The Great One
Two most popular sports in Russia are football and hockey. Well, in football, the Russian national team is even worse than the Three Lions. In hockey, though, it is a completely different picture.
Unlike football, Russians don’t suck in hockey. The golden epoch started in 1972 and lasted till 1991 when Canadian and Soviet teams were fighting each other to claim who is best in world hockey. I don’t mean the Olympic Games/World Championships of that time because the NHL players were not allowed to play there, so all the Soviet achievements didn’t really matter.
What I mean is the so-called Super Series between the NHL dream teams and the Soviet ‘Red Machine’. Probably the most legendary series – and the first one, before I was even born, was in 1972. There were four games in Canada and four games in Moscow. It was more than hockey, it was the ‘Cold War’ battle on ice. The very first game in Montreal was a shock to arrogant Canadians as they lost it 3-7. An ultimate debacle. All their arrogance towards Soviet ‘amateurs’ vanished that day. Finally, Team Canada managed to win the whole thing with 4 wins, 3 losses and 1 draw. This was the beginning of one of the most dramatic sporting encounters of the 20th century.
I entered this magic world in September 1981 when the USSR team won the Canada Cup, the most prestigious international hockey tournament, now known as the World Cup. We lost to Canadians 3-7 at the group stage but in the final the ‘Red Machine’ demolished Team Canada 8-1.
This was the first time when I, a six-year old then, got to know that rising Canadian superstar, Wayne Gretzky, number 99. He was twenty at the time.
In December 1983 I was watching the game on TV when Edmonton Oilers, his club, were hosting the USSR national team in another hockey series. Gretzky scored twice and the Oilers won 4-3. In the same year, I was watching bits and pieces of –what the Soviet TV sports news could afford to show – the Edmonton Oilers losing to great New York Islanders led by Mike Bossi in the Stanley Cup final. Gretzky and his team beat them in the final a year later and claimed their first Stanley Cup victory (out of four such wins in the 1980s). The New York Islanders epoch had ended and the Edmonton Oilers time of glory had begun. I remember number 99 holding the silver Stanley Cup above his head… Moments of my personal triumph, too! In the same year, Team Canada won back the Canada Cup.
The guy was nice and modest, he skated and played like God and grabbed basically every NHL personal record. The most valuable player, the top scorer, etc. etc. Most of his records are still unreachable and the hockey experts doubt that they will ever be beaten. Wayne Gretzky scored 894 goals in the NHL leaving behind many greats of the past and unreachable to today’s players. He ended the 1981–82 season with a record of 92 goals, 120 assists, making it 212 points total in 80 games, becoming the only player in NHL history to break the 200 point mark. In that year, 1982, Gretzky became Sport’s Illustrated’s ‘Sportsman of the Year’ and the ‘Male Athlete of the Year’ by the Associated Press.
Both his personal, and the Oilers team performance, was a fairy-tale of my early school years. It was a true dream team: Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Mike Krushelnysky, Grant Fuhr… Under Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers became the highest-scoring team in the NHL history and played a true team game. Some analysts were saying that Glen Sather, the head coach, had actually been borrowing ideas from the Soviet combinational style of play, as opposed to the traditional NHL approach based on purely individual skills. Wayne Gretzky took the best of the two worlds, being both incomparable individually, and as a team player with an uncounted number of assists. Ken Dryden, a Montreal Canadians and Team Canada goalkeeper, another NHL great, once said that ‘The Soviets and Gretzky changed the NHL game. Gretzky, the kid from Brantford with a Belorussian name, was the acceptable face of the Soviet hockey’.
The only big thing he didn’t win as a player was the Olympic gold medal. In Nagano in 1998, the Canadian team finished only fourth; it was the first Games with the NHL players included. It was, also, almost the end of his playing career. He was 37 at the time and he quit the following year, though he won an olympic gold in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympics as Team Canada general manager.
Wayne Gretzky is considered the greatest hockey player ever, and he is also known as the Great One, a gentleman both on and off the pitch. His number, 99, is not available to any Canadian or NHL player and, as a sign of respect, is also not available around the world. And he, of course, was an iconic figure to me when I was a kid.
Thank you, Wayne.
I AM THE GREATEST!
