Slap! The puck, a hundred-mile-per-hour blur, zips toward a narrow spot between the padded masked man and the edge of the goal behind him.
The mask barely turns. The bulky figure shifts imperceptibly and a gloved leather claw spears the sizzling disk and drops it at his feet.
The attack starts again. The padded masked man is bombarded. The three men of world hockey's most potent forward line hack at the puck with measured frenzy of woodsmen felling an oak. But they are repulsed each time.
The masked man is Red Army Officer Vladislav Tretiak, the Joe DiMaggio of goalies, whose smooth style and defensive genius anchor the most successful ice hockey team in the history of international amateur competition.
That there is nothing amateur about this team we can discuss later. Let's watch.
There are 22 men on the indoor practice rink of the Central Army sports club's sprawling athletic complex several miles northwest of the Kremlin in central Moscow. They make up the premier hockey team in the Soviet Union, from which the bulk of the Russian national team is drawn every year for world competitions. They range in age from 18 to 36, and they are near the pinnacle of a competitive system without equal in the West.
The Red Army lines attack in waves, spreading and weaving down the ice.
At last, a puck skitters past Tretiak into the net.The forward line retreats. Tretiak skates out of the crease and slides over to the edge of the ice, stick raised. He smashes it against the plexiglass and the impact echoes over the rink, high up where the flags of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union hang over the ice. Tretiak wants perfection.
Watch out, America. Packing an endless series of perfectly executed plays, fierce body-checking and deep, deep experience, the Russians are coming, odds-on favorites at Lake Placid for their sixth gold medal in Olympic ice hockey.
They will be on view Saturday in an exhibition game against the U.S. national team at Madison Square Garden.
Since they began participating in ice hockey outside their borders in the early 1950s, the Soviets have taken part in 24 world and European championships. They have won 15 golds, six silvers and three bronze.
Their Olympic record: 40 games played, 35 wins, two draws, three defects, 290 goals for, 80 against. That's called dominance. Here, the sport is known as Canadian hockey. On the record, it seems misnamed.
The Russians have extended their dominion to include the North American professionals as well. In the '70s, the Soviets first surprised, then embarrassed and, finally, humiliated the great stars of the National Hockey League.
This is no accident. Soviet hockey, like all of Soviet international sport, is an instrument of national will and prestige. When it fails, retribution comes with near-blinding swiftness.
In 1976, the Soviet national team encountered disaster -- a third-place finish -- at the world championships, even though the Russians had once again taken the gold at the Olympics. Komsomolskaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Young Communist League, put it plainly:
"Obviously, not everything is all right in the organization of ice hockey when coaches find it difficult to pick out from millions of hockey players a national team of 22 players who would be capable of upholding and consolidating the high position of Soviet ice hockey."
The party was not happy. Two weeks later, Nikolai Tikhonov, architect of a remarkable renaissance of hockey fortunes for the Riga, Latvia team, was appointed to head the national team and its core, the Red Army Team. The Soviets have been practically unbeatable since.
Look into the face of Tikhonov. He is 48, but the etched lines of tension that web his face reveal a man who lives inside a boiler of white-hot temperatures. Yet his deep-set eyes are calm. "My hobby is hockey," he says. His hobby runs from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
Tikhonov, a lieutenant colonel in the Red Army, doesn't expect to lose at Lake Placid, but won't say this. He is cautious, even courtly and delightfully low key about his team and its success. "The Olympic Games are very treacherous, very dangerous." What he says is that the Czechs, Americans and Canadians will be very tough. The Czechs have been the most persistent runners-up, finishing second twice and thirds twice since 1964.
The Soviets and Czechs play frequently in European and other international competitions and these matches are titanic struggles that draw their raw meaning -- at least to an outsider -- from the moment on Aug. 20, 1968, when Soviet tanks pierced the Czech border to tumble the liberal government of Alexander Dubcek.Each face-off is an allegorical rematch of that uneven contest. The Czechs dislodged the Soviets from the world championship in 1976 and 1977, and have been persistent runners-up since. They are strong and deeply motivated -- and Tikhonov and his cadres well know this.
To repel Czechs and others, Tikhovov draws about half his national team players from his own Red Army squad, which wins most national tournaments. It is not by chance that goalie Tretiak plays for this team. And the premier front line of Boris Mikhilov, Vladimir Petrov and Valere Karlamov has played together for more than a decade.
Mikhailov -- a distinctive-looking man of 36, stocky build, dark hair, wide-set eyes that must give him superb depth perception, a battered nose and endless stamina -- is captain of both the army team and the national squad.He recently scored his 405th goal in national championship play, a total unequaled in Soviet hockey. His linemate, Petrov, has scored more than 330 goals in his career.
In a country where "cult of the personality" officially went out with Krushchev's 1956 denuciation of Stalin and Stanlinist crimes, where Soviet propaganda sharply criticizes the professional teams of the West for creating "stars" at the expense of teamwork, Mikhailov, Tretiak, Petrov and Kharlamov are geniune stars. Virtually anyone who has a television set, and there are few here who don't, knows who these four are.
"We try to value the collective nature of team play," says Tikhonov.
As with all the Soviet sport, hockey is meticulously organized. Athletic winnowing for gifted children begins virtually at the kindergarten level and the most promising youngsters are funneled into special sports schools.
By the time hockey-playing youngsters are in the teens, they have usually undergone rigorous training and conditioning, and their specific performances have been carefully noted and recorded for the use of coaches and trainers.
The Soviet big league comprises 12 major teams that compete from September to March for the U.S.S.R. championships. Players, representing clubs supported by large factories or specific ministries, receive monthly stipends, excellent food, breaks on housing and cars. It they win a big international tournament, they can receive bonuses of 1,000 rubles ($1,500) or more, according to Soviet sports experts now living in the West.
Perhaps even more importantly, customs officials frequently look the other way when successful Soviet athletes arrive back from the West laden with highly prized clothing and goods to be sold at exorbitant black-market prices that will further enhance their special status in a society of barely adequate materal well-being.
While they have achieved spectacular results, the Soviets in recent years also have encountered some problems apparently centering on difficulties of integrating younger players into the core team of Tretiak, Mikhailov, Petrov and Kharlamov. This apparently was one cause in the defeats by the Czechs in 1976 and 1977. But Tikhonov seems to have found the right combination ever since. Soviet success reached new heights last February in a 6-0 trouncing of the NHL all-stars, called by one NHL franchise owner -- the worst disgrace in hockey history."
Here come the Russians, again.