A Russian media outlet recently named Evgeni Malkin the No. 1 Russian NHL player of all time.
There’s no arguing. Malkin is an amazing marriage of individual and team accomplishments: In 11 NHL seasons, Malkin has collected three Stanley Cups, two scoring titles, one MVP, one playoff MVP and Rookie of the Year.
But before Russian hockey players could ply their trade in North America, there was VALERI KHARLAMOV.
There’s no doubt the Soviet National Team of the ‘70s and ‘80s was the best hockey team ever.
But I’ve often wondered how good their players really were individually.
They were part of a stacked team, both internationally and in the Soviet league, where almost all of them played for Red Army. Stats proved little. Each player only played a handful of challenging games per year. Training year-round meshed the Soviets like no other team ever, and the individuals reaped the rewards.
Some Soviets came to the NHL and faltered. Winger Vladimir Krutov was a bust. Even defenseman Slava Fetisov struggled initially.
Kharlamov, a winger, never made it to the NHL. He died at 33 in a car crash in 1981, shortly after being dropped from the Soviet National Team as de facto punishment for losing to the United States at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Kharlamov was the best. If you saw him, you know. Fast, skilled, cerebral, deadly in front of goal – Kharlamov was an artist.
"His talents were God-given and he could do practically everything - a smart play, a tricky pass, a precise shot," said his teammate, legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. "Everything he did looked so easy, so elegant. His execution of hockey was aesthetic and he amazed millions."
Kharlamov so terrorized Canada in the 1972 Summit Series – the first meeting of Canadian pros and Soviet “amateurs” – that Canada’s Bobby Clarke slashed him with malicious intent in Game Six of the eight-game affair, breaking Kharlamov's ankle.
Kharlamov missed Game Seven and was hobbled for Game Eight. Canada won both games, giving them three straight victories on Moscow ice to earn a 4-3-1 series victory.
What Clarke did was despicable, but understandable. With Kharlamov at 100 percent, the Soviets would have won the series.
Aging video snippets don’t do Kharlamov justice. But it’s all we’ve got. Believe me when I say Kharlamov was one of hockey’s brightest lights ever.