The flipside of ‘Miracle’

In 1977, after Boris Kulagin coached the Soviet Union to a World Championship silver medal for the second year in a row, he was relieved of his duties as the bench boss, and a new boss was called in. Viktor Tikhonov, a Moscow native, and a former Moscow Dynamo defenseman, rode back into his home town to take over the Red Army team, and the national team, which was practically the same thing.

By then, Kharlamov was 29, and one of the veteran players on the team. He was a two-time Olympic champion, and a six-time World Champion, and a national hero. None of that mattered to Tikhonov, already famous for his discipline and tough love towards his players.

Or, at least, tough something.

Jim Craig and Valeri

Kharlamov, like everybody else, had an image of a good coach in his head. That image looked like Anatoli Tarasov, the legendary coach of the national team, who had built the 1970s championship machine, and who had given Valeri his chance, and believed in him when nobody else did.

Tikhonov was nothing like that. Tikhonov was the exact opposite.

“We have won Soviet championships, world championships, and we’ve done it our way, why should we now have to start preparing for a new season any differently,” Kharlamov told his teammates.

“Preparing for a new season any differently” meant “working twice as hard”.

Tikhonov told the Red Army players over and over again how the players on his former team, Riga Dinamo in Latvia, worked much harder than the stars in Moscow. And with only a silver and a bronze medal – a bronze! – in the last two world championships, the players didn’t have much of an argument against him.

In the fall of 1979, after another World Championship gold medal, Kharlamov was even more of a veteran player, and with the effects of the 1976 car accident still lingering in his body, Tikhonov decided that number 17 was done.

Tikhonov wasn’t alone in his thoughts about Kharlamov. One of the people who thought Kharlamov may have been, if not completely washed up, then at least past his prime was Valeri Borisovich Kharlamov himself.

“After a lost game when my entire body aches, and I can’t even lift my arm, I think that I’ve done my share, it’s time for the younger players to take over and work their behinds off,” he would tell his wife.

“If I can’t make the Red Army team, I can always play on a team that’s fighting for the 11th place in the standings, and we can still live in Moscow,” he’d say.

But he didn’t leave Moscow, or the CSKA, and he did hang on to his spot on the national team. But even if he finished second in the World Championships in 1979, in a tournament that the Soviet Union went through undefeated, and even if he scored 22 goals and 48 points in 41 Soviet top league games in 1978-79, by the next fall, he found himself something of an outcast.

Nothing was good enough for the coach.

One of the reasons was the lack of discipline Kharlamov had showed outside the rink. In 1977, right after Tikhonov had taken over the national team, Kharlamov and defenseman Valeri Vasiliev were out drinking the night before an Izvestia Cup game against Czechoslovakia, the Soviets’ archrivals. Well, their only rivals in the hockey world at the time.

The team was down 2-0 after two periods, and Tikhonov entered the dressing room, fuming.

“Enemies … you’re my enemies .. You’re benched!” he yelled to Kharlamov and Vasiliev.

That time, though, Kharlamov was bigger than the coach. It was the tiny number 17 who had more clout with the team, and the rest of the players stood up for him.

Boris Mikhailov stood up.

“Coach. Give them a chance to make up for their mistake,” he said.

Others joined in and finally, Tikhonov agreed.

The Soviet Union rallied back from behind, and tied the game 3-3 in the end. Vasiliev scored a goal, and Kharlamov picked up two assists.

After the game, Tikhonov went back to Kharlamov and Vasiliev, and said, with venom in his voice:

“Here’s an idea. What if we let you guys drink whenever you want, maybe you should be the exception, maybe you should be allowed to do whatever you want.”

Even the Minister of Sport Sergei Pavlov got involved later, and told the players to keep the drinking out of the public eye, at least. He even offered them a chance to use his dacha for the purpose, but the players declined. They weren’t stupid.

In 1979, Kharlamov’s play was just fine, and even if his production dropped somewhat, he was still a part of the team that was getting ready for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, in February.

Coach Tikhonov wanted to rebuild his national team and get some new blood in, so he broke his famous top line. It was Kharlamov who had to go. Team captain Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov stayed together, and Kharlamov was sent further down in the lineup.

