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Firsov was Russia's greatest player

Thursday, 11.20.2008 / 12:43 PM / NHL Insider

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"Three things made him better than everyone else. He invented the stick-to-skate-to-stick move and made it look like he lost control; he had a lethal slap shot that bent goalies' knees at a time when few goalies wore masks and he had amazing stickhandling skills. He was a fanatic about hockey and practiced without stopping."
-- Igor Kuperman

Few people would describe Anatoly Firsov as a lucky man.

Skilled? Yes.

Courageous? Yes.

Intelligent? Definitely.

But lucky? No.

Firsov had the unfortunate distinction of being the best hockey player in the world at a time when few people thought that designation could go to anyone other than a Canadian professional. When his career was over, he "backed the wrong horse" when the Soviets had a power struggle over who would coach the national team.

Firsov was unquestionably the best player not in the NHL during the late 1960s when he led the World Championships in scoring for three-straight years and broke the scoring record in 1968. His Soviet teams won the World Championship every year from 1964 to 1971. He played on seven Soviet League championship teams.

He was one of four members of the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Soviet Union teams -- along with Viktor Kuzkin, Vitali Davydov and Aleksandr Ragulin -- to become the first hockey players to win three Olympic gold medals. He was the best player produced by the legendary Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov.

He practically invented the skill of propelling the puck with both his feet and his stick. If Wayne Gretzky perfected it, Firsov introduced it. Many a defender was fooled into thinking Firsov had overskated the puck only to see him blow by them after he kicked it forward onto his stick.

Firsov also possessed the hardest slap shot in international hockey, as well as a quick and accurate wrist shot. Simply put, he had more skills than almost any hockey player before him.

"Three things made him better than everyone else," said Russian hockey writer Igor Kuperman. "He invented the stick-to-skate-to-stick move and made it look like he lost control; he had a lethal slap shot that bent goalies' knees at a time when few goalies wore masks and he had amazing stickhandling skills. He was a fanatic about hockey and practiced without stopping.

"Firsov was very thin," Kuperman continued. "He was almost 5-10 and weighed only 170 pounds. He was a great player and a good person. I'm proud that I knew him personally."

Marshall Johnston, the Carolina Hurricanes' director of pro scouting, has built a deserved reputation as an excellent judge of hockey talent. He was the scouting director whose picks helped Lou Lamoriello build the New Jersey Devils in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He played against Firsov in the 1964 and 1968 Winter Olympics. Johnston was eighth-leading scorer in 1968 with 2 goals and 6 assists.

Firsov had success against every European opponent, but he had some of his biggest games against Canada, at a time when the Canadians were nearly apoplectic about Soviet professionalism. Firsov was the key player in the Soviet's gold-medalgame victory over the Canadians, captained by Johnston, in the 1968 Olympics.

The Canadians had a chance for the gold medal if they could topple the Soviets, but were beaten, 5-0, and settled for a bronze after compiling a 4-2 record. The Soviets went 5-1 while the Swedes, who beat the Soviets, tied the Czechs in their final game and took the silver medal.

The Soviets went ahead of the Canadians on Firsov's first-period goal and were blown out in a three-goal, third-period outburst that included another Firsov goal. Firsov's 12 tournament goals broke a 17-year-old Olympic record.

"We played well but Anatoly Firsov, who passed away in 2000, scored a couple of timely goals and they went on to win," Johnston recalled. "Firsov might have been the best hockey player I've ever seen."

So upset were the Canadians that they dropped out of Olympic competition, making it easier for the Soviets to win again in 1972.

It wasn't the first time Firsov dominated a Canadian team. In a 1964 exhibition game in Winnipeg, Firsov scored 6 goals as the Soviets won, 10-1. In the 1967 World Championships in Vienna, Firsov scored one of Soviet hockey's most famous goals. In the second period of the Canadian game, Firsov, making a line change, fired a slap shot from the red line. Two defenders tried to knock down the high shot, but it eluded goalie Seth Martin.

Firsov was climbing onto the bench as the puck entered the net and had to be told of his accomplishment. Soviet newspapers referred to it as "the goal from the Cosmos."

