It is a common argument by proud Canadians that if Bobby Orr was not unable to play due to injury, the 1972 Summit Series would have been a much different story. Orr was at the prime of his career and the best in the world.
Or was he?
Anatoli Firsov also missed the 1972 Summit Series showdown between the Soviets and the NHL. He is of legendary status in Russian hockey. Some old time Russian observers will tell you he was the best ever. Legendary coach Anatoli Firsov was probably his biggest fan. Then again, he was also Tarasov's most dedicated disciple.
Firsov is one of only 4 players to have his number retired in Soviet hockey (Bobrov, Tretiak and Kharlamov being the others). Firsov was perhaps a faster skater than Kharlamov, who of course wowed Canadian audiences with awesome speed. It was said that Firsov's fast skates were only out-paced by his mind, as he was always a play or two ahead of everyone else on the ice. He was also known for creativity, especially in his variety of shot selection.
Firsov's scoring exploits that helped establish the Soviet Union's dominance of the international hockey scene. Firsov, along with names like Vyatcheslav Sharshinov, Vsevolod Bobrov and Victor Populanov paved the ways for the powerfully awesome Red Army squads that would prove that they were the equals of the professionals in the National Hockey League.
Firsov's finest moment came in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble France. Firsov led all scorers with 12 goals and 16 points as the Soviets won every game to become the Gold Medal champs.
In all fairness, by the time 1972 rolled around, Firsov was near the end of his career and was not the dominant player in Soviet hockey at that time. The torch had been handed to Valeri Kharlamov earlier in 1972 as Kharlamov led the Red Army to Olympic gold. The Soviets believed that young hockey players were better because of their fitness level and biological clock, and almost as a rule would retire hockey players in their early 30s. That changed after the 1972 and 1974 Summit Series after they saw first hand the greatness Canadian aging stars like Gary Bergman or Gordie Howe. Perhaps if Tarasov had been the Soviet coach for the Summit Series, Firsov would have been included.
Yet Firsov's place in Russian hockey history is undeniable. He scored 344 goals in 474 Russian league games, and another 66 goals and 117 points in 67 international contests. He was a world champion 9 times, including 3 Olympic golds. In 3 of those tournaments he was named the best forward.
Many years after it happened, stories were revealed that Firsov may have contacted Larry Regan in 1968. Regan was then the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings and they were holding discussions concerning Firsov's defection from the Soviet Union and playing in the National Hockey League. The arrangement fell through, as it is believe Russian authorities must have learned of this possibility. In the supressed Communist Soviet Union, the story never been revealed until Gorabechev's Glasnost.
Anatoli Firsov never had the chance to prove to the world that he could play and excel against North American professionals. That's a shame because that means only a precious few saw perhaps the greatest Russian hockey player ever.
Firsov, whose father died in World War II when Anatoli was only 1 month old, went into politics following his hockey days. He served in the Russian parliament in the 1990s. He also owned a hotel in Switzerland. He was inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998, two years before he passed away.