Thursday, May 7, 2009

How the Pens-Caps series reminds me of Reagan, Tretiak, and the last years of the Soviet Union

It's been billed as the battle of the two best young players in hockey, Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby, and through three games it's lived up to the hype. The two young stars are impassioned leaders who are playing at the top of their game, and the
quality of play has been mind-boggling. If you love hockey and have access to Versus, do yourself a favor and watch the rest of the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins series, which the Caps now lead two games to one. It's a classic.
....But the guy who's emerged out of nowhere in this series isn't Ovechkin or Crosby--we knew about them.

It's Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov, the 21-year-old Russian who nearly stole game 3 for the Caps--a 3-2 overtime loss--by making 39 saves, many of them spectacular. His diving stop in Game two against Crosby is the save of the playoffs so far.

With only six games of NHL experience, Varlamov is giving Washington the kind of goaltending a team needs to win a Stanley Cup. He's the real deal, and he makes the Caps a real threat to go all the way.

.....He reminds me of another Russian goaltender who, at age 20, appeared out of nowhere and shocked the NHL by nearly leading the Soviet Central Red Army team to an upset of the NHL all-stars in the inaugural Summit Series back in 1972. I was a junior in college at the time, a goalie, playing with a bunch of Canadians who viewed hockey as Canada's sport. They believed, like most North Americans, the NHL all-stars would sweep the 8-game series. If they lost one game to the Soviets it would be an embarrassment. Instead, the NHL had to win the final three games in Moscow to eke out a 4-3-1 series win, one of the most exciting hockey events of all time and one that ushered in a decade of NHL-Soviet battles. There were a lot of reasons the Red Army team gave the NHL fits--better conditioned athletes who were better coached and superior passers. But reason #1 was the 20-year-old Tretiak, who outplayed Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito during the Summit Series, and time and again robbed the NHL's best. For the next 12 years, until his retirement, a lot of people--myself included--considered him the best goaltender in the world.
....In 1983, Sports Illustrated sent me to Moscow to do a feature on him. It was quite a process back then to get the Soviets to cooperate on such a project--they were wary that a star athlete like Tretiak might defect--but Time, Inc.'s Moscow bureau made all the arrangements, and photographer Jerry Cooke, who'd been born in Russia before the Revolution and spoke the language fluidly, and I set aside ten days for the trip.
...We both brought our wives, knowing we'd have quite a bit of down time, and stayed in The National Hotel, directly across from the Kremlin. The room the hotel clerk gave my wife and I was rather dingy, facing an interior courtyard, and when Jerry saw it he took it upon himself to complain. He asked the lady at the desk if she understood I was a famous American journalist who had come to Moscow to do a story on the great Tretiak, and how could she put me in such a room. I should add the hotel was practically empty. So she upgraded us without charge. The room we were moved into was the one Moscow used for the cover of its visitors brochure. It was an immense suite, with painted ceilings, floor to ceiling French windows overlooking Red Square, antique furniture, and a grand piano--the most elegant hotel room I've stayed at in my life.
....We got a call late our first afternoon that Tretiak would be happy to see us at his apartment that evening. This was sooner than we had anticipated, but we quickly got organized, and Jerry and I packed up our things and took a taxi to his apartment building. Tretiak and his wife lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment by American standards, but for someone living in the dreary USSR back then, it was top-drawer. We left our shoes at the entryway. I'd brought him some Vermont maple syrup as a gift, and he proudly showed me a bottle of Frangelico liqueur given to him by Bobby Clarke. There was a translator there, someone from the government who would report back every word to the authorities, and Tretiak was polite, reasonably forthcoming (he was still angry he'd been pulled after the first period of the 1980 Olympic upset), and a gracious, proud host. Every once in awhile Jerry would tell me, after the translator had translated something: "That's not what he [Tretiak] said. I'll tell you what he really said later." But basically it was an uncontentious, pleasant interview.
...After a couple of hours, we bade Tretiak goodnight, and said we'd arrange to take him and his wife out to dinner later in the week at Moscow's finest restaurant. We were also going to see a couple of Central Red Army games, and would talk to him after those. He was totally agreeable.
....That was the last access we had to the great Vladislav Tretiak. During the night President Ronald Reagan, back in the States, gave his famous speech in which he referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire." Bye-bye cooperation with the Soviet authorities. We were now on the outside looking in.
