Russia’s Godfather of Goalies

When I first covered international hockey, the Russian (then called Soviet) goaltenders were Viktor and Viktor, which sounds like a circus act in Las Vegas with Siberian huskies. Viktor Konovalenko and Viktor Zinger played goal when the Soviets won an unprecedented nine straight world championships — and they paved the way for Vladislav Tretiak.

In that era, interviews with Soviet hockey players were forbidden. I can’t say for certain I did the first one but it was certainly among the first when I sat down with Tretiak one snowy December afternoon in 1975. This was hours before the classic 3-3 tie between the Soviet Red Army and the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve, when Tretiak was the star.

The interview was the result of perseverance and the good fortune of having a connection to a retired Canadian hockey player who had a lot of connections (Aggie Kukulowicz) with Soviet hockey. The 45 minutes with Tretiak and interpreter Nicholas Timtsenko was for a freelance assignment from Maclean’s.

When I read the story now, if nothing else Tretiak was interesting…remember, Soviet players were not to have personality nor opinions. A controversial subject was that only Canadian amateurs could play in the world championships.

“Both the U.S. and Canada should have teams made up of pros, also Sweden and Finland,” said Tretiak. “That would improve the quality of the tournament and it won’t take a back seat to the Stanley Cup. It would be a real world championship.”

That, naturally, is what happened.

Tretiak arrived as an international star in the 1972 Summit Series, despite giving up the historic series-winning goal to Paul Henderson. Scouts said Tretiak was mediocre, with a weak glove hand on low shots. It turned out to be wrong.

“Tarasov [Anatoli, legendary Soviet coach] taught me,” Tretiak explained. “I have long legs and low pucks have to be picked up by the legs, so they must be supple.”

And he was influenced by a predecessor.

“Viktor Konovalenko,” he replied. “He played eight years with the national team — but I’ve studied everybody. You take a little here and a little there. You have to create your own style.”

Tretiak played a dozen years at the highest level, retiring in 1984. Had he not been pulled after one period in the “Miracle On Ice” game at the 1980 Olympics, with the score 1-1, the U.S. may not have had its miracle. About that time, my former boss Red Fisher, who’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame, asked if I thought Tretiak should be.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“He never played in the NHL,” he said.

“Red,” I said, “it’s not the NHL Hall of Fame, it’s the HOCKEY Hall of Fame.”

The NHL has seven Russian goalies today — and 20 all-time. Tretiak, who’s not on the list and became a Hall of Famer in 1989, is their Godfather.