Firsov was one of the Soviet Union's most popular athletes and influenced several younger generations

"When I was a kid, it was unbelievable to watch him," recalled Hall of Fame defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov. "He was a legend. A couple of generations of kids grew up wanting to play hockey because of Firsov and what he did on the ice. He was electrifying. His shot was unstoppable. All the tricks he did on the ice are unrepeatable."

Firsov was named to five straight All Star teams at the World Championships. The amazing thing is that he was named an All Star at left wing in 1967 and 1969 and as a right wing in 1968 and 1971. He was honored with the prestigious Directorate Award at the 1967, 1968 and 1971 World Championships. In all, his Soviet teams won seven World Championships.

Firsov joined the Moscow Spartak team in 1958 at age 17 and moved to the Central Red Army team in 1961. He first appeared on a Soviet World Championship roster in 1962 but didn't play until 1964.

Firsov was a naïve country boy whose hockey talents enabled him to see Moscow and then the world. Later, he said he was so unsophisticated that he questioned the significance of winning his first Olympic gold medal in 1964.

"I myself could not understand, when I became an Olympic Champion, what I won, what is it?" Firsov told the American Public Broadcasting System. He tried to reject the offer to join the Red Army team by hiding at a coach's home, but was picked up by the Army and flown directly to a game in Riga, Latvia.

"You have skills only Tarasov can develop," he was told. At the Zhemchuzhnyi training facility there is a 150-step staircase that Firsov would hop up on one leg and then hop down on the other. Soviet officials were so amazed they officially dedicated the staircase in his name.

Tarasov loved Firsov's dedication and knowing that the young man's father had been killed in war, invited him to view him as a father as well as a coach. But he didn't cut him any slack. Sick with pneumonia, Firsov was ordered to play in a World Championship game. When he broke his rib in the game, Firsov knew better than to beg out.

Firsov quit hockey after Soviet officials double-crossed Tarasov and dumped him as the national head coach.

After he retired, Firsov coached the Red Army junior team for three years, then continued in an unimportant administrative position that embittered him. He became a critic of later Soviet training methods, believing Tarasov's system was better.

Despite his naivete, Firsov knew he was a professional masquerading as an amateur in international competition and said so. His career ended long before Fetisov broke the Soviet Union's hold on its players.

"Hockey for us was a job and a joy,. So we did not even think, when they told to us, 'If you win, we'll pay you good money.' We knew, that they will pay us practically nothing anyway, but it was just a love of hockey. We considered ourselves professionals, with the salary of an amateur"
-- Anatoly Firsov

The Montreal Canadiens asked Soviet officials in 1972 if Firsov could try out for their team since his amateur career was coming to an end but the Soviets never answered, he said.

"Hockey for us was a job and a joy," he said. "So we did not even think, when they told to us, 'If you win, we'll pay you good money.' We knew, that they will pay us practically nothing anyway, but it was just a love of hockey. We considered ourselves professionals, with the salary of an amateur."

Seeking new worlds to conquer with the demise of the Soviet Union, Firsov was elected to the Russian Duma, or parliament, in 1990 and served several terms. He was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1988.

"I was devoted to Tarasov, and it was psychologically fixed in me that once there is no Tarasov, there won't be victory. I already did not believe in any of other coaches. ... When they gave me an exercise, I either laughed at them in my soul, or, in reality, behaved so that they were angry at me. They understood, that I, as they say, was making fools of them," Firsov said.

Later, those coaches had him banned from watching the Soviet team in international competitions.

"We revived hockey in Russia, and suddenly we were not allowed," he said. "I am declared nearly an enemy of the people, certainly I felt very hurt, and I can't forgive them so far. So these feelings accumulated in me until I entered politics, made it into the Supreme Soviet, where I could fight with them as equals, independently from them."

Firsov died in Moscow of heart failure on July 24, 2000 at the age of 59.
Quote of the Day

Your team is going to want to recapture the feeling. What they're going to have to figure out is they're going to have to rewrite the story. Because you're going to rewrite the story doesn't mean you want a different end. It's just that you're going to have to learn that there's different challenges to get there, and if you're going to try and tap the same feeling, it ain't going to happen.

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi on maintaining their success from last season