A few weeks ago, I got an email from a fellow hockey fan. Mike, whom I’ve never met, but who’s been my email pal for years, wrote simply that he was forwarding an email to me because he “thought you might be interested in it.”
Below Mike’s message, there was a link to a hockey memorabilia auction site which had a brand new Valeri Kharlamov collection up for sale.
Mike was right. I did find that very interesting. Valeri Kharlamov, the fantastic Soviet forward, was my biggest childhood idol.
Among the items, there was Valeri’s – and I call him just Valeri – silver medal from the 1980 Olympics. The other side of the miracle. There was a team sweater from the 1972 Summit Series, a red sweater with CCCP letters across the chest, and there was his 1972 Summit Series diploma, signed by Ontario’s Premier Bill Davis.
And then there was his 1969 Master of Sports diploma, a ZSKA arena entry pass and a car document holder from a car accident. Not just any car accident. The accident. The one that killed him and his wife, Irina, on August 27, 1981.
The highest bid for those documents was around 300 dollars. I quickly did the currency conversion in my head, and as always when I do that, the price in euro landed at a pretty reasonable range so for a fleeting moment, I considered making a bid. I’d think about it.
I also copied the photo of the documents, and made it my desktop image.
I see it every day. Sometimes when I switch from one program to another, I catch just a glimpse of it, and I see Valeri’s face, or his eyes. Sometimes I clear the screen of everything else, and just study the image.
The Master of Sports diploma is on the top of the screen, the entry pass below it, and they both lie on the folder that contains the car documents. It says “Document Automovil” on it.
The Master of Sports diploma is dated in 1969, when Valeri was just 21 years old. It’s his first year with the ZSKA, the Red Army team. Just a year earlier, he had been sent to the Russian second league to play, to get some ice time with the army’s team in Chebarkul in the Urals Military District.
I look at the young man, a kid really, in the photo of the Master of Sports diploma and wonder what he was thinking. His parents must have been proud of him. His father, Boris, the bandy player who took him skating when he was five. And his mother Begonita, who gave birth to him in a car, on their way to the hospital.
She was born in Spain, but came to the Soviet Union as a 12-year-old refugee to escape the civil war as one of many other niños de la guerra. Is that why the folder in the car says “automovil”? Because Irina, his wife, wasn’t driving a Spanish car that August day in 1981. It was a Volga.
I look at the kid and I think how he was born in a car, and how he died in a car.
Since I don’t speak Russian – I know maybe half of the Cyrillic letters – I only have a faint idea of what it says on the cards. It takes me a long time to figure out what a word might spell, and then at least as long to figure out what it means. There’s the letter that looks like B, which is V for Valeri. And the other one, the one that resembles a “b”, B for Borisovich.
In the other photo, Valeri is older. And the card being a ZSKA, “Red Army”, pass, he’s also in uniform. It says “Komendant” under his photo. Valeri’s hair is a little longer, and his face a little rounder, more mature in that photo. There’s a shadow of a beginning of a smile on his face, he’s almost smiling. I remember reading in his autobiography that he was quite the prankster.
He must be close to 30 in the photo, and by then, he was a father of two, a daughter, Begonita, and a son, Alexander. Valeri was 27 when Alexander was born.
I almost met Alexander once. I attended the International Ice Hockey Federation’s event in Quebec City a few years ago. The IIHF unveiled their centennial All-Star team, and both my big idols made that team, but neither one of them was in Quebec since Wayne Gretzky didn’t make an appearance.
Alexander accepted the Soviet sweater for his father, as a symbol of his place on the All-Star team. I made up my mind to go talk to Alexander after the ceremony. I sat at the table, waiting for it to end. During the speeches, as I looked at him, I thought about him and his Dad, and me and my Dad, how it was Dad who had given me that Kharlamov autobiography, and how he once as my coach in juniors put together a line of players with sweater numbers 13-16-17, so it was just like the Mikhailov – Petrov – Kharlamov line. I was the 17.
But I never did speak to Alexander. When I was trying to think of something to say, I got nervous. I didn’t know what to say to him. When I couldn’t see him right after the ceremony, I didn’t bother to look for him harder.
I made a huge mistake.
When I checked the auction site a week later, the price had gone up a couple of hundred dollars. I noticed that I had also missed the closing of the auction by a day so even if I had managed to convince myself to pay whatever it took, and had come up with a clever explanation about the whole thing to Wife, the game was already over.
But I do have the photo. And every day, I sit in front of my computer, lean my head on my hands, and look at it.