Actually, Mogilny's youth may allow him to adjust more easily than the other Soviets to both NHL hockey and its life-style. Circumstances could be a great motivator. He has to make it; he can't go home if he doesn't. Says Larionov with a shrug, "Mogilny can forget Russian now." Asked if he disapproves of Mogilny's actions, Larionov's usual grin disappears. "Every person has to make his own choice," he says.
Unlike Mogilny, the older Soviets, who have been selected in what-do-we-have-to-lose rounds in various drafts since 1983, decided to work their way here through channels. When the cumbersome bureaucracy in the U.S.S.R. would squeeze the passages shut, the players would push them open again. The most persistent was Fetisov. He believed that the release he hoped for after the 1988 Olympics had been pigeonholed by Tikhonov and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation and was determined that the bureaucrats not get a dime from his deal. He publicly attacked Tikhonov while touring with the Central Red Army team last winter and then quit the club team upon returning home. When Tikhonov responded by dropping Fetisov from the national team for the world championships in Stockholm, Larionov, Krutov and Makarov were among the top players who announced on Soviet television that they would boycott the tournament.
Tikhonov took Fetisov back—he was named the outstanding defenseman in the world championships—and in late May, Fetisov was granted his release from the military. In June he signed a $350,000-a-year, three-year contract and informed the federation that he would donate a share of his salary to a children's fund in the Soviet Union and also buy equipment for teams he had played on in his youth. The federation would receive nothing. "You have to see the respect Slava is held in over there to understand how he was able to accomplish that," says Lou Lamoriello, the Devils' general manager. "It helped that this had become a conversation piece in the Soviet Union."
"We wanted to assert ourselves so that [Soviet] athletes would have some rights," says Fetisov. "The sports committee could always do whatever it wanted. What I did was a very difficult process. But there was a powerful group of athletes who stood behind me."
Larionov and Krutov, who are represented by Mark Malkovich, a Newport, R.I., promoter who has cut North American deals for Soviet musicians, were released less than a week after Fetisov phoned Lamoriello to tell him he had obtained his visa. Krutov's and Larionov's deals with the Canucks and Makarov's and Mylnikov's respective contracts with the Flames and Nordiques—all last for three years—were negotiated by Sovintersport, the agency created to sell off Soviet athletic talent to the West. Larionov and Krutov each receive $375,000 annually. The federation gets an equal amount. It will also receive half of the $700,000 a year the Flames are paying for Makarov and half of the $300,000 a year the Nordiques are spending for Mylnikov. Starikov will earn $250,000 but, like Fetisov, will give money to the children's fund rather than to the federation.
The large salaries have caused many to wonder just where hockey is going to fit into the Soviets' priorities. Though the teams have assisted the players in finding housing and arranging for interpreters, the players and their families will face bewildering choices in their daily lives. When Lena Larionov, Igor's wife, got her first look at the butcher's department at a Vancouver supermarket, Jenniffer Smyl, the wife of Canucks captain Stan Smyl, who was accompanying Lena, had a hard time convincing her that she didn't have to fill her cart. Meat would still be there the next day.
"On one street corner in New York, you can have a multimillion-dollar townhouse and have people lying there sleeping on the street," says Fetisov. "The contrast amazes us. The pace of life here is much faster."
The hockey here is slower, though, than the wide-open, light-hitting international brand. And it has a schedule that the Soviets will have to adjust to. Players on the national team would play as many as 90 games a year, but the schedule had week-long training breaks and stretched out over a longer time span. "That will be the hardest thing for them," says Stastny. "By Christmas my first year, my body rebelled. My legs went dead, and I didn't know how to deal with it."
Most of the Soviet players understand some English from their many North American tours, but now they will have to speak it. Priakin, who came over to Calgary in March to test the waters for the Soviet stars, learned little English. Of course, these guys only have to read their checks in games, not translate Chekhov. "A blackboard, some chalk, some X's and O's and away we go," says Calgary coach Terry Crisp. "No problem at all communicating."
"The key is personality," says Calgary's veteran winger Jim Peplinski. "From what I've seen of the Eastern bloc, the people there are a little less vocal, and are more introverted. The difference will be whether they are willing to take the risk of mispronouncing a word. If they can make mistakes, laugh at them and learn from them, it'll be much easier."