- Jeff Merron
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In many ways, it is a remarkable story of triumph: out of the ashes of World War II, the USSR built a hockey program that dominated on the world stage from the 1950s through the 1980s. In many ways, it is a remarkable story of a huge downfall in the 1990s -- the collapse of a nation, the near-collapse of organized hockey, a program buffeted on all sides by corruption, financial ruin, the lure of Western capitalism and even murder. And it is, most importantly, a continuing story -- Russia is a wounded hockey giant, and what will come next is a great unknown. What's come before is better known.
The former Soviet Union didn't start building its hockey program until after World War II, but within a decade the country was producing Olympic and World Champion teams, developing the next generation of great young players, and spreading a complex, offense- and passing-oriented style of play that was as elegant as it was unbeatable.
Between 1946, when Anatoli Tarasov was asked to start a hockey program from scratch, and 1989, when the combination of Glasnost and an aggressive NHL started chipping away at the country's hockey resources, the USSR had won seven Olympic titles and 21 World Championships. In the late 1980s, about 3 million youths played organized hockey at all levels, beginning as young as eight. A professional-level league flourished in Russia, despite an enormous competitive imbalance caused by the Central Red Army's ability to literally draft the top young players from all over the country into a military commission and a spot on the roster.
Hockey was the most popular sport in a society that placed athletics, in general, among its highest priorities. The might of the Soviet Union could be displayed internationally through both nuclear weapons and conventional armed forces, but that was the hammer approach. It was considered just as important to communicate the superiority of communism through the production of superior athletes and superior teams. Wins at the Olympics and on the world stage were victories for the Soviet way of life, and translated, for players on the national teams, into nice financial and material bonuses.
Since the end of World War II, the USSR and other Eastern European countries had been behind what Winston Churchill, in a speech given in Fulton, Mo., in 1946, so famously called an "iron curtain." The Soviets, understandably wary after losing an estimated 25 million soldiers and civilians during World War II, turned, to a large extent, inward: the arts flourished, with the Bolshoi Ballet and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and the Moscow Circus becoming world-renowned. The sciences and technology flourished, due in large part to programs and funding justified by national defense arguments. And sports were seen as an integral part of both the communist philosophy and nation building on a grand scale.
From "bandy" beginnings, a powerhouse
Ice hockey was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union before 1946; the popular Russian ice sport since the late 1800s, bandy, is much like field hockey -- played outdoors, with 11 players on each side, on an ice surface the size of a soccer field. Bandy leagues eventually spread, and bandy became a popular spectator sport, as well.
Tarasov, who became co-coach (with Arkady Chernyshev) of the Central Red Army team, working with little more than a couple of hockey rulebooks, started converting bandy players to hockey. The Russian style still shows the bandy influence.
"Everything they did was adapted from bandy and soccer," Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Dave King told Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette in 1999. "The build-up of the play, the drop passes, the way they see the ice -- it all started with bandy."
In December 1946, after a successful public demonstration of ice hockey earlier in the year, the first Soviet hockey league was formed. The teams played outdoors (there were no indoor rinks). The first league champions: the KGB (Dynamo) club. By 1947, ten teams, including the dominating Dynamo and Central Red Army squads, competed in the Soviet hockey league, each playing an 18-game schedule.
By the early 1950s, it became clear that the Russians had a world class hockey program -- they went 1-1-1 against an internationally competitive Czech club in 1948, and defeated a top Swedish team in 1952. The USSR won the world title the first time it competed in the tourney, in 1954, and then Olympic gold and another world championship in 1956.
Tarasov deserved much of -- and got -- the credit for the Soviets' quick buildup. As Roy MacGregor wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, Tarasov created the Soviet weave-and-pass style of play. "He viewed hockey as art, with the coach as choreographer, the players as performers. The principles of dance and piano -- endless practice, repeated movements, perfected technique -- would create a base from which true artistry could grow."
The national team
and the Central Red Army
Soviet hockey flourished throughout the 1960s, and came into even greater international prominence in the 1972 Summit Series, when the Russians came close to beating a Canadian national team made up of some of the NHL's greatest stars. The Soviet Union had won every Olympic and World Championship tournament from 1963 to 1971, but there had been doubts about its ability to contend at the NHL level; the eight-game Summit Series erased those doubts.
