It has been wondered, too, just how much emotional involvement a guy from Chelyabinsk can bring to playing for a team from Quebec City. The fact that few of the Soviets reported in top condition has been blamed on the disruptions of their late-summer moves. Since suspicions about their self-discipline arise fairly easily in some quarters, the extra pounds and heaving chests at practices haven't been ignored. There are also snickers about the Soviets' being Party members who have come here for a different kind of party.
"We know the reputation," says Pat Quinn, the Canucks" general manager. "Mr. Gorbachev has expressed concern about the [drinking] problem in his country, and we will watch it closely. It was discussed with the players. We told them if things get out of hand, they are going home. I don't think there will be a problem. They don't want to be an embarrassment."
Anyone who witnessed the brilliance of Krutov and Makarov on the ice, while losing three 6-5 thrillers to Wayne Gretzky and the rest of Team Canada in the finals of the 1987 Canada Cup, will have a hard time believing that these men can flop. "Whether it takes one day or one month or one year, they'll adjust," says Gretzky. "It's just a matter of how soon."
Makarov clearly is in the best situation, because he's going to play for the best team. "I don't know what a fair expectation is," says Cliff Fletcher, Calgary's general manager. "But I do know we're not counting on him to get us into the playoffs or be the missing link to a Stanley Cup. We just want him to fit in and contribute."
Larionov, who was spectacular in the 8-1 shocking of Team Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup championship game, and Krutov, the army major who was nicknamed the Tank, not because he drove one but because he is one, do have considerable pressure on them. They must score for a Vancouver team that couldn't score last year. But they do have each other to lean on.
The Devils have long lacked a big wheel on the back line, and Fetisov could be the answer. After several years of looking very average in international competition, he was his old self at the 1988 Olympics, possibly because the promise of playing in North America dangled before him.
Mylnikov, if he persists in his deep-in-the-net, European style of goaltending, will wait in vain for that final goalmouth pass that rarely comes in NHL hockey. Here he'll have to go out and challenge the players, who shoot early, often and hard. Still, Mylnikov plays down the problems of adjustment—but not the challenge that lies before him. "Playing in the NHL is the last thing left for me to try," he says. Says Krutov, "I have won every cup but the Stanley Cup." But perhaps Larionov put it best for all of them: "The people in the Soviet Union are watching this very closely, too. We do not want to fail."
It will take two to three years to reach a fair judgment, but the teams that have signed Soviets are not necessarily the only ones on trial. The Snider family, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers, has said it opposes doing business with the Soviet government because of human rights issues and would never pay the federation for a player. "I am open to changing my mind," says Jay Snider, the Flyers' president. "There is clear evidence of less political repression [ in the Soviet bloc]. But look what happened in China. Until these changes are institutionalized, I'm still wary."
As are some players. But they know the only way they are going to keep their own jobs is to protect their team's best players—of whatever nationality. "I don't care if they come from Mars," says Canucks' enforcer Greg C. Adams. "If they show me they give a damn about the team, I will stand up for them. The doubt will disappear unless they turn out to be chippy players. Then it will never stop."
"I heard the same questions when the Swedes first came," says Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld. "Some adjusted, some didn't. Trades put players into new situations all the time, and in one game they become part of the team. I really think too much is being made of this."