It was Living Legends Night at Moscow's Ice Palace hockey rink, and the place was sold out. Vladislav Tretiak, arguably the greatest goalie in hockey history, watched solemnly from center ice as his old Central Red Army Club number 20 rose toward the rafters, where it would hang in spartan splendor in retirement. This American-style honor had never before been given to a player in the former Soviet Union, and the 41-year-old Tretiak was moved to say, "It's a nice gift. I have waited nine years for this. Thank you so much."
The applause rang out for the old hero, just as it had in the past. But if the applause was familiar to Tretiak, little else about the Ice Palace was. In the corridors merchants hawked sweatshirts emblazoned with the Russian Penguins' logo, symbolic of the new partnership between the Central Red Army Club (known as CSKA) and the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL. Garish advertisements pitching everything from Clark Bars to Apple computers lined the boards. We Will Rock You was being blasted through the P.A. system to the hyped-up crowd of Muscovites, who were merrily guzzling Iron City beer from Pittsburgh. And when the CSKA team was introduced, the players took the ice like performers in the Old Moscow Circus: Lights were dimmed, drumrolls sounded, and each player was ushered in by spotlight. The team jerseys bore little resemblance to Tretiak's unadorned garment in the rafters. A big grinning cartoon penguin perched on a star was sewn on the front, a tad beneath the logo of Iron City beer, the team's major sponsor.
But such festivities belie a darker side of the reinvigorated Russian athletic landscape. In some hockey arenas in Moscow, hoods dressed in gangster-style leather trench coats—long enough to hide automatic weapons—mill about in the corridors within sight of the dressing rooms. What is going on here? A brave new world has blossomed with frightening ramifications from the wreckage of the financially bankrupt sports system of the former Soviet Union. It is called capitalism, and in the past year the four big C's of the new Russian capitalism—cash, commerce, chutzpah and corruption—have made many incursions into the previously hermetic world of Russian sports. There's much more, both good and bad, to come.
Just how much more became apparent over the Christmas holidays, when Los Angeles King defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who's from Ukraine, admitted that last summer an organized-crime group from the former Soviet Union had tried to extort money from him. "I have a little problem with [Russian] mafia," Zhitnik told the Los Angeles Times. "They say things like, 'Blow up your car.' " Zhitnik, whose $400,000 salary is a sheikh's fortune in impoverished Ukraine, denied paying any money to the mobsters, saying friends helped him out of the jam. "If you pay the first time, next time you pay much more," Zhitnik said. "The cops can't do anything. No rules. No laws."
So it goes in the Wild West of modern Russia, where bribes, protection money and threats of violence are part of doing business. The threats, sadly, are not always just threats. Six prominent Russian bankers have been assassinated since last summer, the most recent on Dec. 7. And last August a Russian executive with the Old Moscow Circus, whose concessions are operated by Delaware North, the parent company of the Boston Bruins, was shot to death when he apparently resisted the demands of a local mafia.
"This is a dangerous place, even if you are only trying to make a little money," says Paul Sporn, a Boston entrepreneur who arrived in Moscow three years ago to help develop marketing strategies for Russian sports teams. "If you want to sell something, you must have a Russian partner. If you don't, you'll be twisted, turned, knocked down and kicked. I've been robbed, my partner has been mugged, and we know people who have been killed."
Zhitnik's revelation spawned a flurry of follow-up stories about other Russian hockey players in the NHL who were either fearful of returning to their homeland or who had paid money to the so-called mafia so their families wouldn't be harmed. Few players spoke on the record, except to deny the reports, and there were no confirmed cases of physical violence—although Winnipeg Jet general manager Mike Smith did say one of his draft choices (he declined to name which one) had been "roughed up" by members of organized crime in Russia. Still, it is common knowledge in NHL circles that a number of players have been threatened.
"If you make lots of money, you have to pay a percent—this is life," says Sergei Lyakhov, one of Russia's top discus throwers. Last year Lyakhov brought home some $15,000 in hard currency. "But this is nothing," he says, "so I'm not in trouble. Now, if you take [Detroit Red Wing star Sergei] Fedorov and his $3 million, that's another story."
Fedorov signed a four-year, $11.7 million deal on Dec. 22 but took the precaution of bringing his family to live with him in the U.S. before signing his contract.
"It's a country that lives off payoffs," says one Russian hockey insider. "Everybody's getting paid off. That's a fact of life when you do business in Russia today. It was addressed with the Penguins' ownership. They were told the mafia could be a serious problem down the road. But they haven't been touched by it yet. What I think has helped the relationship is [the mafia] doesn't perceive them as ugly Americans who are trying to make a fast buck. They've invested a lot in the team."