The Canadians lost two games on home soil, including a series-opening 7-3 embarrassment in Montreal, and trailed the Soviets with a 1-2-1 record as the series moved to Moscow. The Soviets won Game 5, 5-4, and took a 3-1-1 lead in the series. The Canadians won the next two games, both by a single goal, and tied the series. In Game 8, they trailed the Soviets, 5-3, after two periods. Three goals in the third period, including Paul Henderson's tally with 34 seconds left, enabled the Canadians to return home with their pride somewhat intact.
The NHL noticed the possibilities immediately. "The '72 series did wake us up to two things," Harry Sinden, the coach of Team Canada, told the Toronto Star in 1987. "People on the planet other than Canadians can play the game very well and we had something to learn about the physical condition of our players. The superb condition of the Soviet players, especially their upper-body strength and stamina, got us looking at different ways of doing things."
Competition against teams that included NHL players continued through the 1970s, with the Super Series, exhibitions against NHL teams that began during the 1975-76 season, and the first Canada Cup in September 1976. The Russians continued to impress, both abroad and at home. Soviet stars like goalies Vladislav Tretiak (the first Soviet player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame) and Alexander Sidelnikov, defenseman Vladimir Vasiliev, forwards Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov and Alexander Maltsev, and center Vladimir Petrov enjoyed fame across the USSR, and hockey's popularity soared. "It is as though a game like field hockey in the United States that is decidedly second-string stuff suddenly took off and in a matter of years was crowding football, baseball and basketball as the national pastimes," wrote the Washington Post's Peter Osnos in 1977.
At the time, the best "amateur" hockey players in Russia were primarily members of the Central Red Army team whose military careers consisted of playing hockey. They made about $250 a month, and bonuses of about $2,500 for winning a gold medal or world championship, according to Osnos. The perks were also good: international travel (and the opportunity to buy then-coveted Western goods blue jeans, pop albums, and the like), and a level of fame that brought preferential treatment at home. Other elite teams included the Air Force's Soviet Wings and the KGB's Dynamo.
Coach Viktor Tikhonov led the Central Red Army and national teams to excellence during the 1970s and 1980s. Tikhonov, a strict disciplinarian, drove his players hard year-round, and was considered by many (including players) to be cruel, harsh, surly, and ruthless. He was an unquestioned success at creating winning teams, coaching the Central Red Army to 13 straight Soviet titles beginning in 1977, and national teams to eight world titles and three Olympic golds between 1978 and 1992. But Tikhonov's success came at a price.
"Tikhonov was compelled to control all aspects of his players lives," writes John Sanful in "Russian Revolution: Exodus to the NHL." "They ate, slept and trained on his orders. Tikhonov turned hockey into a prison-like atmosphere. He created a hub of power for himself that allowed for complete control."
By the late 1980s, though, Russian hockey was fraying at the edges. While the Soviets now boasted some of the greatest international stars -- notably defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov and the KLM Line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov -- attendance dwindled at domestic league games. Between the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, the Soviets won only one World Championship, finishing third in 1985 and second in 1987. Some thought the Russians were suffering mainly because national team goalie Vladislav Tretiak had retired after the 1984 Games. "We have not been able to find a goalie close to his class," Tikhonov told Maclean's magazine in 1988.
But replacing a goalie, even one as great as Tretiak, would not be Tikhonov's toughest task. The competitions between the North American pros and the Soviets convinced some that not only could Russian players make an impact in the NHL, but they were also worth trying to lure to the West.
In 1983, the New Jersey Devils drafted Fetisov in the eighth round of the draft. Fetisov had been drafted before -- by the Canadiens, in 1978 -- but he chose not to defect, even though he had the opportunity to do so, and instead fought for a legally sanctioned release. As a result, he didn't play in the NHL until October 5, 1989. In March 1989, Sergei Priakin, the Calgary Flames, and the Soviet hockey federation came to an agreement that allowed the Soviet Wings veteran to play in the NHL. He was the first to obtain official permission of the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, and appeared in two regular season games and one playoff game with the Flames in 1989. (Priakin, who had signed a four-year, $125,000 contract, played only 20 games for the Flames in 1989-90 and 24 in 1990-91, scoring a total of three goals and eight assists in his 46-game NHL career.)
Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been elected the new general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, introduced two radical policies that would change the Soviet Union, and Soviet hockey, for good. The first, perestroika (restructuring) focused on making the Soviet economy more vibrant and profit-oriented. As a result, Gorbachev required that Goskomsport, the governing agency for Soviet sports, be financially self-sufficient. How to raise money? By essentially renting players out -- soccer and tennis players were among the first -- and taking a cut of their earnings. The second policy, glasnost (openness), emphasized candor about public life and public institutions. Tikhonov, who had held superstars under his thumb through the use of old-fashioned hard-line methods, would not fare well with glasnost in place.
Many Soviet players had long chafed at the many demands Tikhonov made of them, or to put it more aptly, the one demand he made of them: follow his orders. The Central Red Army team practiced 10 or 11 months a year, and team members were required to stay in barracks during that time, even if they were married.
When the NHL started to make overtures to the Soviets during the 1980s, negotiating for the rights of a few players, Tikhonov would say, in public, that he was supportive of the players joining the NHL. But in private, some players said, he utilized his power and connections within the Communist party to keep them from leaving the Soviet Union.
But glasnost demonstrated the shortsightedness of his approach. Larionov, who had been drafted in 1985 by Vancouver but prevented from playing there, criticized Tikhonov's coaching in an open letter to Ogonyok, a Russian magazine. Among Larionov's complaints were the long hours away from home. "It is a wonder our wives manage to give birth," he said, according to a February 1989 Maclean's article. Fetisov, during a 1989 Soviet team tour of the U.S. and Canada, criticized Tikhonov's actions in preventing him from joining the New Jersey Devils. "If Tikhonov wanted it, I think this thing would be resolved quickly. He's all talk and no action," Fetisov told the Washington Post.
Many observers, both within the Soviet Union and outside, began to question the direction of the Soviet hockey program. The Central Red Army, which had been drafting the best players for years, had won 13 straight national titles, and many contests were lopsided. Fans started to lose interest, and by 1990 soccer, by some accounts, had become Russia's top spectator sport.
Mogilny's defection opens the gates
In April 1989, 20-year-old Alexander Mogilny helped the Soviets win their 21st World Championship in Stockholm. After the tournament, he met up with Buffalo Sabres officials, told them he wanted to defect, and, on May 5, 1989, arrived in Buffalo. While other Soviet players who wanted to play in the NHL were hoping and waiting for official permission, Mogilny, a junior lieutenant in the Soviet Army who had been selected by the Sabres in the 1988 draft, just left.
Within months, eight other Soviet players -- taking advantage of lengthy negotiations between the NHL and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation -- made the long journey to North America. The Calgary Flames signed forward Makarov. The New Jersey Devils signed Fetisov and defenseman Sergei Starikov. The Quebec Nordiques signed goalie Sergei Mylnikov. And the Vancouver Canucks signed Krutov and Larionov, two-thirds of the Soviets' formidable KLM Line.
Total salaries for the nine players: $700,000 Cdn. Amount of cash paid to the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation: a reported $3 million Cdn.
While the Soviets were expected to inject some much-needed excitement into the NHL, they would also confront a different style of play, in smaller NHL rinks and with more lenient NHL rules. Some observers believed they would bring a new style of play, focused more on offense and passing, to the league. "The NHL game is leaning more toward skating and less toward slugging," wrote Blaine Newnham in the Seattle Times in 1990, "so in the years ahead the Soviets as superb skaters will play an important role."
By this time, it didn't seem to be a matter of if, but when and how, the NHL would continue to acquire top Soviet players. The USSR was in dire need of hard currency (read: U.S. dollars), and Tikhonov's efforts to hold on to rising stars didn't fit with the new economic and political realities of a nation in the process of dissolution. "The Soviets are scrambling, but I don't think they can hold the best players," Flyers GM Russ Farwell told the Seattle Times in 1990. "The way the economy is going in the Soviet Union, these players are going to go where the money is."