If you’re older you already know, from the title, who I have selected. If you’re younger, Muhammad Ali is my pick over Jordan because he wasn’t just a good athlete, (there are so many), he forced a society to look in a mirror against its wishes.
“A man who has no imagination has no wings.”
I pick Muhammad Ali not because he was a great boxer. I think boxing should be outlawed; it’s the only sport where the very purpose of the game is to beat another until unconscious. I picked him because the changes he forced upon the establishment still echo today.
“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
Born in 1942, Ali entered a world where the color of your skin determined what you would achieve in life. It was a sense of moral outrage that would propel Cassius Clay to become a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement. He first tasted real fame at the Rome Olympics by winning gold. The die was cast, except nobody knew it at the time.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
That’s all the bio I’ll relate because that was never the point I wanted to share. It was the cockiness that bordered on arrogance that not only made him famous, it got him into trouble. If you don’t know this guy and you want too, here is a complete article.
“Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
Oh yeah, if you like rap, this is the guy who opened that door too. He would free-style a rap right in the middle of an interview with a journalist wearing a suit trying to be serious. Well, except even the word rap didn’t exist then. Nobody had imagined this could happen on TV.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.”
What made Ali different from many of his contemporaries was that he himself never became racist. He never made statements about former slave owners or white devils, (at least that I’m aware of). His brash attitude and moral decency made him both target and role model. The white establishment had ceded the moral high-ground without even realizing it.
“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
As so my greatest sportsman of all time is Muhammad Ali. I’m not sure what he would think of someone who hates his sport saying that; I suspect he would be pleased as the boxing was just a means to an end anyway.
“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”
Ian Botham, English, Cricket.
I’m chuckling to myself as I write – my two pals-in-crime will not have heard, or at least, not understood the sport involved, and most certainly would not have heard of one I.T. Botham.
He is probably the most celebrated English cricketer of my lifetime, who completely changed the way the game of cricket was perceived. For well over a decade, when he came out to bat for England, everyone stopped what they were doing, and watched, transfixed, as he took apart the bowling with panache, style, consummate ease, and, importantly, wonderful technique.
When bowling, he was fast, accurate, aggressive, and could swing the ball both ways (a nightmare for the opposition batsmen).
When fielding in the slips, he was an extraordinary athlete, despite his size (one of his nicknames was Beefy) – some of his catches seemed to defy physics – the whole thing was addictive, compelling, and I had never seen any cricket like that from one man except maybe the tail-end career of that wonderful West Indian Garfield Sobers. Until Botham arrived on the international circuit, there had never been such a box-office attraction in this sport.
Of course, it didn’t always work out well, and that was some of the fascination – cricket is a fiendishly difficult game to play – one can argue so are most sports, but Ian Botham proved beyond doubt that while “form” may be temporary, class will last for so much longer.
There have been so many gifted sportsmen and women during my lifetime, so what gives me the mind to put this chap at the top of them all?
It’s actually in the name – Sportsman. He played fair at all times, never cheated, and accepted his fate when he failed, without complaint.
To understand this fully, let me explain that internationally, the biggest cricket clash in the world is the “Test” series between England and Australia. It’s been going for over 140 years now.
It’s been written many times about how my hero Ian Botham would slay the Aussies on the pitch, but then, at close of play, (and these matches last for five whole days, another thing my pals will not understand!), he would be the first into the Aussie dressing room, and offer everyone a drink. Which would often turn into a “session”. Which meant a hangover the next day. And my, did he get some stick from the British press for his “gallivanting” with the opposition.
But it never bothered Ian, who is now Sir Ian Botham. Because he accepted, above all else, that his talent was in a sport, but it was only a sport. So yes, it mattered on the field of play, but once that was finished, why not be normal, and friendly to the opposition? After all, tomorrow was another day, and once back on the field of play, there would be no prisoners…….guaranteed.
Both during and after his remarkable career, Sir Ian raised millions of pounds for charity, using his popularity, usually making himself undergo huge personal challenges, like walking from John O Groats to Lands End in the UK, some 1900km or 1200 miles.
He now makes a useful living as a commentator for the sport to which he gave so much, and I am so grateful that I was around to see his greatest triumphs – something I will not only never forget, but will not see the like again in my lifetime.