Kharlamov's life one of talent and tragedy

Updated: November 4, 2005, 11:51 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Not far from kilometer marker No. 73 on the highway which connects St. Petersburg and Moscow is a memorial stone bearing the inscription: "The star of Russian hockey fell here."

The stone marks the spot where a car crash claimed the life of Russian hockey legend Valeri Kharlamov and his wife on Aug. 27, 1981.

Valeri Kharlamov
AP PHOTO/Vancouver Province, FileIn 40 games against North American professional players, Valeri Kharlamov produced 48 points.

Almost a quarter of a century later, that star will rise again in Toronto on Monday, when Kharlamov will become only the second Soviet player to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame without having ever played in the National Hockey League.

"And finally, a justice for all. That was my initial reaction," said noted Russian hockey historian Arthur Chidlovski, who closely followed the career of Kharlamov, as well as the impact of the two exhibition series between NHL and WHA all-stars and the Russian national teams in 1972 and 1974. "The guy was a poet. A national poet of the game."

Kharlamov follows longtime national team teammate Vladislav Tretiak, who was the first Soviet star in the Hall, inducted in 1989, and countryman Slava Fetisov, who joined the Hall in 2001 after playing the final years of his distinguished career in the NHL.

"It's really exciting for me," said Kharlamov's son, Alexander, who will accept the honor on his father's behalf and who is also playing in a series of charity games between former Soviet and Canadian stars across Canada. "I don't know how to say it. It's very hard to put into words."

Not for Atlanta star Ilya Kovalchuk, who wears No. 17 to honor Kharlamov.

"He should have been there many years ago. I think he was one of the best players in the world," Kovalchuk said.

Although Kharlamov died almost two years before Kovalchuk was born, Kovalchuk said the induction is a celebration for all of hockey.

"I think it's good for Russian hockey. I think it's good for everybody," he said. "He was my dad's favorite player. We had a lot of videotapes at home. The '72 series. He was an incredible player."

Unlike Tretiak, who became a household name in Canada almost from the moment the seminal Summit Series began in September 1972 and who went on to a distinguished career as an NHL goaltending consultant, Kharlamov was more spectral, ghost-like.

Even now, the grainy images of the slender No. 17 gracefully darting across the ice during rare exhibition games against Canadian All-Star teams in the 1970s or at international competitions give only a vague hint of the player's esteem.

Slightly built at 5-foot-7, Kharlamov was like Wayne Gretzky in that he was never the fastest player nor did he possess the most imposing shot. But it was the complete package that reflected his greatness.

At the tender age of 21, Kharlamov was bestowed with the prestigious Russian title, Merited Master of Sport.

Watching the '72 Summit Series, which pitted the best Canadian NHL players against a Soviet team which had dominated international play for years, Chidlovski said Kharlamov made the Canadian defenders look like "they were old-timers, minor-league wannabes or something."

"What he was doing to them was very intimidating."

"The Canadians were always looking at Kharlamov with their mouths open. But they just couldn't accept it," Chidlovski added. "He was just this skinny guy. But on the ice, a magician."

Harry Sinden was the coach of that fabled Canadian team in 1972. As the series unfolded, and the Canadians began to understand the depth of skill their opponents possessed, it became clear that Kharlamov was the key to the Russian attack.

"He was our primary target. Every night it was, 'who's going to take care of that guy?' He was dynamite," said Sinden.

It will go down as one of the most unsavory acts in hockey history, but the answer to that rhetorical question was Bobby Clarke.

In Game 6 of the series, Clarke, then a star with the Philadelphia Flyers, cracked a bone in Kharlamov's ankle with a vicious slash. Kharlamov missed Game 7, when the Russians could have clinched the series and was less than 100 percent in the deciding eighth game, won by the Canadians on Paul Henderson's historic goal in the final minute.

It is an incident that does a disservice both to Clarke, who is a Hall of Famer, and to Kharlamov, whose standing within the Russian hockey community far exceeds what unfolded on the ice during those historic days in September 1972.

As far as Sinden is concerned, the fact Kharlamov never played in the NHL means nothing. The proof of his worth as a player was seen in how he excelled against the very best the world had to offer.

Kharlamov finished the tournament with seven points and 16 penalty minutes. In 40 games against North American professional players, Kharlamov produced 48 points.

"He had the skill and the ability of any player in the NHL at the time. I think it's a damn good selection," Sinden said. "Serge Savard [former Canadiens player and GM] figures he's one of the greatest players he's ever seen, and that's good enough for me."

Although the slash will be the defining moment of Kharlamov's career for many North American fans, Chidlovski said there was an even more emotional moment for Russian fans involving Kharlamov.

Five years before his death, Kharlamov was involved in another car accident, one that nearly claimed his life at that time and caused him to miss the classic 1976 Canada Cup.

"It was a career-ending accident. He was terribly injured and he was in the hospital for many months," Chidlovski.

But Kharlamov rose from his sick bed and returned to his Red Army team, scoring a goal in his first game back, drawing an emotional response from an adoring country, Chidlovski said.

"This is the player that was loved by fans, his opponents and of course, his teammates. The only name I can tell of his enemies is Bobby Clarke," Chidlovski said.

In 14 seasons with the vaunted Red Army team, Kharlamov led the squad to 11 national titles. He tallied 507 points in 436 games. He was also the catalyst to two Olympic gold medals, in 1972 and again in 1976. In 11 consecutive World Championships, Kharlamov led the Russians to eight gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. Four times, he was named to the championship all-star team. In 1998, he was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation's hall of fame.

For much of his career with the national team, Kharlamov lined up with Vladimir Petrov at center and Boris Mikhailov on the right side. The line is considered one of the most potent of all time.

Still, if there is an ethereal quality to Kharlamov, it extends even to his family.

"I don't really remember my father," admitted Alexander, now 30.

The young Kharlamov was 5 years old when his parents were killed; after which, he and his sister moved into a Moscow apartment with their maternal grandmother.

"We were so young, it wasn't so hard. You don't feel the same loss," Alexander said. "It was a very hard time for my grandmother because, you know, [she had to take care of] two small kids."

It was only recently that he saw tapes of some of the games in which his father played.

"I know my father just on videotape. I know he's a great player and a national hero," Alexander said. "It was great to see them. It was really interesting for me to see him play."

In the absence of the father, there remained hockey.

Having tried on skates at the age of 3, Alexander began playing with the Red Army youth team at age 6.

In Kharlamov's lifetime, the prospect of playing in the NHL wasn't even the stuff of dreams. But less than a generation later, his son Alexander found himself as a first-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals, who selected him 15th overall in the 1994 draft.

Alexander Kharlamov played a couple of years in the minors and returned to Russia, where he played in the elite league until this season. Now, he is hoping to start a players' union for those playing in the league many consider to be the best outside the NHL.

Alexander has a 7-year-old son, Valeri, named for the boy's grandfather. Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar is godfather to the young Valeri Kharlamov.

Is he a hockey player?

"No, he's not. He's a soccer player," Alexander said, laughing.

But we suspect he's a good one.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.