The sun sets on the Soviets -- but slowly
In the summer of 1991, Tikhonov still retained his leadership of the Central Red Army team and the Soviet national team, and he relented, partly, to reality, by allowing Soviet NHL players to compete in the Canada Cup. Among the Russian NHL team members: Alexei Kasatonov of the New Jersey Devils, Alexei Gusarov and Mikhail Tatarinov of the Quebec Nordiques, Dmitri Khristich of the Washington Capitals, and Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings, who had just completed his first NHL season after abandoning the national team just before the previous year's Goodwill Games in Seattle.
Tikhonov's confrontation with reality came before that summer's Canada Cup when he cut four players: Pavel Bure, Valeri Zelepukin, Evgeny Davydov, and Vladimir Konstantinov, all of whom had been drafted by the NHL and all of whom Tikhonov feared would defect if allowed to travel to North America.
The patchwork club -- typically, the Soviet national team was comprised mostly of Central Red Army players who practiced together year-round -- played horribly in the 1991 Canada Cup, and was eliminated early after losing three of its four games. The Soviets suffered not only from the absence of some of their best players, but also from a depletion of their lower ranks. What had been a trickle of Soviets leaving to play in the pros had become a torrent, with more than 100 playing in either the NHL, North American minor leagues, or Europe.
"In the past, players stuck it out with the national team for 10 years," Tikhonov told the Toronto Sun in September 1991. "I will have to replace the departed players with juniors and they'll stay with me until they are 23 or 24, before they leave. I'm trying my best to keep the 18- and 19-year-olds from jumping to Scandinavia, Central Europe, or North America. I don't want the drain on our talent to continue, because we won't have a national team at all."
But there was only so much Tikhonov could do. About two months later, in November 1991, the best line in the 1989 World Junior Championships -- Mogilny, Fedorov and Bure -- was in the NHL when Bure, 20, signed with the Vancouver Canucks. The "Russian Rocket" was the biggest young star signed yet, and Vancouver fans noticed: Sports Illustrated reported that 2,000 showed up to watch his first practice with the Canucks.
In February 1992, the Unified Team, comprised of players from five of the 11 states of the former Soviet Union and coached by Tikhonov, won the Olympic title. Tikhonov said after the gold-medal victory over the Canadians, "This is the kind of joy I haven't experienced in a long time." He explained that he had mellowed, recognizing the need for a new approach to lure NHL and European stars to play for the Unified Team. "We had a lot of new players and we didn't know them very well," Tikhonov said after the Games. "We lost a lot of good players. In order to get fresh players, the coaches had to review our approach."
Russia's NHL superstars
By the early 1990s, both the quality and the number of Russian players in the NHL were increasing. In 1992-93, Mogilny registered 76 goals and 127 points in 77 games after three mediocre seasons that were marred by troubles with management and a fear of flying. (Mogilny later explained to Sports Illustrated: "I wasn't used to traveling that much, and no matter what kind of weather, we're flying anyway. I couldn't handle it. It just freaked me out.")
At the end of that season, Mogilny was named to the year-end NHL All-Star second team, the first Russian so honored. In 1993-94, Fedorov and Bure made the first team. Any doubters -- there had been a few who wondered if the Russians would be able to adjust to the rougher NHL style of play -- were virtually silenced.
Meanwhile, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation was hurting for money, and it showed: the national team took third in the World Championship in 1991, and won the gold in 1993; in the years since, the Russians have failed to medal.
The Russians had been negotiating for different sums to allow each player into the NHL. In 1993, they began asking for a package deal: $5 million a year, which it would then split up between the 19 Interstate League teams (Interstate was the best hockey league in Russia) and 45 lesser Russian clubs. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agreed: the Russian hockey system was now too valuable to let whither away.
In the throes of internal turmoil, Russia's depth was difficult to determine. In December 1993, the Russians were able to enter two national teams in the Izvestia Cup: Russia I, which competed in the Lillehammer Olympics, and Russia II, which competed in the 1994 World Championships in Italy.
