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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.

Tarasov, now considered “the father of Russian hockey,” was both visionary – dry land training, emphasis on passing rather than shooting, units of five – and a tyrant.

Tarasov despised players’ egos and thought Kharlamov too full of himself. To break the young player, he treated him abysmally, forcing him to sit in the stands in full uniform while his teammates practised.

When finally Kharlamov was called out of the stands, Tarasov forced him to stand in the net while the rest of the team blasted pucks at him, leaving him so covered in welts and bruises he could not move let alone play.

Finally, after Kharlamov had all but given up hope he would ever get off the bench, Tarasov ordered him over the boards with Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov. The three were an instant sensation, leading the team to the Soviet championship, with the brilliant Kharlamov becoming the darling of hockey fans.

Tarasov the tyrant, however, was dismissed following the 1972 Winter Olympics, despite winning yet another gold medal. Vsevolod Bobrov was chosen to handle the all-star entry for the Summit Series with Canada, a decision that broke Tarasov’s heart and, according the film, sent those he had abused all those years into tears.

Kharlamov was in an automobile accident not long before the series and he suffered a broken leg that apparently did not heal well. Driven to come back to the club team by Tarasov – at one point taking him into a morgue to show him how he could have ended up – Kharlamov forced himself to skate when he shouldn’t and came back far too early.

(On the flight to Canada, Kharlamov is shown in the airplane washroom, secretly treating his damaged leg.)

Game 1 of the Summit Series, played in Montreal, is perfectly remembered by all Canadians of a certain age – but not quite this way.

The Russian film shows an actor playing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dropping the puck, a sportswriter who looks like The Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes announcing he will eat his column if the Soviets win a single game, an actor portraying Alan Eagleson and another for Canada head coach Harry Sinden.

And there the similarities end.

The Canadians, of course, roar off to a quick 2-0 lead on goals by Phil Esposito and Henderson. (The actor playing Esposito looks as if he failed to clear off his makeup after leaving the set of Planet of the Apes.)

The Soviets gradually contain their nerves and begin a comeback. Kharlamov swirls about brilliantly with the puck. There are flashbacks to the bulls and the matador. Kharlamov is even secretly wearing the matador’s old red bandana around his neck, hidden by his jersey.

With his puckhandling skills driving the Canadians to distraction, Kharlamov is stalked and hunted down by Esposito and Bobby Clarke, who chop ferociously at his bad leg until he falls. (Clarke’s actual attack on Kharlamov’s ankle does not take place until Game 6 in Moscow, but we are dealing here with mythology, not history.)

Lying helplessly on the ice, Kharlamov hears and sees Tarasov, the tyrant, imploring him to get up. He struggles to his feet and re-enters the fray. His team begins the comeback, scoring twice to tie the game.

Tarasov, meanwhile, is shown standing on an empty outdoor rink in Moscow, a light rain falling and a twig in his hand that he moves through the puddles as if it were a hockey stick. He hears a roar from nearby apartments and knows his former players have struck back.

It is Kharlamov who scores the decisive third and fourth goals in the Soviets’ triumphant 7-3 comeback. Tarasov reacts in the empty Moscow rink to every roar from the apartments.

It is Kharlamov who puts Clarke over the boards, Kharlamov who sends Esposito into a wild, profane and destructive rant between periods.

It is Kharlamov who is approached by a shaken Esposito at game’s end for a handshake and a quick, “You’re good – there will be more games in the Super Series.”

But not in this movie.

In this movie, an announcer tells the audience this one game has proven the Soviets have “the best hockey team in the world.”

In this movie, the exultant players telephone Tarasov, who breaks down in tears.

In this movie, the final image is of Valeri Kharlamov circling at centre ice, the game’s first star, the spotlight upon him, the hero “fixed like a galaxy” forever and ever and ever.

As only mythology can provide.

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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