Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hockey Player of the Week: Vladislav Tretiak

This week's Hockey Player was the first non-NHLer to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is one of the winningest players in international hockey, and first came to prominence as a 19 year old in the famous 72 Summit Series. If I had to pick the greatest non-Canadian hockey player, he would be in the top 3; if I had to pick the best Russian or the best non-Canadian goalie, he'd be the clear winner. He retired at 34 after the USSR refused to let him play for Montreal in the NHL. He is the current head of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. He is:

#20 - Vladislav Tretiak

To get things started, yes, that is Phil Esposito being stoned by Tretiak in the Summit Series, Phil "I scored more goals than God" Esposito being stoned by an unknown 19-year old goalie. When the scouts went out to see the Russian's practice, they recorded Tretiak as being average with a weak glove hand. Unfortunately for them, Tretiak had been married the night before and was still feeling the effects of the prodigious amount of vodka he drank.

And this is how Tretiak met the world. His brilliance was deployed in Montreal in Game 1 of the Summit Series. Sure, Espo scored 30 seconds in. But then Tretiak started turning away everything the Canadians had to offer. The Russians won 7-3. Sure, the Canadians won the series in the end, but Vladislav Tretiak had arrived.

Tretiak took the USSR to three golds and one silver in the Olympics during his career, and the silver wasn't his fault, it was the coach's fault. He actually benched Tretiak against the Americans after Tretiak let in one goal. And then history was written by Kurt Russell, or something similar. Tretiak was just as good in World Hockey Championships: 10 golds, 2 silvers, and a bronze. He also brought Russia a gold in the 1981 Canada Cup.

The Red Army team he played for in Moscow was the best team outside of the NHL, and in several exhibitions during the 80s proved they were just as good as any NHL team. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the NHL has accepted many great players from Russia - Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, Sergei Federov, Nikolai Khabibulan, Andrei Markov, Alex Ovechkin, and more - but although Montreal drafted Tretiak in '83, he was denied permission to go to Canada. He retired from hockey shortly thereafter.

You might think this was the end for a young hockey player. But oh no - the Soviet Union fell, and Tretiak came to North America as a goalie coach. He worked for the Devils and the Blackhawks, and mentored fellows like Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek. Tretiak, at age 38, was so good in practise that the Blackhawks considered offering him a contract.

Since then, Tretiak has gotten into politics, serving in the Russian Duma, and has founded a Canadian charity to bring Russian and Canadian hockey players closer together. He organized the 2007 Super Series and is known to favour another Summit Series between Canada and Russia's best. His attempts to bring Canada and Russia closer together were rewarded with the Meritorious Service Medal from Canada, the first Russian so honoured.

It's hard to explain how brutally awesome Vladislav Tretiak was as a goalie, so we'll let his stats speak for themselves. In international play, Tretiak had a 1.78 goals against average. That's better than Patrick Roy's career totals. That's better than Marty Brodeur's playoff totals. That's better than...well, any other goalie out there.

Basically, if Tretiak had played in the NHL in the 1970s, whatever team who had him would have won Cups. He was better than the best NHL goalie, Ken Dryden. He was better than Tony Esposito. He was the best goalie anywhere in the 70s. And he is surely one of the greatest hockey players ever to hit the ice.

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