"It looks like a terrible mess over there," Canadian Olympic coach Tom Renney told the Toronto Star in January 1994. "But I still assume that when the time comes, they'll put an outstanding, well-prepared team on the ice. I don't buy the theory they don't have the material because 50 of their best guys are in the NHL. Obviously, under the old system, they'd have the Fedorovs and Mogilnys. But their depth is always underestimated."
But Russia I couldn't cut it at the Olympics, losing 5-0 to Finland and 4-2 to Germany in the first round, and finishing fourth overall, the first time the nation failed to medal since its first Olympic competition in 1956. And Russia II failed to medal at the World Championships.
The 1994 Olympic team was a mere shadow of the 1992 Unified Team because of a mass exodus of players to the NHL, which did not allow its players to compete in the Olympics at that time. While 18 players on the '92 squad moved on to the NHL, only five from the '94 team appeared in the NHL, and only two -- Sergei Berezin and Andrei Nikolishin -- have played at least 100 NHL games.
"The beginning of the end of the dynasty came a long time ago," said Russian assistant coach Igor Dimitriev. "Maybe it's time to start talking about the end."
As David Wallechinsky notes in "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics," the end of the dynasty wasn't directly due to the breakup of the USSR -- an overwhelming 123 of 126 Soviets who played on the Olympic hockey team between 1956 and 1992 hailed from Russia. However, the decline and dissolution of the Soviet Union, with its well-established top-down structure, surely had an impact. It left a bureaucratic and economic vacuum throughout Russia, and organized sports felt the effects as much as any other institution.
It wasn't only Russia's national teams that were suffering. The pro teams -- the teams who had competed in the old Premier League, which became the Interstate League -- couldn't retain the best players, who were skipping off to the NHL or Europe, where there was much more money to be had. The Central Red Army team signed a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, before the 1993-94 season, to obtain cash and marketing and sponsorship expertise, and was renamed the Russian Penguins. The quest for fans and dollars began with cheap showmanship. "The Penguin games are spectacles. Lots of beer and striptease," sportswriter Alexander Tarakanov said.
Russian fans knew what they were missing. Every Saturday morning they could tune into an NHL highlights show that showcased Russian players, including the ultra-hot Bure, who in his third NHL season led the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, which they lost to the New York Rangers. Maclean's magazine called Bure, 23, a "handsome prince" and "the single most exciting player on skates." It wasn't hyperbole. Bure had won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 1991-92, and had scored more than 60 goals in each of his next two seasons.
Resentment grew among Russian hockey officials as they saw more and more of their top players lured by the NHL's money. The NHL had been compensating the Russians for players beginning in 1994, and in 1996 began paying out $3.9 million a year to the International Ice Hockey Federation for all its European members, including Russia. This helped keep Russian hockey programs afloat, but it wasn't enough. Valery Gushin, the general manager of the Central Red Army hockey team, had been strongly critical of the agreement from the start. "The NHL comes here with tanks and takes away our best players," Gushin told Maclean's magazine in 1996. Gushin was referring to the financial opportunities available in the NHL, compared to in Russia. The average NHL player earned $750,000 for the 1995-96 season; the average Russian pro, about $1,000 a month.
Detroit's Russian Five
Near the start of the 1995-96 season, the Detroit Red Wings acquired Larionov from the San Jose Sharks, and thus was formed the NHL's first Russian five-man unit. Larionov, Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Fetisov and Konstantinov teamed up to play old-time Soviet-style "hockey as jazz" -- a finesse passing game, invented by Tarasov, that differed greatly from the old-time NHL "dump-and-chase" style. This was Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman's vision -- to put together a creative power-play unit. "I told the Russian players that I'll give them a chance to show me how they can beat the trap other players have difficulty with," Bowman told the Toronto Sun in November 1995. "I told them that they can take off without or with the puck to beat the trap. It has worked so far." It was a winning formula: The Red Wings set an 82-game NHL record with 62 wins in 1995-96, and they won the Stanley Cup in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
In August 1997, Fetisov, the 38-year-old Red Wings assistant captain, orchestrated the Stanley Cup's first appearance in Russia. Protected by four Russian guards and NHL security, Fetisov, Larionov and Kozlov visited the Central Red Army hockey school rink as about a thousand coaches and players from Russian clubs watched. Tikhonov, Fetisov's former coach, had long resented the defenseman's departure, and was conspicuous in his absence.
