September 24, 2012

Summit Series Heroes: Valeri Vasiliev

Considered by many to be the toughest and most physical defenseman in Russian hockey history, Valeri Vasiliev was a punishing hitter who loved the physical play. Valeri reminded people of Hall of Famer Tim Horton.

He didn't have the offensive flair like Alexei Kasatonov or Vyacheslav Fetisov but was better defensively. Opponents hated to play against him because it could be painful. As a surprise to many opponents Valeri was only 6'0" and 190 Ibs but played like a much bigger player. He put several opponents on the injury list during his career.

Valeri was born on August 3, 1949 in Bora, just outside of Moscow. He began playing organized hockey as a 12 year old for Torpedo Gorky. He then went on to play league hockey his entire career for Dynamo Moscow between 1967-84. In one year he was actually demoted to the third division for disciplinary reasons following an incident on the national team.

Long time Soviet observers talk about a young and over rambunctious Vasiliev who enjoyed the physical game far too much for the Soviet theory of hockey. It was veteran defenseman Vitaly Davydov who took the short-tempered Vasiliev under his wing and turned him into not just a refined tactician, but one of the greatest defensemen in the world.

Valeri was a born leader and was a longtime captain of the national team. He was a two time Olympic Gold medalist (1972 and 1976). He was a eight time World Champion, being voted the best defenseman three times (1973, 1977 and 19 79) and being named to 5 WC All-Star teams. Valeri represented his country 284 times and scored 44 goals. He was a member of the "super five" together with his partner on the blue line Vladimir Lutchenko and behind the troika of Kharlamov-Petrov-Mikhailov, the predecessors of the Makarov-Larionov-Krutov unit with Kasatonov and Fetisov.

Yet he never experienced a Russian league championship. He was one of very few players on the Soviet national team who never played for the Red Army team CSKA. The Red Army team dominated the home league because it was essentially comprised of the national team. Only a few players like Vasiliev were brought in to join those players for the national team. Valeri played a total of 617 games and scored 71 goals. His 617 games is still a league record.

Because of his physical style he loved to play against NHL opposition. He thrived in that environment, and because of that the Russian Strongman was one early Russian player who likely would have excelled in the NHL.

He played in the 1972 Summit Series as well as the 1979 Challenge Cup. Valeri had a big part in neutralizing Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne and the other Canadian superstars in the 1981 Canada Cup final. That was the only year the Soviets won the Canada Cup. Vasliev, as team captain, accepted the famous trophy.

Vasiliev was also a very efficient and speedy skater, despite looking quite awkward. He had an unusual way of propelling himself down the ice. He did not lift his skates off the ice while rapidly accelerating. This allowed him incredible stability. He was almost impossible to knock him off his feet.

After his playing career was over Valeri coached the juniors of Dynamo Moscow (1984-89). He then went over to Germany where he coached EC Ratingen (1990) and Bad Reichenhall (1991). In 1996-97 he was the assistant coach for Spartak Moscow. In 1998 he was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame.

Valeri has never been replaced on the national team by someone who could match his physical play and toughness. It's an element that has been sorely missed on the Russian national team over the years.

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