Most great players have at least one signature moment they are remembered for. Maurice Richard is remembered for his 50 goals in 50 games. Ray Bourque is remembered for jubilantly hoisting the Stanley Cup at the very end of his Hall of Fame career. Ken Dryden will always be remembered for leading his team to the Stanley Cup title and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy before his Calder winning rookie campaign. It is most unusual to find a case in which one of the greatest players in history is most remembered for his role in a loss. Yet, that is exactly what happened to Vladislav Tretiak.
It is easy for those of us who have lived most – if not all – of our entire lives in North America to forget that hockey exists outside of the NHL other than World Championship and Olympic tournaments. Yet, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the best players in the world were trapped in Eastern Europe and had no chance to play in the NHL even if they so desired. Unfortunately for Tretiak, that also means that he is best known to many North American fans for being pulled late in the first period of the “Miracle on Ice.”
In the 1970's, many in North America – particularly in Canada – refused to believe that Soviet players could compete with top NHL players. Those critics were proven wrong by the Summit Series tournaments in 1972. While some predicted a Canadian sweep of the USSR in 1972, the Soviets stunned the Canadian all-stars by winning the first game. In fact, after a 3-1-1 start for the Soviets, the Canadian team had to scramble to win the last three games to salvage the contest. Even then, the Soviets nearly managed to salvage a win or a tie in the series before a final game three-goal third period for Canada capped off by Paul Henderson’s famous goal with 34 seconds remaining. Tretiak later called Henderson’s goal, “the most maddening of all goals scored on me in hockey.” In the rematch tournament in 1974, Tretiak and the Soviet team got their revenge, demolishing Canada 4-1-3.
One Soviet player that was thrust into the limelight by those two tournaments was Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak’s stellar play was a one of the biggest reasons for the success of the USSR team, which, while a surprise to many in North America, was expected by some who were familiar with Tretiak. Billy Harris, a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup three-peat of 1962-64 was the coach of the Swedish national team in 1972 predicted that the Soviets would win the tournament, based largely his impression of Tretiak. Ironically, while his prediction was incorrect in 1972, he was the Coach of Team Canada in the 1974 edition of the tournament.
While the Summit Series performances may have been the best of Tretiak’s career, simply due to the level of competition, by no means do they represent the entirety of his international achievements. Over the course of his career, Tretiak backstopped the Soviet Union to a win the 1979 NHL Challenge Cup, a gold medal in the 1981 Canada Cup, thirteen World Championship medals (ten gold, two silver, one bronze), as well as three gold and one silver Olympic medals.
With such a record, it is no surprise than NHL teams were desirous to have Tretiak. Knowing that bringing Tretiak to North America would be a difficult task, however, no NHL team chose to spend a draft pick on him until 1983. That year, the Montreal Canadiens selected him with the 138th overall pick. Montreal GM Serge Savard worked aggressively to strike a deal with Soviet officials to allow Tretiak to make a move to Canada, but was unsuccessful. Tretiak regrets that he was never able to play in the NHL. “I would have loved to play in the Forum. I was hoping to one day play in the NHL. I would have liked to do it even for just one season. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. I regret not having the chance.”
One cannot help but wonder how the history of the NHL might have changed had Savard been successful. Tretiak was only 31 in 1983. It is not inconceivable that he could have played through 1986 and 1993 when the Canadiens hoisted the Stanley Cup. Would the Canadiens have still won those Cups? Would they have won more? What would that have meant for Patrick Roy?
The next year, having been denied his chance to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL, and exhausted by the grueling schedule of the Soviet National Team, Tretiak retired from hockey. While not as well known in North America as he might have been, Vladislav Tretiak had established himself as one of the greatest netminders in the history of the sport. In 1989, he became the first Soviet player elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2008, he was selected as the goaltender of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Centennial Team.
To many on this continent, Vladislav Tretiak is either unknown or little known. As such, he may often be left out of discussions on hockey history. Whether he is ever acknowledged by the masses or not, Tretiak’s talent is still undeniable. Where the NHL is concerned, he may well be “The Best That Never Was.”