His spot on the top line went to young Sergei Makarov who had been voted to the World Championship All-Star team by the media. That, too, had been something of an injustice and Kharlamov was sure Tikhonov was behind. After all, he had collected more points in the tournament than Makarov, and both Mikhailov and Petrov were voted into the All-Star team. Why was he left out?

But he knew better than to fight with the coach, so he played as hard as he could, and by the New Year’s, he had scored ten goals in 21 games in the Soviet league.

Before the Olympics, Petrov, Mikhailov and Kharlamov approached Tikhonov and asked him to put them back together. Kharlamov didn’t come along, as Mikhailov and Petrov thought it was best that they’d be the ones to talk to the coach. That was, Kharlamov wouldn’t be begging.

“Viktor Vasilyevich, we’ve been loyal to the team and the country for many years, and while the young players are good, it’s just not the same playing without Valeri,” said Boris Mikhailov, the team captain.

Tikhonov listened carefully but nothing on his face revealed what he was thinking about, or whether the veteran players had any chance of changing the coach’s mind.

“Boris and I, we’ve always played together. Even Tarasov tried moving Kharlamov from our line, and we told him, too, that we felt like a man who chopped off his finger,” said Petrov.

Tikhonov listened, thanked Petrov and Mikhailov for their message, and sent them away. Kharlamov sat in his white Volga at the parking lot of the Luzhniki arena, waiting for his friends. When he saw his friends walk out of the arena, he opened the car door and got out.

“Well, what did he say?” he asked Petrov.

“Nothing. He said he’d think about it,” Petrov replied.

Kharlamov inhaled, and closed his eyes. The good news was that Tikhonov hadn’t said no. The bad news was that he hadn’t said no, and now he’d use this as a weapon, he thought.

“He’s going to make me pay for it,” Kharlamov said. “Fine.”

Meanwhile, Tikhonov was thinking about it. Maybe he wasn’t thrilled with Kharlamov’s play, but the only thing that mattered was winning. Maybe getting back to together would be the spark all three needed.

“It’s probably the last chance for them to play together. Maybe I should put them back together,” he told his assistant coach, Vladimir Jurzinov.

Jurzinov agreed.

In the four Izvestia Cup games in December, Kharlamov scored two goals, and added 4 assists, and the first line was as good as ever when the team left the Soviet Union for Germany, to play two exhibition games against West Germany, and then onward to the US, to have their dress rehearsal at the Madison Square Garden, against Team USA.

Kharlamov went goalless through the games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Krefeld in Germany, but opened scoring in the game against the US in New York. The Americans didn’t stand a chance, as the CCCP men kept on scoring, at will, it seemed.

Soviet Union 10, USA 3. The Soviets were just as good and dangerous as everybody thought. Only, they weren’t as good and dangerous as they thought themselves.

The team traveled to Lake Placid only to find out that the Olympic village they’d be living in for a couple of weeks was a less-than-welcoming facility. While it was new, it was also built like a prison because that’s exactly what it was going to be after the Games. A prison. The Americans and the Canadians stayed elsewhere.

Finland’s cross-country skier Juha Mieto, who stood 6-4 tall, was so furious when he couldn’t sleep in the short beds in the rooms that were small as train compartments, that he tore a pillow apart so that in the morning, the corridor was covered in pieces of the pillow.

Two adjacent rooms shared a window, with a separating wall right in the middle of the window. The walls were thin, and privacy didn’t exist.

The Soviets’ and Kharlamov’s biggest enemy, though, was boredom. Unfortunately, the only thing they could come up with to take away the numbness was vodka. Over 120 empty vodka bottles were found outside the Soviet rooms after the tournament.

On the ice, things were smooth as well.

Soviet Union held a true hockey clinic in its first three games, against Japan, the Netherlands, and Poland, beating all three second-tier hockey nations, with a 41-5 goal differential. Kharlamov scored five points. The tournament couldn’t have started better for him.

In the next game, against Holland, he scored just one point, but his day off didn’t matter as Vladimir Krutov stepped up and scored a hat trick, and added two assists. In the third game, against Poland, Kharlamov scored again, and when he returned to the Olympic Village that night he had scored 3+6=9 points in the tournament. In just three games.

Just before the team embarked on their journey, the U.S. President Jimmy Carter had announced that the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow in protest of Soviet military action in Afghanistan if the Soviets didn’t withdraw their troops by February 20. He had also earlier suggested that the US might ban the Soviet Olympic team from the Lake Placid Games.

