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.