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Home, Sweet Home
Michael Farber
November 14, 1994
A team of idled NHL stars returned to Russia and got a hero's welcome
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November 14, 1994

Home, Sweet Home

A team of idled NHL stars returned to Russia and got a hero's welcome

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Even more surprising was the reception they received from the new authorities. At a press conference last Thursday, Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Valentin Sych said, "I congratulate Alexander Mogilny for taking such a courageous stand to go where he wanted to play." Later, at a reception, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets declared, "The past is forgotten. They came to an absolutely new country, to an absolutely new society." Fedorov received a Russian passport upon his return. Mogilny's criminal case had already been closed, after an appeal to Alexander Korzhakov, the powerful chief of Boris Yeltsin's presidential guard. Yeltsin, reputedly a Spartak supporter, didn't attend last Friday's game, but he is expected to watch the tour finale on Nov. 14, when the Stars meet CSKA, for whom most of them played, and Viktor Tikhonov, the coach many of them loathed.

Tikhonov was in the Sokolniki VIP section on Friday, doing a little scouting and a little politicking. "We've all missed our talented players who are playing overseas," he said. Several rows away sat Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary Soviet goaltender of the 1970s and early '80s, who declined an offer to strap on the pads for the Superseries. "I am very happy. This is the best week for Russian hockey in years," said Tretiak. "The best players are all in the NHL. Our league is too young now."

That was one more thing that had the returning players rubbing their eyes: Russian hockey had reached a nadir. "It's all NHL here now," Bure said. "When I was growing up, I didn't even know the names of NHL teams." With the NHL having served since 1989 as a haven for most of the Soviet Union's best players, the top Russian league now looks dowdy. Sokolniki was sold out for the Stars—tickets cost between $3 and $10, although scalpers were getting as much as $16—but usually there are 500 fans rattling around for Spartak matches. The Red Army school still trains future hockey stars, beginning at age six, but, Sych said, Moscow has only "10 or 11 rinks in a city of 10 million. Only one rink in all of Russia was built last year because of the economic problems."

One hope was that the Superseries would trigger a revival in Russian hockey by reenergizing league play and helping to underwrite a nationwide youth tournament called Zolotaya Shaiba—Golden Puck. Fetisov had only three weeks to pull the tour together. When the NHL locked out the players indefinitely on Oct. 15, Fetisov got on his omnipresent cellular phone and began twisting arms. The Russian government agreed to wipe the defectors' slates clean. Sun Microsystems, a California-based computer company with a strong presence in Russia, signed on as a sponsor. Twenty NHL players from the former Soviet Union were enlisted, even though there wasn't much in it for them. (Mogilny did win a $10,250 bedroom set from a Russian sponsor, Venitsia—"We will deliver over the sea!"—for scoring the first goal in the Stars' 5-4 win over Spartak.) While no one would openly discuss how much the Stars would earn, a source said each player will make $10,000, with more going to Bure, Fedorov and Mogilny.

In persuading his countrymen to return home, Fetisov's toughest task was assuaging their worries about security. The new Russia has given rise to an emboldened mafia, which has tried to shake down some of these players and their families the past few years. The players were offered bodyguards, and there were "10...or more," as Fetisov put it, surrounding the Stars at all times. The bus that carried the players to their hotels from a reception last Thursday had two Red Army soldiers riding shotgun, and Fedorov said it took a circuitous route for safety's sake.

If a Moscow channel surfer hit Channel 1 last Friday night, he might have been startled. Other than RUSSIA in Cyrillic on the front and their names on the back, the NHL players' blue jerseys, with white stars on the shoulders, made them dead ringers for North Americans. Of course, they didn't play like a dump-and-chase NHL team, especially when the Fedorov line, reunited after five years, was on the ice. On the expansive international ice surface that line worked some impossibly sweet give-and-go's despite the rust of a month's inactivity. Mogilny scored two goals, Bure one.

"We played O.K.," Mogilny said, "but we have an expression in Russia: 'The first pancake always has lumps.' "

That seemed to be one of the few Russian expressions Mogilny remembered, as he constantly searched for once-familiar words, turning to teammates for "misunderstanding" (niponimaniye) and "dinner" (uzhin). When Bure was whistled on a two-line offsides pass, he mouthed, "Oh, come on." And some children reproached Fedorov because he began signing autographs in English instead of Russian.

"I was impressed by Bure, Mogilny, Fedorov," Tretiak said. "I hope we can keep developing players like them. I hope one day we will have an economy strong enough to have a league as good as the NHL, that our arenas will be bigger, that the atmosphere and the service will be better, that the hockey will be as good. Maybe. Who knew perestroika would be like this? Our country is pregnant with unexpected events."

Bure, Fedorov and Mogilny in Russia: another miracle on ice.

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