Valeri’s last shift

Nobody else was yet up, not even the sun, when he got up from the bed he had shared with his son, and walked to the kitchen to make some tea. On mornings like these, he felt like an old man, even though he was just 33, and he hated it.

He had slept poorly. Partly because his son had been fidgeting all night, waking him up several times. He had got up a few times and just walked around the room. His father-in-law had offered to lift his son to the sofa so that he could sleep in the bed by himself, but he had said he was fine.

And he was. Sure, he was a little stiff from his workout from the day before, and maybe the age had nothing to do with it, and yes, the boy’s feet never seemed to sleep, but he had missed his son who had returned from a mother-son vacation the day before.

He had picked them up at the airport practically just hours earlier, and when his wife, Irina, hadn’t felt all too well, having lost her voice and all, he had said he’d be fine looking after the kids. Besides, he had missed the boy.

But now he was up again, what seemed almost just moments after he had gone to bed. He heard Irina get up, and rushed to make the tea so it would be ready when she got to the kitchen. It was a little too early, a little too chilly, that is, to have breakfast outside, so he took two tea mugs from the cupboard, and set them on the kitchen counter.

The nights had really gotten cooler lately. They were so cool that you could actually see it with your own eyes. The August days were still warm, even hot in the Moscow region, but when the sun went down, the nights got so cool that by five in the morning, the fields and the highways were under a blanket of fog.

But he wanted to get up early so that he could drive to Moscow and run some errands just as the city got to work, and then back to the summer house, the dacha, by eleven so he could then do his daily workout routine.

He had been working hard for the past few weeks, months even, to get back into the kind of shape that would let him finish his career on top of the world. He wasn’t done by any means, he was just 33, and had been elected Best Forward at the European Cup. Now, he hadn’t made the World Championship team that year, but he had played four games with the Soviet Union national team just a few weeks prior, as the team was getting ready for the 1981 Canada Cup.

His last goal in the national team was a year old, and the last four games without scoring was one of the longest dry spells he had ever had. Maybe that’s why the coach had cut him from the team. You would think that the coach would have had a little more faith in him, even after the Lake Placid disaster. But obviously he thought it was time for something new.

His linemate Boris Mikhailov had retired from hockey a few months earlier, their center, Vladimir Petrov, was out of the national team lineup as well, and had been transferred from the CSKA team to SKA Leningrad. But they were a little bit older anyway, Boris Petrovich over three years older, and Vladimir Vladimirovich a year older.

Just one more year, he had decided. One more year, one more world championship to take away the bitter taste that the Olympic loss and being cut from the 1981 World Championship team had left in his mouth.

And now he had been cut from the Canada Cup team as well. When the coach had invited him to camp to play in those four games – two against Sweden, two against Finland – he was sure he’d make the team. He hadn’t played much in the first game against Finland, which had been a bad sign, but he was back in for the last game, which they had won 5-2.

He had been ready to get back to Canada where he, Valeri Kharlamov, had once taken the hockey world by storm, when the Soviets had shocked the Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series. He was ready. He was so ready that he had told Irina that she and Alexander should take a vacation because he’d be in Canada anyway.

Well, the team had already left for Canada, and here he was on his dacha, making tea for his wife, getting ready to run some errands.

The coach had taken him aside after the last game in Helsinki, Finland, and told him that he had been cut. That he wouldn’t be on the team. Publicly, the coach told the press that he hadn’t been in game shape, that he had actually done him a favor just by inviting him to the training camp, as thanks of his services in the past, and that nobody could ever question his character, but that he wasn’t in shape.

His teammate, Vyacheslav Fetisov, thought that the coach had wanted to punish him for “some violation against the regime” as he said.

The coach had told him to stay at home with the junior players, and to work hard, so that he’d be ready for the World Championship in April.

He wanted to show them all.

That’s why he wanted to be back at the dacha by eleven so it was time to go. Irina had got dressed, and having taken one look at her husband, decided that he was too tired to drive. She told him that, too.

“You’re too tired to drive in the fog,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

Her mother didn’t like the sound of that, not one bit. She thought that Irina was a bad driver, and she told her so.

“No, no, I won’t let her drive, but we must leave now because I want to train at eleven and we have to take Sergey home, too,” he said, referring to his wife’s cousin.

He got in their Volga, and drove away.

The highway between Moscow and Leningrad was wet, and slippery when wet, and the fog was still hovering above the road. Irina had taken the wheel, and Sergey was in the back seat. The sun was up by now, at seven in the morning, and they were still on schedule.

Maybe it wasn’t all bad being at home with the wife and the kids. Maybe this lonesome training was exactly what he needed to have a great year. Maybe he’d figure out what to do after his career was over. Petrov still played in Leningrad, maybe he, could, too. And then become a coach, maybe.

A lot of maybes. A lot of questions with no answers. Yet.

He saw the Army truck coming towards them, but then not much more. Irina lost control of the Volga, and when the truck driver tried to steer to his right, Irina tried to turn her car to her right. Tires screeched, metals clashed, and the Kharlamovs’ Volga hit the side of the truck.

No more maybes.

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