The day of the deadline was the day of the last games of the round-robin. The Soviets played against Canada, and beat them handily 6-4. Kharlamov didn’t score a point.

They had cruised through the first round robin undefeated, winning all five games, scoring 51 goals and allowing just eleven. Mikhailov – Petrov – Kharlamov line had scored 13 of the 51, or a fourth of the teams’ goals, a little less than expected, but they were always known to be best in the really tough games.

Two such games were ahead of them before they could fly home as Olympic champions, and get new medals, and promotions in the Army. One against the US, and one against the Swedes, their two points from the game against Finland – a 4-2 win – were carried over from the round-robin.

The tension was rising, and the pressure was mounting. The Soviets weren’t playing just for the Olympic gold, they weren’t even simple propaganda boys for the Soviet empire, they were now the enemy of the state.

Kharlamov’s confidence wasn’t as good as at the beginning of the tournament. A forward lives for, and by goals and points, and with the top line not producing, the coach had turned his attention to them now.

This time the players had asked Tikhonov to try to change lines to get Kharlamov going and to force the opponents to change their matchups. The coach listened to the players, but this time, he didn’t see any point in giving in to them.

Kharlamov saw the signs in the stands during the warmups. He didn’t understand all of them, and he didn’t want to look too hard, because he didn’t want people to know that he cared, but he could see them. Some of them were written in Russian.

“Get out of Afghanistan!” “Russki, go home, not Afghanistan!”

Kharlamov sighed. It was draining to always be fighting somebody, to always be the enemy. Everything felt fine, though, as Valeri Kharlamov laced up his Adidas skates, and snapped on his Jofa helmet, and walked to the rink.

He was the last player to leave the dressing room, as always, and the last one to step onto the ice.

Minutes later, he was leaning on stick at the red line, next to David Silk, watching Petrov win the opening faceoff. His line was the Soviets’ starting line, as usual, with Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov behind them. People were cheering, but the noise levels went down after the first shift, as the homecrowd was nervously watching the game, fearing for the worst.

Kharlamov always wanted to feel the puck early in the game, get around a defenseman, or make a nice pass, to get into the game. The others knew it, so right away Fetisov got the puck to Kharlamov, who made a couple of moves, to feel the puck, and then sent it to Petrov with a beautiful backhander.

Petrov, uncharacteristically, dumped the puck into the US zone. The Americans’ attack was cut short in the neutral zone and Kharlamov picked up the puck, then picked up speed, and when facing three Americans on the blue line, he turned back, calmed down the situation and then tried to carry it back into the US zone. He tried to find Mikhailov with a long passed, but instead, iced the puck.

“We got a little bit of a glimpse of what the US team is going to try to do. When the Soviets gain possession of the puck, they’re going to try to be very deliberately … when they have the time. Under those circumstances, the US team is going to back off and try to move into their defensive zone with all five men so that they won’t be outnumbered,” said Al Michaels, calling the game on NBC.

The top line didn’t score, but others did. Vladimir Krutov gave his team the lead halfway through the first period. The US tied it up. Makarov gave the Soviets the lead just two and a half minutes before the end of the first period, but Mark Johnson shocked the Soviet players, and most of all the coaching staff, with his 2-2 goal on the last second of play in the first period.

Tikhonov panicked, and made a goalie change. Out came Vladislav Tretyak, a national hero, and instead, Vladimir Myshkin took his place in front of the Soviet net.

Kharlamov couldn’t believe his ears. Was Tikhonov really pulling Tretiak? He looked at the goalie across the dressing room. He didn’t say anything, and Tretiak didn’t say anything, but he could see the goalie was furious.

“He’s crazy,” Kharlamov told Tretiak, as they were the two last players to leave the dressing room before the second period.

At first, the goalie change seemed to calm things down, as Maltsev scored the Soviets’ third go-ahead goal at 2:18 into the second period. With one period to go, the US was down by a goal, putting up a good fight, but being outshot 30-10 in the first two periods. Myshkin had made jus two saves in the period.

“Our coach made a serious mistake by pulling Tretiak. Vladislav had always been able to shut it down at the right time, and his calmness charged the whole team. And when Tikhonov pulled him, we immediately felt some discomfort, and the Americans gained confidence. That change substitution was fatal,” Petrov said years later.

