SI Vault
Mark Mulvoy
October 02, 1972
Russia, that is, where three million play the game and where the best whipped Team Canada—then lost a thriller
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October 02, 1972

So The Canadians Go To Hockeyland

Russia, that is, where three million play the game and where the best whipped Team Canada—then lost a thriller

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They were equally dumfounded when they saw the Canadian players smoking cigars, cigarettes and Tiparillos, playing tricks on one another during practice sessions on the ice and relaxing afterward with a beer or two. "They don't understand our habits, and we don't understand theirs," said Phil Esposito. "That's what makes the world go round."

While in Moscow the Canadians also were subjected to a good deal of bragging by the Russians, who have, among other things, a government Department of Sports Propaganda. The Russians were still gloating over the remarkable showing of the Communist bloc at Munich. As every Canadian read or heard several times, the athletes of 11 Socialist countries accounted for only 10% of all participants in the Olympic Games, yet won 285 medals—47.5%. Said Vitaly Smirnov, first deputy chairman of the Soviet Committee for Physical Culture and Sport: "The attempts to ascribe the success of athletes from the Socialist countries to alleged special properties of the Socialist systems are unconvincing. There are no secrets, as sport in the Socialist countries has become extremely popular. The success of the Soviet teams is based on the solid foundation of participation of millions in sports activities in the U.S.S.R."

Take hockey, as a not so idle example. The Russians estimate they have 600,000 senior amateur players and more than three million youngsters registered in various hockey programs. "I cannot give an exact figure on the kids," said Kirill Romensky of the Soviet Ice Hockey Department, "because it is difficult to keep track. In Siberia, you know, they start to skate the minute they get out of the napkin." Maybe so, but for Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who seems to be a model product of the Soviet sports system, active participation in athletics did not really begin until he reached the ripe old age of 7.

Like all Russian youths, Tretiak, who was born in Moscow 20 years ago, began to attend state-sponsored sports classes when he turned 7. For the next three years he worked at many sports—hockey, volleyball, basketball, soccer, ski jumping, gymnastics, tennis—and began to develop his physique under the watchful eyes of special physical training instructors, all graduates of physical culture institutes. Besides teaching Tretiak the strict, state-approved method of, say, shooting free throws, these instructors also tested his mental and psychological qualities. Their appraisals were then forwarded to the Committee for Sports and Moscow's Physical Culture Research Institute for official examination. Tretiak obviously possessed the traits of the perfect goaltender, so at the age of 11 he was given some armor and told to become the next Jacques Plante. At this point he was separated from the majority of young Russians and placed in a junior sports school at the Central Army Club in Moscow. There are only three standard indoor rinks in Moscow, including the Army Club arena, and only selected youths such as Tretiak ever get to play on them. The club is one of the top training grounds for Russia's best athletes, and it makes the average YMCA or high school sports complex look like a one-hole golf course.

Among other facilities, the Central Army Club has large separate buildings for hockey, tennis, weight lifting, swimming, gymnastics and basketball, as well as a 7,000-seat soccer stadium. Between the buildings are outdoor basketball courts, volleyball grounds and mini-sized soccer fields. In the hockey building there also is a special rink strictly for figure skaters, and one day last week two dozen teen-aged Russian girls spent hour after hour practicing their splits under the steely supervision of a coach.

In time Tretiak proved to be the best young goaltender in the country. When he turned 15 he came under the tutelage of Anatoly Tarasov, the innovative head coach of the Central Army Club and Russia's foremost hockey expert. He was coach of the national team until he had a falling out with his superiors over his request for a pay raise after Russia won another gold medal last February at Sapporo. Tarasov spent hours every day with Tretiak, drilling him on the finer points of goaltending as he himself had learned them from the Canadians.

Tretiak was now a member of Russia's young elite, someone who would not be spending the rest of his days manning a lathe in Minsk. One of the attractions of sport in Russia is that it is the fastest way out of gray-black anonymity and into the world of wash-and-wear shirts, automobiles and large apartments—not to mention those midnight-blue, double-breasted blazers with hammer and sickle patches on the breast and those royal blue sweat suits with two thin stripes down the side Russian athletes seem to wear everywhere they go.

Appreciating what goaltending excellence could mean to him, Tretiak continued to improve, and in 1970 Tarasov considered him ready not only for the Central Army Club's team in Russia's major hockey league but also for the national team in world competition.

However, since the Russians insist that their players are unpaid amateurs—jobless people in the U.S.S.R. may be arrested on a charge of parisitism—Tretiak had to find permanent employment. No problem. He was made a lieutenant in the Soviet Army and assigned the task of developing, well, another Tretiak. As a lieutenant-goaltender his salary is about 400 rubles ($488) a month, or roughly the same as a general's. But Tretiak, like the other Soviet hockey players, also earns sizable bonuses for outstanding athletic accomplishments such as winning Olympic gold medals and victories over Canada. His bonus for the Canada- Russia series reportedly might be some 2,000 rubles. As a result Tretiak can well afford to buy the new cars and live in the big apartments that are unavailable to 99.9% of the Russians in his age group.

One day a group of Canadians was kidding Tretiak about all the money he makes, and Alan Eagleson, who is Bobby Orr's lawyer, thought to ask Tretiak if he would like to attend Orr's hockey school in Orillia, Ontario next summer. As an instructor, of course, not a student. "You pay to bring my wife, too?" Tretiak asked. "Sure," Eagleson answered. "Boy, you're becoming quite a pro already. Next you'll want to know about the pension plan." Tretiak laughed as the interpreter relayed Eagleson's remarks. "Da, da" he said, nodding his head.

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