August 12, 2007
The Top 36: The International Debate
Many people, almost always Canadians, participating in my Top 36 debate feel the Soviet players and other exclusively international stars should not rank as high as top 36 of all time. The general argument, and it is a valid one, is that they played too few top level games over the course of their careers.
Take for example, any Soviet player. Most of the top Soviet players played for the Red Army team in Moscow, and essentially doubled as the national team. With most of the top players all playing on one stacked team, there was very little competition in Russian league play. When playing in international tournaments such as Olympics and world championships, the Soviets were rarely challenged except by Czechoslovakia for a period of time in the1970s. The rest of the time they were beating up on weak nations and second rate Canadian amateur teams.
The true test for the Soviets came in tournaments such as the 1972 Summit Series, the 1979 Challenge Cup and the 1976, 1981, 1984 and 1987 Canada Cups. You can also include some of the earlier club vs. club matches against NHL teams, such as Super Series '76. In this time the Soviets definitely proved to be as good as any one in the world. In fact, at times they proved to be the best.
The question becomes do a handful of games in a career warrant inclusion in debates about the greatest of all time. While the standing argument is valid, I do not put as much emphasis on it as many others do. In my opinion, all of the top players in history are defined by a handful of great games. Most notably NHL playoff games, Canada Cups/World Cups and nowadays Olympic games.
Now obviously for North American based fans, its easier to look at a NHL career and say who's best based on career scoring stats. And we don't really have that for the Soviets and other European leagues. But I don't think there's a lot of difference between Valeri Kharlamov lighting up an over matched Khimik team or even poor Hungary at the Olympics and say Wayne Gretzky padding his stats against weak goaltending from the 1980s Vancouver Canucks or Winnipeg Jets.
So with that in mind, I will not be excluding Soviet candidates in this debate. My requirements to name just 36 players may prove to confining, so whether they make the final cut is still to be determined. I'm really leaning towards Valeri Kharlamov and Viacheslav Fetisov right now. Igor Larionov and Boris Mikhailov are also in consideration.
But wait, what about Vladislav Tretiak? He was on my initial list I threw out there, but I think unless someone can convince me otherwise, he will not make the cut.
This will undoubtedly be controversial. He was probably the most popular Soviet player on either side of the ocean. In fact at times he may have been a bigger legend here in Canada than he was in Russia.
He came over, and in the first four games of the 1972 Summit Series wowed Canadians to the point where he became a household name over night. Over the years he became a comrade, someone who we cheered for even. If this list was for the most famous hockey players or the most important hockey players, Vladislav Tretiak would be in the top 10.
But in the final 4 games of the Summit Series he fell apart, costing the Russians certain victory. He was the goalie in a lop-sided 1981 Canada Cup victory, but he didn't lead the Soviets to the finals of the 1976 or 1984 Canada Cup, something that was not only expected but almost take for granted. And it was Vladimir Myshkin who posted the 6-0 shutout to dominate the 1979 Challenge Cup. Though he wasn't to blame for the 1980 Olympic disaster, history shows Tretiak was pulled after one period in the game that cost them the expected gold medal.
When it comes to the Soviets and other international players, I have to judge them on these big games. Vladislav Tretiak fails that test.