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."
"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.