But it was a thrill for Russian fans. "It's unbelievable to see the Stanley Cup in Moscow," said one young fan, according to the Toronto Sun. "We understand how difficult it was for the Russian Wings to arrange to bring the cup from its home in Canada. It proves that they are great, patriotic Russians."
Corruption in Russia -- and North America?
In 1997, the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Valentin Sych, began speaking out about how organized crime had infiltrated the sport. It may have been a costly gesture: Sych was shot dead in Moscow in April 1997, in what the Toronto Star called a "gangland execution."
It wasn't clear why Sych, an old Communist hard-liner, had been shot. He had been near the top of Russian hockey for decades and, wrote Randy Starkman in the Star, "had a reputation in Russian hockey circles as a ruthless and corrupt official not averse to skimming money paid to the federation." Among Sych's enemies were many of the players, including Fetisov and Larionov. "I knew him -- he was a bad guy. He was corrupt. That's why someone killed him," Kozlov told the Star.
Sych certainly wasn't the only "bad guy" involved in Russian sports in the 1990s. "Sports clubs are finding the cost of doing business in Russia is counted not in dollars and cents but in murder, kidnapping, extortion and corruption," reported the London Independent in 1996.
While hockey and other sports officials in Russia cried poverty and demanded more money from the NHL in transfer fees, arguing that organized sport in Russia could not survive without an influx of cash, it turned out that organized crime was probably skimming off most of the influx. Much of the money that was supposed to go to the clubs, it was revealed in 1995, never reached their bank accounts. About $12 million in transfer fees -- money earmarked for development programs -- had gone missing. A few years later, the Canadian Mounties, in a classified intelligence report, said that "The possibility is high that at least a portion of this money has fallen into the hands of criminal organizations in Russia," reported the Montreal Gazette.
Sports-related killings became fairly common in Russia. Wrestling coach Viktor Lysenko, who coached the Greco-Roman world champion, was shot and killed. Vladimir Bogach, the Central Red Army Sports Club's business manager, was shot dead while playing tennis in July 1996. In June 1997, just a few months after Sych's murder, Larisa Nechayeva, the financial director of Spartak Moscow, Russia's best soccer team, was shot and killed. "The evidence," wrote Phil Reeves in the Independent, "points to a contract assassination, a Mafia-style hit. The days when sport was a symbol of Soviet success, pursued for love of the motherland, are clearly gone."
Money -- or, perhaps, the lack of a mature economy -- seemed to be at the root of all evil. Not only did most of the NHL transfer fees disappear, but most of the funds generated in a Yeltsin-devised scheme to fund the clubs by allowing them to import tobacco and alcohol tax-free (and then resell the items at a huge profit) also disappeared. In 1995, the Ice Hockey Federation imported $25 million worth of goods, but it's unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the proceeds actually went to support hockey.
Sych and other top Russian sports officials who complained about the Russian Mafia's deep involvement in sports simultaneously stood accused (often by each other) of being part of the corruption. "Russian amateur hockey, once the envy of the world, has come to this: hit men and slush funds," wrote Kevin Sherrington in the Dallas Morning News.
Meanwhile, Russia's NHL players were running scared. In 1994, Bure and Alexei Zhitnik, then of the Los Angeles Kings, said they had been threatened by Russian Mafia. It was reported that Bure regularly paid off Russian organized crime figures. Oleg Tverdovsky's mother was kidnapped by his former coach and held for $200,000 ransom. An "associate" who had helped Mogilny defect to Buffalo tried to extort $150,000 from the star and was convicted for the crime.
