Soviet ice hockey idol Valeri Kharlamov, the World and Olympic Champion still considered one of the best players ever to put on skates, would have turned 70 on January 14 if not for his tragic passing in a car crash 36 years ago.
During his glittering sports career spanning 13 years, Kharlamov won two Olympic gold medals and no fewer than eight world titles, becoming one of the most decorated and recognizable players of his era. He also captivated North American fans and pundits with his stunning performance at the 1972 Summit Series between the USSR and Canada, dispelling the myth of the Canadian team’s invincibility.
Kharlamov was born in 1948 into a family of factory workers, who lived in a dormitory accommodation. They occupied a quarter of the room, which was separated from other inhabitants by a tiny wooden wall. His mother, Begonita Kharlamova, was an ethnic Basque who had moved to the USSR as a refugee when Spain was devastated by civil war in the ‘30s.
Little Valera, as Kharlamov was dubbed, started to skate at the age of five, with kit belonging to his father, who had played ice hockey and bandy as an amateur. In 1961, at the age of 13, Kharlamov was diagnosed with a heart condition, and ordered by doctors to quit any physical activity as in their view it could prove fatal for the young man.
Kharlamov’s father Boris disobeyed the medical recommendations and, keeping it a secret from his wife, brought his son to CSKA sports school, where Valeri started to play ice hockey.
He made his debut for the Red Army main team in October of 1967, though the legendary Anatoli Tarasov, who coached CSKA as well as the national squad, didn’t consider the young player a big asset to his team, sending Kharlamov to the third division team Zvezda (Star) Chebarkul in the Urals.
Having scored 34 goals in 32 games Kharlamov convinced the stubborn Tarasov to change his mind and bring the player back to CSKA, where spent more than 10 years.
At that time CSKA was considered the strongest ice hockey team in the USSR, supplying the national team with extra class players, who represented the Soviet Union on the international scene.
This was the period when the unstoppable ‘Red Machine’ was particularly strong, winning all major events including the World Championships and the Olympic Games.
Kharlamov rose to international prominence during the 1972 Summit Series, when Soviet players, who were considered amateurs, faced seemingly-unbeatable professionals from Canada.
In the opening game, which ended 7-3 in favor of the USSR, Kharlamov scored twice and was named the most valuable player of the night. Following the Summit Series, Canadian defenceman Serge Savard ranked Kharlamov as one of the top 5 players of all time.
NHL scouts, mesmerized by Kharlamov’s unique skating technique, his stickhandling and extraordinary speed, reportedly offered him sizeable contracts with their respective teams.
The Cold War between the USSR and United States did not leave the player an opportunity to perform abroad, as Soviet athletes were prohibited to play in ‘hostile’ capitalist countries. Moreover, all players under the Red Army contract were bound to military service, and their departure from the club would have been considered treason.
Kharlamov, as well as his prominent teammate Vladislav Tretyak, who is still considered one of the best goaltenders of all time, refused several enticing proposals to join the NHL.
Despite the USSR’s overall loss in the Summit Series, the Soviet players received international recognition, proving that other nations can perform at the same level as North Americans.
One of the most devastating moments in Kharlamov’s career happened at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, when the ‘Red Machine’ was sensationally beaten in the decisive game by the USA squad comprised of college students. The game we all know as ‘the Miracle on Ice.’
The young American team was somehow able to stop the Soviets, which hadn’t faltered in four consecutive Olympic cycles. What is less well known is that the accommodation given to the Soviet team was built as a prison, and that the night before the game they were kept awake by loud noises of mysterious origin.
The Soviet team’s second-place finish was viewed as a tragedy back home, as all the players as well as the fans were accustomed to winning every tournament the USSR took part in. Kharlamov and his line mates Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov were blamed for that disappointing loss which ended the impressive Soviet Olympic winning streak.
Team USSR redeemed themselves for that ‘humiliating’ silver by claiming gold at the following 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Kharlamov, however, wasn’t part of the team.
In August of 1981, Kharlamov, who had been left out of the team for the Canada Cup, was killed in a car accident together with his wife Irina and her cousin. His fellow players, who were devastated by his early death, then dedicated the victory at the Cup to their legendary teammate.
Kharlamov was born in an ambulance vehicle, and by a strange twist of fate met his demise in a car – bringing his life full circle.
A puck-shaped memorial stone bearing the legend “The star of Russian hockey faded here” was installed near the scene of the crash.
In recognition of his remarkable achievements Kharlamov, who perished at the tender age of 33, was admitted to the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada.