Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet goaltender, visited Cosby's sporting goods store today to autograph books and chat with fans about the Challenge Cup series against the National Hockey League All-Star team, which begins here Thursday night.
"I don't know what the score will be," said Tretiak, who will start. "It is up to the NHL stars to put the puck by me."
Washington television stations will not carry the games. Sunday's concluding game will be seen in Northern Virginia through Home Box Office cable and highlights of tonight's opener and some live action of Saturday afternoon's second game will be seen on CBS Sports Spectacular on Baltimore's WMAR-TV-2.
Helmut Balderis, the swift right wing who is considered the Soviets' biggest scoring threat, stopped to answer questions with an interpreter's assistance and claimed he was not really called "Electric Train" by his teammates.
"Actually, my teammates call me things like 'Four-Eyes,'" said the bespectacled forward, a nonsoldier who nevertheless serves the Soviet Army as a "technologist."
Balderis was a star for Riga Dynamo until he was transferred to the Soviet Army team two years ago. In similar fashion, linemate Sergei Kapustin was shifted from the Soviet Wings to the Army club last year. Kapustin is considered a "student" and he has considerable company in that category among his 100 percent "amateur" teammates.
Six players who participated in that memorable 1972 competition with Team Canada are back this year -- Tretiak, defensemen Valeri Vasilyev and Gennadi Tsygankov, and the forward line of Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov. All but Tretiak and Petrov (teachers) are listed as students, although Mikhailov is 34 and the other three 31.
The Soviet players are much more visible and free to talk to outsiders than on previous visits. Asked today whether players would be available for interviews, Coach Viktor Tikhonov said that anyone could be questioned before dinner at the hotel.
Rarely are the answers much more than the traditional, and despite the increased visibility the players remain largely faceless. Balderis, for example, said it would be "an interesting series."
Although Tretiak raised some eyebrows in his book, "The Hockey I Love," by calling the Philadelphia Flyers "cutthroats," the Soviets generally follow a tight diplomatic line. Their statements also sometimes contradict each other, leaving the listener to provide his interpretation.
Tikhonov, asked about the importance of the Challenge Cup, said, "We do not attach any importance to the outcome. It doesn't matter whether we win or get defeated. The main thing is that this cup will take place and the best aspects of North American hockey and Soviet hockey will be displayed."
Later, asked if this series could be considered as a world championship, Tikhonov said, "Yes, certainly."
In 1972, after their intitial shock at learning how skilled the Soviets were, Team Canada rallied to win, 4-3-1, capturing the finale on Paul Henderson's last-minute score, 6-5. Since, a number of Soviet teams have visited North America and there has been a tendency by the visitors to adopt a more physical style, although they still thrive on playmaking in contrast to the NHL emphasis on dumping the puck and forechecking.
Bobby Clarke, who played for Team Canada in 1972, was a member of the Philadelphia Flyers when they defeated the Soviet Army in 1976 and again this year, when they tied the Soviet Wings. He has noticed the changes.
"There is no mystique about them," Clarke said. "They skate well, they pass the puck well and they shoot well. So do our players. We respect their ability because they are a great hockey team.
"They were a little different hockey team before. In 1976 we sat back at the start, then put four guys across the blue line and knocked them out of their patterns. They didn't seem able to improvise.
"When the Wings came to Philly there was a lot more hitting and a lot more fighting for the puck. Before they didn't go after the puck hard, but in Philly they were willing to challenge for it."
It seems likely that a line composed of Clarke, Montreal's Bob Gainey and Boston's Don Marcotte will be sent out to check the Soviets' now No. 1 line of Kapustin, Balderis and Viktor Zhuluktov.
"They always look the same," Marcotte said. "They are fast skaters and they move the puck very well. Our biggest problem is to play our own game, go up and down the wings. They want you to start running around trying to hit them. Then they'll beat you. The big thing is to play position."
During this morning's practice, the Soviets scrimmaged for about a half hour with all the players on the ice, 12 against 12. There was no checking and aside from testing the goalies against screen shots, there seemed no real purpose.
Asked the reason for the workout, Tikhonov said, "It was just to make you people curious. If I give away all our secrets, Mr. (Scotty) Bowman will have nothing to do. As we say in Russian, we will come away empty handed."
In past games, the Soviets have found it difficult to adjust their style of play in times of adversity. Asked about that deficiency, Tikhonov said, "Each game presents problems to each team and they will solve them as they arise. Everything changes in this world and the hockey does progress, too. There are likely to be changes on both sides, but as to the exact nature of the changes, you will see for yourself at the matches."
"You'll see a lot more checking from them, with the defense using the body in their end," said Bowman, the NHL coach. "They've been working on faceoffs, too. They were very weak before.
"They've had quite a bit of influence on our hockey, too. I think the biggest impact has been on our practice sessions. They don't have idle time in practice with people standing around. They're always moving, because the conditioning is done before."
The Soviets play hockey 11 months a year, with about half their game action devoted to league play and half to international competition. They rate a big edge by having played together for so long, where only the New York Islanders' line of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy has worked as a unit more than three days in the NHL camp.
The small ice surface should be an advantage to the NHL team and injuries to Soviet defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Lutchenko leave the visitors thin on the back line.
About 1,500 tickets remain for the three games -- most were sold to New York Ranger season ticket holders in prescribed blocks of three. Asked if there had been pressure to play the Ranger representatives, General Manager Bill Torrey said, "We have one pressure." That, obviously, is to win.
"We have to uphold the Canadian end of the hockey world," Gillies said."There's pressure on the guys to save face. If we lose all three, people will be asking, 'What happened? What's going on?'"
"Everybody is trying not to lose," said Montreal's Guy Lafleur. "If we should lose, everybody will say their system is better than ours. We don't want to change our style."