In the minds of hockey fans around the world, the name Vladislav Tretiak is so closely linked with goaltending excellence that it's hard to imagine that before 1972, the Soviet superstar was almost completely unknown to the North American sporting public. But that's pretty much the way it happened. Canadian hockey scouts had dismissed him as a weak link in the Soviet defense prior to the Canada-USSR series in 1972, calling him inconsistent, with a weak glove hand that could be exploited almost at will. And so coaches and fans hardly paid any attention to him in the pre-series buildup. By the time the Summit Series was over, though, Tretiak was no longer a mystery to NHL fans, who saw him turn away Canada's top goal-scoring stars time and again for eight frustrating, nail-biting games.
Tretiak's stellar performance in the 1972 showdown - as a mere 20-year-old - was only the beginning of his amazing international play. Behind his unprecedented 1.78 goals-against average in 98 international games, the Soviets won Olympic gold medals in 1972, 1976 and 1984. They also captured 10 World Championships and nine European titles and remained virtually undefeated for the better part of a decade in IIHF tournament play.
In addition to shining in international championship play, Tretiak also habitually inspired himself to play his very best during exhibition games against NHL teams. In a game against the Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Eve, 1975 - one that many hockey fans still consider the greatest goaltending performance of all time - Tretiak held the Habs to a 3-3 tie despite being widely outshot, 38-13. He was the MVP of the 1981 Canada Cup, leading the vaunted USSR to their first victory, and the following year turned in another standout series of games on the Soviet All-Stars tour of North America, the highlight of which was his 5-0 shutout of those same Canadiens in the Forum.
From 1971 to 1984, he was the Soviet league's First Team All-Star goalie, spending 14 consecutive seasons as the number one man in the Soviet cage. During this amazing string with the Central Red Army squad, Tretiak won 13 league titles, captured the MVP honors in the Soviet league five times, was awarded the Order of Lenin for his service to the USSR in 1978 and won the coveted Golden Hockey Stick as the outstanding player in all of Europe in 1981, 1982 and 1983. In the 1981 Canada Cup, he was the tournament MVP and the First All-Star Team goalie, posting an amazing 1.33 goal-against average over six games against the world's best teams.
Other than the game eight disappointment in 1972, which can hardly be called a disaster for Tretiak, coming as it did at the tail end of the series that really launched him onto the world hockey scene, there was only one dark spot on his entire stellar career in the international arena. It appeared in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, a competition won by the squad from the U.S. In the second to last game, Tretiak was the victim of a fluke goal by Mark Johnson in the first period and was pulled in favour of Vladimir Myshkin.
Tretiak retired from active play on a high note in 1984, after shutting out Czechoslovakia 2-0 to win the Olympic gold in Sarajevo. The actual close of his career, which saw him take part in 287 games overall with the national squad, came at the end of the Izvestia tournament in December 1984. He and fellow Soviet standouts Valeri Vasiliev and Alexander Maltsev took part in a special All-Star game between the USSR and European players who had taken part in the Izvestia games. The contest ended with a huge ovation for the tearful Tretiak as he said his goodbyes, never to compete for his nation again at the highest level.
Just before the start of the 1990-91 season, Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan announced that he would be signing Tretiak as a member of his coaching staff, in particular to work with the squad's young goaltending corps that included Ed Belfour.
His intellectual knowledge and understanding of the position is equal perhaps only to Jacques Plante, who wrote the first book on being a goalie and detailed everything from strategy to conditioning. Coaching had always been part of Tretiak's post-playing plans. He started a series of hockey schools as part of a life-long love of teaching kids about the sport.
As a superb goalie, sports ambassador and teacher of both pros and children, Vladislav Tretiak defined all three roles in his long career in hockey. The Hockey Hall of Fame is richer for his inclusion in its hallowed rooms.