....Still, we were allowed to complete our ten-day stay and do the usual tourist things--ballet, opera, Lenin's tomb. A train trip to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and a visit to the fantastic Hermitage Museum. And we were allowed to go to Tretiak's Central Red Army league games, if not interview him afterward. At one of these Jerry wanted to take a photograph of the team bench, which required getting to a restricted area. A guard was there to prevent fans access. But Jerry understood the Russian psyche. He understood that most ordinary Russians, even those in a position of authority, saw their system as broken, and their laws and rules as non-sensical. "Why can't I go back there?" he asked the guard. "I just want to take a picture. I have a press pass. You see?"
....The guard pointed to the sign that said: Authorized persons only.
....Jerry was undeterred. In a measured tone, he kept explaining what our assignment was, and how he wasn't going to interfere with the players in any way, and how the press pass made him an authorized person. Finally the guard said something to him that made Jerry laugh, and let him pass. I asked Jerry afterwards what he'd said. "He was quite an amusing man," Jerry said, his eyes crinkling. "He said there were laws in this country about taking off your pants in public, and yet any given day in Moscow you can find people walking around without their pants on. So I could go ahead."
....Jerry was a marvelous storyteller. He knew and explained to me how hard it was to live in the Soviet Union for an ordinary citizen. Goods were scarce, and the lines to purchase them were long. We went to Gums Department store, and he pointed to a long line at a bin of shoes. They were only right shoes. Why, I asked, would someone wait an hour in line to buy only one right shoe? Because, he told me, next week there might be a special on left shoes...
....Often these disparate items, purchased on the black market, were sold out of someone's apartment. Jerry told me the story of the man who leaned over to tie his shoe in a doorway. When he stood back up, someone was standing behind him, as in a line. Pretty soon a third and fourth person showed up. Before long there were dozens of people in line. The second man finally tapped the first man on the shoulder. "What are we waiting for?" he asked.
....The man who'd stopped to tie his shoe shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. But I've never been first in line for anything. I'm not moving."
....Meanwhile, Jerry kept trying to get us further access to Tretiak. He met with one official at the man's office in one of those drab, Stalin-esque buildings. During their conversation the phone started ringing. The official just let it ring. "Don't you want to get that?" Jerry asked.
...The man looked at the phone impassively. "No."
...."Why not? I don't mind."
...."It will just be someone who wants me to do something," the official said.
....Listening to these stories, it became so clear to me that Communism was doomed in the Soviet Union, and it would die a death by a thousand cuts. Not because of a speech by Reagan. But because the people hated it. They hated their lives. They wanted a change. That's the difference between the USSR before the fall of the Wall and today's Communist China, which is really sort of an authoritarian government espousing state-sponsored Capitalism. The Chinese people like their lives, which are improving every year. In the Soviet Union, for decades the people's lives were miserable and getting worse...
....Back then you could buy very fine caviar for a few rubles almost anywhere in Moscow. But you were only allowed to bring three jars, or tins of it, through customs. Jerry had twelve tins of caviar in his luggage as we passed through customs on our way home, and the agent pointed to the sign that said: Only three tins of caviar per person. Jerry read the sign and patiently explained to the customs agent that he had legally purchased all twelve of his tins of caviar, that he was not an exporter, that he had every intention of consuming them all himself, of sharing them with friends back in New York who did not have access to fine Russian caviar. He loved Russian caviar. Why should he leave any behind? Stoically, the guard listened and pointed again to the sign. Meanwhile, the line of passengers trying to clear customs was growing longer behind Jerry. But he would not be swayed. "Can I speak with your supervisor?" Jerry asked the customs agent.
....To my surprise, the customs agent went to get his supervisor. By this time the line behind Jerry was quite long, and passengers were checking their watches and grumbling audibly. The supervisor arrived, and Jerry went through his spiel about how he'd bought the caviar legally, etc. etc. The supervisor paused, put his arm around Jerry, and said something in his ear. Then he let him pass, 12 tins of caviar and all.
...."What the hell did he say to you?" I asked Jerry after I, too, had cleared customs.
....Eyes crinkled in delight, Jerry responded: "He asked if I spoke French." I gave him a quizzical look...."I told the man, 'Mais, oui.' Then he leaned forward and whispered: 'Bon appetite!'"

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