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Puchkov helped lead Russia's rise in international game

Controversial goalie butted heads with hierarchy, scorned for questioning style of play

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The first thing you notice -- how can you not? -- is the leather cycling helmet on the head of Nikolai Puchkov, as crude as the boxy catching glove he is stabbing into the air.

Puchkov's tongue is thrust out just a little. His eyes, and those of Canada's Doug Kilburn, follow the puck, which might or might not be in the net. 

This arresting 1955 image freezes the father of Russian goaltending, a man faithful to the quirky customs of his NHL contemporaries Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and Glenn Hall.

Puchkov would be the template, even the inspiration for a schoolboy named Vladislav Tretiak, the magnificent Russian over whom Canada would suffer a nervous breakdown during the eight games of the historic 1972 Summit Series.

Puchkov is photographed in the gold-medal game of the 1955 World Hockey Championship in Krefeld, Germany, played before a sellout of 9,000 fans. The 5-0 victory for Canada, represented by the senior national-champion Penticton (British Columbia) Vees, restored pride in a nation whose Senior B amateur East York (Ontario) Lyndhursts had been humiliated 7-2 a year earlier by the U.S.S.R. in the Soviets' debut on the world stage.

Until the Lyndhursts' embarrassing loss, Canada had outscored its opponents 510-50 and was 70-2 in tournament games dating to 1930; both defeats were by a single goal -- a 2-1 overtime decision to the U.S. in 1933 and 3-2 to Czechoslovakia in 1949.

To this day, many Canadians of a certain age view Tretiak, who retired in 1984, as the only noteworthy goalie to come out of Russia. It has not helped that his countrymen haven't exactly dominated NHL goaltending; only one has won the Stanley Cup, Nikolai Khabibulin with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.

Last season, however, Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets won the Vézina Trophy, voted by NHL general managers to the League's best goalie. In 2013, Bobrovsky had made history by becoming the first Russian-born goalie to win the Vézina, goaltending's most prestigious award.

Video: Sergei Bobrovsky is presented the Vezina Trophy

Six of those losses came in Puchkov's eight lifetime games against Canada. But his two colossal wins earned Russia victory at the 1954 World Championship and a stunning gold medal at the Olympics two years later in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. More impressively, he blanked the U.S. 4-0 and Canada 2-0 on consecutive nights in the 1956 Olympics, a feat never matched.

Puchkov was a huge reason why the U.S.S.R., just dipping its toe into international waters, beat Canada both times. Following him a decade and a half down the road would be Tretiak, the Soviet Union's No. 1 goaltender from 1971-84 and current president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.

Tretiak was a superhero in his homeland, winning three Olympic gold medals and 10 World Championship titles while starring for his country and Central Red Army team against NHL and professional all-star teams en route to his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in 1989.

Puchkov succeeded while staring down Russia's iron-fisted hockey bosses. He became the only Soviet player to plunge into the study of English, reading everything he could about Canadian hockey, angering tyrannical coach Anatoli Tarasov, the legendary Central Red Army coach, and fellow national team coach Arkady Chernyshov, head of Moscow Dynamo, by declaring that Canadians played a superior game and that unless the Soviets adopted a defensive style, Canada "will tear us apart."

He was blackballed, by most accounts, left off important rosters and overlooked for exhibition tours while lesser Russian goalies often would be torched, the goal light burning the back of their necks.

Finally, three years after helping his country to a 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic bronze medal, he quit the game to coach Leningrad Army. There he remained for 15 years, stressing an airtight defensive game which Tarasov, by now a bitter rival, sniffed at as being "Stone Age hockey."

Of course, the brilliant goaltender took to his grave the belief that his model was the bedrock of the Russian game. He was 75 when he died on Aug. 8, 2005, a half-century after having given Canadian hockey much more than it could handle on world championship and Olympic rinks.

On Monday, Canadian hockey will renew acquaintances in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the name of the man who decades ago gave them nightmares -- a Canadian team will take part in the 2017 Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov, an international event that will include teams from Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Today, the contributions of a legendary, long-ago Russian goaltender are better appreciated and more widely celebrated than when he was alive, a sad, common fate whether the hockey pioneer is named Puchkov or Plante.

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