A 1999 report by the PBS documentary series Frontline, titled "Mafia Power Play," revealed the depths of organized crime's penetration into Russian hockey. The joint venture between the Central Red Army and the Penguins was initially a success, partially because of the free beer and strippers that lured enthusiastic crowds to home games. Corporate sponsorship followed, and the Mafia followed shortly thereafter. Stephen Warshaw, the marketing consultant for the Russian Penguins, told Frontline that he noticed seeing "Russian Mafia figures" at the games. How did he know? "I think the guns were a tip-off," he said. "Long sawed-off shotguns down their side of their coats. They traveled in groups, with security forces. And they'd come in with the limousines with the dark windows. And basically, our partners said just back off. And again, we had no way of knowing if they were getting paid by the Mafia, or if they, too, were afraid."
Organized crime continues to be part of Russian sports -- even relatively minor sports have been targeted for whatever cash they generate. "In popular sports such as soccer and ice hockey, league administrators, team officials and star players all have been targeted," wrote Colin McMahon in the September 24, 2000 Chicago Tribune. "But bloodshed has visited even low-profile sports like team handball, water polo and the modern pentathlon. In some cities, martial arts or boxing clubs have been turned into training schools for mob-type foot soldiers."
And organized crime strikes fear even at the junior levels. In 1999, King, then with the Canadiens, told Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette that the team's scout, who spent much time at the Moscow Dynamo hockey school, remained anonymous, because the Canadiens feared the Russian Mafia will shake him down for half of his salary. "We took a good long time to find him," King said, "because the Mafia control a lot of things over here and you have to be careful who you hire."
The 1998 Olympics
In 1998, the NHL suspended play for the first time so its players could compete for their national teams in the Olympics at Nagano, Japan. The internationalization of the NHL was evident as 125 of its players participated for six of the top teams -- Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. Despite what was seen as widespread disorganization and corruption in the Russian hockey program, 22 NHL players agreed to play for the team in Nagano, including Bure and Fedorov. (Several top players, including Mogilny, Kozlov, Sergei Zubov, and Phoenix goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, refused to play. Khabibulin, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, went so far as to literally hide when a Russian official came to see him. "I'll be poolside in Hawaii during the Olympics," said the goalie.)
The Russian team, coached by Vladimir Yurzinov (Tikhonov had been fired as coach of the Central Red Army in 1996, and attended the Olympics only as "an honored guest of the hockey federation"), won its first five games, including a stunning 7-4 semifinal victory over Finland, during which three goals were scored in the final 14 minutes. Bure scored five of the Russians' seven goals. Russia lost to the Czechs, led by goalie Dominik Hasek and forward Jaromir Jagr, in the gold medal game, but by winning the silver had retained some of its former glory.
Russian hockey today
Professional hockey within Russia has been in great flux since the mid-1990s. In 1996, the Russian Hockey League replaced the old Inter-State Hockey League; in 1999, the Professional Hockey League, composed of the Super League and the second-division First (or Top) League, replaced the RHL. The Russian Hockey League almost went under in August 1998, when the value of the ruble collapsed, and only a few thousand spectators showed up for most games, paying about a dollar a ticket.
The level of hockey played in the Super League hasn't completely diminished, says King, even though many of the best players depart for Europe, the NHL, or junior hockey before they turn 20. "The top teams are quite good, because they have older Russian talent," says King, who last visited in Russia during the 1999 World Championships in St. Petersburg. "The difficulty now is there's a huge disparity (between the best Super League teams and the worst). Overall the level of play has dropped from before 1990. But the top Russian teams could give the NHL teams in the lower part of the standings excellent games."
In his five-part series on the state of Russian hockey published in the Montreal Gazette in March 1999, Todd reported that the Russian Hockey League had been on the verge of collapse, with the decline of the ruble's value having a devastating effect. In 1999, Todd reported, good seats went for 25 rubles, or a little more than a dollar. Teams received little or no TV revenue. But the best Super League teams survived through patronage from bigwig politicians and businessmen, and average Super League salaries of less than $25,000 (an educated guess -- the ruble's volatility makes skatchy information about salaries difficult to interpret) were still very attractive to players either too young or not good enough to play in the NHL or Europe's top leagues.
"If you forget how young most of these players are," wrote Todd, "the Russian game is still swift and intense and sometimes thrilling. The NHL often stages less exciting contests ... Still, virtually all the Russians you talk to lament the changes in their game, which they say has come more and more to resemble the style played in the NHL."
