Given no options, goaltending icon Tretiak retires at 32
April 12, 1984 — Karlstad, Sweden
Vladislav Tretiak was the best goaltender that Soviet hockey has ever produced. He was, perhaps, the best goalie of all time. On October 3, 1989, he became the first Soviet player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Tretiak became the first European player inductee who had never played in the NHL. His inclusion was a monumental break from the Hall’s tradition.
After winning yet another gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo (former Yugoslavia), Tretiak had won absolutely everything a player could dream of, many times over. Counting from his international debut at the age of 18 at the 1970 World Championship in Stockholm, Sweden, Tretiak had won ten World Championship gold medals and three Olympic titles. He rose to prominence during the 1972 Summit Series between the Soviet and Canada, and he achieved iconic status after leading the CCCP team to a remarkable 8-1-win against the heavily favoured Canadians in the 1981 Canada Cup final in Montreal.
Tretiak had won so many national and European titles with CSKA Moscow that he didn’t bother to count anymore. There is a telling team photo of the CSKA Red Army squad in the spring of 1984 after it had won yet another Soviet championship. It showed a victorious team, but very few of the players looked genuinely happy. Tretiak seemed bored — he didn’t even look into the camera. No wonder. CSKA had just gone through the Soviet championship, winning 43 out of 44 regular season games.
In those days, there was no World Championship in an Olympic year and the 1984 international season ended with a pretty insignificant tournament called the Sweden Cup, played in Gothenburg and Karlstad, Sweden. One day before the Soviets’ first game against Finland, a reporter from the Goteborgs-Posten daily asked the Russian team management for permission to interview Vladislav Tretiak at the team’s hotel in Gothenburg.
After the reporter waited for four hours, Tretiak finally showed up sporting a sweater with a Philadelphia Flyers logo. During the interview, conducted in the hotel lobby and supervised by a Soviet team official, Tretiak deftly deflected all questions about him wanting to pursue a career in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens.
In the spring of 1983, Tretiak was selected by the Canadiens in the seventh round of the NHL draft and the club’s manager, Serge Savard, tried to negotiate the goaltender’s release during the Sarajevo Olympics. But Tretiak was a poster boy for the communist youth organisation Komsomol and the answers given during the interview reflected as much.
“My athletic career belongs to the Soviet people,” Tretiak said while the team official beside him listened closely. “I have no ambitions to play in NHL. I am committed to CSKA and the Soviet national team.”
Tretiak, of course, said the things he had to say. The reporter got his interview, but the politically driven answers did not produce the “big story” the writer was hoping for. But when he said farewell to Tretiak after 45 minutes, the reporter didn’t know that this was the last interview that the star goaltender would give to a Western journalist while still an active hockey player.
The Soviets won easy victories against Finland and Sweden before being shellacked 7-2 by the Czechoslovaks in Karlstad, in the last game of the Sweden Cup. That game, on April 12, 1984, would be the last occasion when Vladislav Tretiak suited up in the famous CCCP outfit.
During the following summer it became clear that the Soviet sports authorities would not give Tretiak permission to play in the NHL. And despite what he said in the interview a couple of months earlier in Gothenburg, this was exactly what he wanted, the only challenge that would make him continue playing hockey. Tretiak had only one way of replying – retirement. He could not force the authorities to release him, but on the other hand the authorities could not force him to play.
In a candid interview in the sports daily Sovietskiy Sport later in the summer of 1984, Tretiak explained to his fans that he’d grown tired of the lifestyle of a Soviet hockey player. He said that he had done everything he could do for his country and that he now wanted to devote more time to his wife, Tatiana, instead of spending eleven months a year at the CSKA or national team training camp.
He stopped short of saying that he was very disappointed in the sports authorities’ decision and that his choice to retire at the tender age of 32 was a means of protesting not being released to play in the NHL. In 1984, there was still only so much a Soviet athlete could say, even if his name was Tretiak.
The IIHF interviewed Tretiak in December 2001, previewing the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where he would be the goaltending coach for Team Russia.
“In 1984, I had at least five to seven good years left in me,” he said looking back his premature retirement. “I was still very fit and in excellent shape. Canadiens’ GM Serge Savard tried to negotiate my release, but it was useless. They wouldn’t let me go.”
Tretiak’s voice was filled with resentment as he remembered the sentiments he felt then: “I did everything possible for my country,” he said. “I played every tournament and in fifteen years I missed one practice when the coach told me to go home because I was so sick. I was a hundred percent disciplined. I never smoked or drank but when I asked them in 1984 to let me join Montreal who had drafted me, they said no, and the reason was that I was a soldier in the Red Army.”
That decision forever leaves one of the most intriguing “what-ifs” in hockey. What if Tretiak had played in the NHL? Would he also have been the best goalie in that league? Would he have led Montreal to more Stanley Cups than the single one the club won in the 1980s? How many Vezina trophies would he have won? Would he have been able to withstand the rigors of an 80-game schedule?
Due to the decision to retire in 1984, we will never know.
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As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
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