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To Russian hockey fans, the story of Valeri Kharlamov, front right, is Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Henderson, Bobby Orr and Frank McGee wrapped in a single package. (CP)
To Russian hockey fans, the story of Valeri Kharlamov, front right, is Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Henderson, Bobby Orr and Frank McGee wrapped in a single package. (CP)

Roy MacGregor

Russia gets gold medal for film mythologizing Kharlamov Add to ...

Let us compare mythologies.

Apologies, first, to Leonard Cohen for stealing the title of his first book, but he was the one who suggested in those early poems the heroic names we “bronze” for glory at times glow ever brighter until they are “fixed like a galaxy” in our memory.

Sport has a long and curious relation with mythology. Technically, of course, a “myth” begins in imagination, but hockey, among many other games people play, has long been happy to grant real, and some not so real, events mythological status.

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The Globe and Mail last Wednesday ran a selection of front pages from its 170-year history, placing Sidney Crosby’s “Golden Goal” from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics with such truly bronzed moments as Confederation, the end of the Second World War and the first man on the moon.

The “Golden Goal” is already its own galaxy, unassailable even though it was sort of a missed shot and missed goaltender play and paled, as a hockey play, to the brilliant goal Crosby scored against Sweden to give Canada a 2-0 lead in the Sochi gold-medal game four years later.

Still, it was the winning goal scored in overtime under remarkable stress and expectations, so it deserves special consideration even if it wasn’t quite “one giant leap for mankind.”

The Canadian women’s hockey team called its victory in Sochi “a game for the ages,” and, while the overtime comeback against the U.S. was certainly dramatic, it was also more than a bit of a fluke, from a golden goalpost to simply weird officiating. But so be it, four consecutive gold medals is also unassailable.

Let us turn now, to Russia in this curious game of hockey mythologizing.

Playing in Russian theatres this spring to great acclaim was a new film called Legend No. 17 – the story of Valeri Kharlamov, who, to Russian hockey fans, is Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Henderson, Bobby Orr and (One-Eyed) Frank McGee wrapped up in a single package.

The film also played on OAO Aeroflot flights that Canadian media took to Sochi, Russia, and home again.

No translation was required, as the images and actions perfectly told the story – albeit from the other side of that unforgettable 1972 Summit Series.

You want mythology, sit back and enjoy, for not even that thoughtful neighbour in Floral, Sask., dropping by the poor Howe household with a pair of old skates for Gordie and his sister to share can hold a candle to the opening.

Kharlamov is an eight-year-old boy in Spain, visiting relatives with his mother (who had Basque blood) and happens to be in Pamplona when they run the bulls. He sees a terrified puppy in the middle of the street and goes to rescue it in the midst of the bulls thundering through the narrow lanes. Holding the puppy to his breast, the child eludes the first stampede, only to then be stalked by a massive, furious bull that turns back from the pack.

Fortuitously, a matador leaps from a high balcony, lands in the dusty street and saves the boy with multiple deft moves using only his red bandana for a cape. The boy rescued, the man ties his dusty bandana around the child’s neck for good luck.

Back in Moscow, the sickly boy – small, frail, with a heart condition – finds himself attracted to a game doctors advise he avoids. But hockey is all the boy lives for, working endlessly in the freezing cold of outdoor rinks to skate and stickhandle at a level so far above all the other children he is soon noticed and tagged for something special.

Grown now – and played by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky – young Kharlamov joins CSKA, home club of Red Army, and is dispatched to play for Zvezda, a junior club in Chebarkul, an industrial town in the Urals.

It is not an easy time for Valeri Kharlamov. He is bullied by his new teammates – one pours boiling water over the newcomer’s hand – and, yet, he never stops working out, even climbing the city’s massive coal-burning stacks and then, unbelievably, crossing hand-over-hand by cable to the top of the next giant stack to climb it.

Inserted into the lineup, he is an instant sensation, seeming to score all the goals in a 9-0 rout of another team and getting the call to join the big club in Moscow, coached by the legendary Anatoli Tarasov.

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