Though money problems continued, according to Todd, the legendary Moscow Dynamo hockey school continued to churn out great young players, starting some on skates as early as six years old. How did the school keep on during the hard times? The $150,000 from the NHL for each Dynamo player signed helped. The school remained free, but skates weren't -- hence limited opportunities for poorer children.
"We still do things the same way," Valeri Bolgari, Dynamo's coach of the 14-year-olds, told Todd. "The only difference is that in the Soviet period kids came from all layers of society. Now the ice is still free, but you need well-off parents to buy the skates."
Still, teams and officials from both Russian and NHL teams are concerned about the trends in Russia -- players leaving before their skills are well-developed, and perhaps before they are ready for the stress of pro hockey, North American-style. At the same time, with the best players leaving as young as 17, there's a serious shortage of good Russian Hockey League players in their early to mid-20s to serve as mentors.
King says that overall, this translates into a net loss of Russian hockey talent. "There are still great young players coming up in Russia, and some are coming (to North America) to play junior hockey. But they still have great coaches in Russia. Now, with some young players playing in the Elite League, they have a chance to fast-track a little bit. It's really important for the NHL to recognize that the Russian system is a good feeder to the NHL. We have to look after that. We pay transfer fees for every player, but the money's spread pretty thin."
When the youngest players leave Russia, "it's very detrimental to hockey," Tikhonov told Todd. "We lose the players, yes, but the players are lost to hockey itself. A 22-year-old is old enough leave. A 17-year-old is not. We have a mutual interest (the Russians and the NHL) in having the players go when they're really ready."
Under an agreement between the NHL and the IIHF, the NHL paid a lump sum to the IIHF, which then split the money between European countries that supplied the NHL with players. This translated to about $150,000 per player, reported Todd. The agreement was affirmed and the relationship was strengthened when the sides renewed the deal last summer -- the NHL pledged $29 million over three years to compensate European clubs for the 60 to 70 players who leave Europe and Russia for the NHL each year.
The Russians continue to play well at the junior level; they finished second to Finland in 1998 World Junior Championships, won the gold in 1999, and took silver again in 2000. After finishing out of medal contention in 2001, they won the gold medal in 2002, defeating Canada 5-4 in the final game of the tournament, held in the Czech Republic.
And, according to a November 2001 report by Scott Burnside in the Ottawa Citizen, the Super League is "suddenly enjoying unprecedented popularity," with clubs able to offer top players up to $300,000 a year. Whether this will last or not is questionable; in February 2001, the Toronto Sun reported play that was "woefully short on skill," and estimated attendance at a Spartak game around a mere 1,000 fans.
Russia 2002: NHL stars at the Olympics
Despite management problems that still exist in the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Russia's best NHL players want to compete for their nation on the international stage. This is due, in large part, to the naming of Fetisov last August as coach and general manager of the 2002 Olympic team. Fetisov commands great respect among Russian players, because of the stand he took in the 1980s by challenging the Soviet bureaucracy, and using his influence as the country's greatest and highest-profile player to win concessions that allowed many others to join him in the NHL.
Because he's both GM and coach, Fetisov has almost complete control of the team, and he's used that control to convince Russian NHLers that, whatever their misgivings about the hockey system at home, competing for the Olympic team is about patriotism. As a result, he will have many NHL stars at his service, including Larionov, who, at 41, is the team's captain. Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure and his brother Valeri, and Thrashers rookie Ilya Kovalchuk have also agreed to play.
Russia's gold-medal chances also look good because Khabibulin, the 1992 Unified Team's third-string goaltender, has agreed to play. Khabibulin never received the gold medal he earned in 1992 -- Tikhonov used his influence to take it for himself. Since then, the third-stringer has become an NHL All-Star, and he refused to play in Nagano in 1998. But he'll be in the goal for Russia in 2002, because Fetisov's at the helm. And Khabibulin is guaranteed to take home at least one gold medal from Salt Lake, because Fetisov got the 1992 gold back for him. "He's going to get one before it even starts," Fetisov told the New York Daily News in late January.
There is also a chance he'll get another at the end.
Jeff Merron is a contributing editor at ESPN.com, and the former executive editor at SportsJones.