Fatal it was, as with exactly ten minutes remaining in the game, Mike Eruzione beat Myshkin with a wrist shot from the slot, and gave Team USA the lead in the game for the first time, just a minute and 21 seconds after Johnson had tied the game.

Tikhonov kept sending his top line out, but as the clock was winding down, Kharlamov seemed to be going through the motions.

Kharlamov, Petrov, and Mikhailov came out for the last time with a minute and a half remaining in the game. The US coach had made sure his players kept their shifts at 45 seconds, while the Soviets’ top line played easily over a minute, close to 90 seconds at a time. For once, they weren’t the stronger team in the end.

With a minute remaining, Kharlamov took a pass from Petrov on the Soviet blue line. He skipped past Silk at the red line, went around Ken Morrow on the blue line but lost control of the puck, and it went to the US zone. Mikhailov grabbed it and played it to Petrov in front of the net, but Jim Craig made a save on Petrov’s backhander.

Kharlamov was waiting at the far post, should the puck find its way there. It never did.

With 30 seconds remaining, Kharlamov got the puck again, at the red line. This time he skated around Johnson, then dumped the puck into the US zone, but Petrov was late to the puck. Mikhailov missed it, but Bilyaletdninov managed to keep it in the zone.

With just 12 seconds remaining, Kharlamov knew it was over. He skated into the corner, but he knew it was over. He made a body check, and put his arms around Rob McClanahan in the corner, trying to look like he was still battling, like he still believed – but he wasn’t.

When the final buzzer went off, and the Americans stormed onto the ice behind him, Kharlamov never looked back. He adjusted his elbow pads, looked up to the scoreboard, and wondered what Tikhonov was going to say.

He did notice that Tikhonov left the bench right away, without shaking hands with the Americans. After the players’ handshakes, he saw Helmut Balderis, the Latvian sniper, skate to the American bench and shake hands with Herb Brooks, the US coach.

The Americans’ doctor was George Nagobdas, whose parents had left Latvia some 40 years earlier. He spoke Latvian and told Balderis, in Latvian, not to do it. Balderis replied by cursing his coach.

Tikhonov, who had coached Riga Latvia for years, understood every word of the message. Back in the Soviet Union, Tikhonov criticized Balderis and kicked him out of the national team.

But in Lake Placid, in public, Tikhonov stayed quiet, and even skipped the post-game press conference. In the dressing room, however, he let his players know exactly what he was thinking, and who he thought should be blamed for the loss. And it wasn’t him.

He walked around the room, stopping in front of the players he deemed guiltiest for the loss, and wagged his finger in their faces. “This is your loss!” he told Tretiak who just stared back at him.

“This is your loss!,” he told Mikhailov.

“Your loss, you did this,” he told Petrov.

He finally took a few steps towards Kharlamov’s stall.

“This is your loss! This. Is. Your. Loss,” he spat out.

Years, decades later Tikhonov would admit that pulling Tretiak was a huge mistake, and that he was the one to get blamed for it.

“Tretiak always played better after he gave up a goal. The decision was a result of getting caught up in emotions. After Tretiak gave up the rebound and let in the soft goal by Johnson, my blood was boiling. It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret,” he said.

Back at the prison, as the players called the Olympic Village, there was a line to the phone. Mikahilov was on the phone, standing a few meters behind him were the Golikov brother, when Kharlamov took his place in the line.

The players had few secrets from each other, even if they only heard one side of the conversation. Everybody knew how the others’ families were doing, whose parents were ill and whose children had gotten praise at school.

Valeri dialled the number to Moscow. He looked at his watch, it was ten o’clock. It’d be morning in Moscow. Irina answered after just a few rings.

“Valeri? Why are you calling so early?” she said. “Is everything OK? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m not hurt, I’m fine,” he said. “I hope I didn’t wake up Sasha and Begonita. I just wanted to call you, because something happened. A disaster, really.”

He could hear Irina hold her breath.

“We lost to the Americans. 4-3,” Valeri said.

“Tikhonov did not like that,” Irina muttered back.

“No,” said Valeri, and then added, “what is Pravda saying about the game?”

Irina put the receiver on the table, and ran to get the paper. She knew Valeri only had a few minutes to speak with her. She opened the paper, and while looking for sports news, she spoke with Valeri.

