been home on Irina's birthday, and I have not spent New Year's with my family in 15 years."
He was speaking matter-of-factly, without regret. But the implication was clear. Should he leave the game after the 1984 Olympics, it will not be because of pressure from below. "I feel I play equally now as anytime I have before," he said. "Rich experience makes up for the physical reflexes I have lost. When I was young, I worked with greater psychological and physical effort, but now it is almost instinct knowing where a player will shoot on me."
On the TV, Myshkin gave up another goal on a rebound. "That is a typical Canadian play," Tretiak said. "That is perhaps what has influenced our game the most from our many series with the Canadians. Rebound plays. You know, they must have revised their attitude over there, too. I can remember when we first played the Canadian professionals, they would take shots from the red line. Now they know they can't score from there I think we have learned from each other."
When Tretiak does retire from hockey, he will have more options open to him than most Soviet athletes because of his affiliation with the Communist Party. He spoke of his duties with enthusiasm. Because hockey is Russia's most popular winter sport, Tretiak is a powerful mouthpiece for the Party and a role model for millions of his young countrymen. In light of this, it is almost inconceivable that Soviet authorities would allow Tretiak to finish his career in Montreal although they have recently allowed other Russian hockey players to do just that in Japan Austria and Finland. In Tretiak they have too much to lose.
My life is not mine to dispose of as I wish. When I first heard Tretiak say that, I thought he meant he was trapped. I was confusing politics with something bigger. He meant, I believe, that he now belongs to the Russian people. That gives him tremendous pride and strength and makes whatever sacrifices might be involved in abandoning his dream to play in the NHL—the dream he had shared with Gretzky two years before—seem insignificant.
Before we left his apartment, he pulled the cork on a 15-year-old bottle of cognac and poured it into fresh glasses until they were brimming full. He raised his glass and smiled. "This much is important," he said. "I am a patriot."
Then he toasted our health and drank the cognac down.