Film brings Soviet hockey legend to life

Valeri Kharlamov became a global household name in September 1972, when the Soviets played against Canada in the Summit Series. Source: ITAR-TASS

Valeri Kharlamov became a global household name in September 1972, when the Soviets played against Canada in the Summit Series. Source: ITAR-TASS

USSR-Canada rivalry remembered in new film about hockey legend Valeri Kharlamov.

It's a time when Soviet ice hockey is the best in the world. The game that was originally invented in Canada was wholeheartedly embraced and cherished by millions of people living in the world’s largest country.

“Only real men play ice hockey, there is no place for cowards here,” goes a famous Soviet song that reflects best the attitude toward this sport.

In the USSR, tough guys holding sticks in their hands were far more than just sportsmen, and an ice hockey match was more than a game. Ice hockey has become a source of national pride and the country’s trademark, along with matryoshka nestling dolls and ballet.

In the ranking of Soviet heroes, ice hockey players were somewhere near the top, next to famed cosmonauts and test pilots.   

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union lived and breathed ice hockey. Whenever the national team – the legendary Red Machine led by head coach, Anatoli Tarasov – played, the streets emptied. The whole country was glued to their TV sets to see the likes of Boris Mikhailov, Alexander Yakushev, Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov in action.

Hockey fever reached its peak in the USSR between 1972 and 1974, when the national teams of the Soviet Union and Canada faced each other in the Summit Series. The top stars of the time crossed in spectacular fashion: each game and each win cost a lot of blood, sweat and tears.    

The four-decade-old sports drama comes back to life in Legend No. 17, a new film in Russian theatres about the life of legendary ice hockey player Valeri Kharlamov, one of the most remarkable sportsmen of his time.

Indeed, the biopic, which stars popular actors Danila Kozlovsky and Oleg Menshikov, does the player justice. The film earned $8 million in its first week and garnered a plethora of positive reviews from critics.

We've brought together five pieces of trivia about the life of CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team great Valeri Kharlamov, the man who made No. 17 legendary.

1. Half-Basque

Valeri Kharlamov was born to an international family of blue-collar workers. The parents of the future hockey star worked at Moscow’s Kommunar plant.

His father, Boris Kharlamov, was a locksmith and his mother, Carmen Orive-Abad, a turner. Carmen, or Begoña, as she was called by her family, fled Spain in the midst of the civil war in 1937. After the war, Spanish refugees in the USSR were given the option to return to their homeland. In 1956, the eight-year-old Valeri stayed in Spain for several months with his mother and even started attending a local school.       

2. A heart defect is not a problem

Valeri was seven years old when he tried on ice skates for the first time. And from that moment on, all he did was play hockey with his friends outside.

His poor health prevented him from pursuing a sports career at first. And his coaches did not like him because he was small and skinny, to say nothing of the heart defect that was discovered after a bout of tonsillitis. Doctors immediately advised Valeri against engaging in any form of physical activity. But his passion for ice hockey was too strong, so Valeri’s father, who saw great potential in his son, took the boy to the CSKA hockey school – unbeknownst to Valeri’s mother.

The coaches liked the young player and accepted him to the school. Later, regular training helped Valeri gain muscle mass and thus beat his ailments. A comprehensive medical examination at the club confirmed the player was completely healthy.

3. Shining in Chebarkul 45 years before the meteor

The CSKA junior team forward played the 1967-1968 season for Zvezda, a club from the Urals town of Chebarkul, where a meteor fell in February 2013.

Back then, competition in CSKA was very stiff; there were a number of outstanding players on the roster. That is why coach Anatoli Tarasov decided to send the promising rookie to the Urals-based CSKA farm club Zvezda, where Valeri could acquire some useful experience rather than sit on the bench in the major team. Kharlamov didn’t disappoint, scoring 34 goals and helping his team gain promotion. The next season, Kharlamov returned to the major team.

4. Million dollar baby

Valeri Kharlamov became a global household name in September 1972, when the Soviets played against Canada in the Summit Series. Few people doubted Team Canada would win the tournament: Toronto’s The Globe and Mail correspondent, Dick Beddoes, offered to eat his words if the Russians won even one game in the series. In the very first match the Soviet players destroyed the founding fathers of the game 7-3 and, with two goals, Kharlamov was named MVP of Game 1.

Despite the eventual loss in the series, the Soviet team left a huge impression on foreign hockey enthusiasts. They were particularly impressed by Kharlamov: This small but tightly built player had better skills and was a faster thinker than his stronger and taller Canadian counterparts.

After the Summit Series, an NHL club offered Kharlamov a million-dollar contract, but there was no way a Soviet hockey player could move overseas at the time. Even so, Canada has not forgotten Kharlamov, as it introduced him into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.          

5. Memento mori

Kharlamov’s life was as fleeting as the flight of a puck. On August 27, 1981, Kharlamov’s wife Irina lost control of her Volga car on a rainy road in the Moscow suburbs. The car skidded into the opposite lane and collided with an oncoming lorry, leaving Valeri, Irina and her cousin, Sergei, dead.

On August 31, several thousand people came to pay their last respects to the player. A few days before the tragedy, Soviet head coach, Viktor Tikhonov, had decided not to take Kharlamov to compete in the Canada Cup tournament. The national team players honored the great master’s memory by devastating the Canadians 8-1 in the crucial match and winning the tournament.

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