“Nothing here … the kids miss you … we all miss you, and we hope you come home a champion … nothing here,” she went on.

“I miss all of you. Guess where we live here? A prison. This is a prison, for real. They told us that the house we’re in now, will be a prison after the Olympics,” Valeri said.

“There’s nothing about the game in the paper.”

“Maybe it was too late to make it in to the paper. Could you check the paper tomorrow for me, please? I have to go now. Love you,” Valeri told his wife, and hung up.

The tournament wasn’t over yet, even if nobody told the Americans. There was still a chance for the Soviet Union to win the gold medal, despite their embarrassing loss to the US. If they beat Sweden, while the US lost to Finland, they’d be Olympic champions.

When the Soviet players left the Olympic Village, Finland had a 2-1 lead in the game against the Americans. Jukka Porvari and Mikko Leinonen had scored for the Finns, Steven Cristoff for the Americans. One period remained to be played in the game.

When Kharlamov and his teammates arrived at the rink, Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan, and Mark Johnson had scored for the US, and the battle was over.

Kharlamov, Petrov, and Mikhailov were still the top line, even if Tikhonov told publicly afterwards that he had thought they looked tired in the game against the US. Maybe because they played twice as long shifts as the Americans. In one shift in the third period, Petrov faced three different American centers in a faceoff. Everybody was so used to the Soviets being the stronger team in the third period, that they even considered the Americans having used doping.

“What do you give your players eat and drink before the third?” asked Valeri Vasiliev.

“The last period is always ours. Leading 3-2 going into the second period … we were confident of victory.”

Poor Sweden. They never had a chance.

It took just 36 seconds for Kharlamov to set up Vladimir Petrov for a goal in the game against Sweden. With 2:22 remaining in the first period, Mikhailov made it 4-0, again assisted by Kharlamov, while Makarov and Alexander Maltsev had scored two goals in between. At 15:02 into the second period, the game was 9-0 … and over. All that remained was the medal ceremony.

When the Soviet national team returned home after a successful World Championship, the players usually met with the Communist party officials, and the representatives of the Komsomol, the youth division of the Party. When the CCCP played and won, productivity was said to go up by five to ten percent, but after a loss, it plummeted.

In 1980, the hockey team was pushed aside when the crowds celebrated other athletes, the winners.

Kharlamov knew that before they landed. Irina hadn’t found anything about the game against the US in Pravda, which meant that it had never happened. Pravda was rewriting history as it happened, and in that history, there was no place for losers.

“Maybe I can play a few seasons in another team,” he had told his wife during their last phone conversation.

“If he kicks me out, maybe I can play a few more seasons somewhere else, finish my studies, and then become coach.”

“Just come home,” she had told him.

On the plane back to Moscow, Tikhonov continued his attacks on Kharlamov and Tretiak. He walked up and down the aisle, always stopping next to Tretiak and Kharlamov, to let the veterans know they had failed him.

Finally, Valeri Vasiliev who sat behind Kharlamov had got enough. He stood up behind Tikhonov, who was still yelling at Kharlamov, and put the coach in a headlock.

“You can keep yelling at them, or you can stop, and I won’t kill you. Your choice … coach,” he said.

Tikhonov tried to shake Vasiliev off his back, but the defenseman was just to strong.

“Fine,” the coach said and Vasiliev let him go. Tikhonov walked to the front of the plane, muttering curses.

There were no World Championships that spring, but the Soviet national team did play in the Sweden Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden in April 1980 which gave Tikhonov a chance to cut Vasiliev and Petrov from the team. He put Krutov on the same line with Mikhailov and Kharlamov, and made Kharlamov the center of the line.

Kharlamov scored a goal in the game against Canada and the Soviets won all four of their games in the tournament.

But nothing helped. No win was big enough, no goal breathtaking enough. The summer, and the season until the next World Championships, were going to be long. And even a gold medal in the 1981 Worlds wouldn’t probably take away the pain.

The Soviet Union hockey national team blazed through season 1979-80 with a 22-1 record, and the only thing they, that team, is remembered for is that one loss. Then again, when a team wins four straight Olympic gold medals, 21 consecutive Olympic games, plays 48 games in two seasons, loses two and ties one, that one loss that one season is nothing short of … a miracle.

Or a disaster.

How does that make you feel?