Bob McCammon looks into Vladimir Krutov's eyes and tries to find some light, a glimmer, a sense of motivation. He finds only a wall. Krutov will open up only in his own time, at his own pace, if he ever does at all. "I ask him if he's happy," says McCammon, Krutov's coach with the Vancouver Canucks. "He says yes. I ask him if he wants to be here. He nods. That's about all I get. It's frustrating. We all have a lot of compassion for the guy."
Krutov, one of 10 Soviet pioneers in the NHL this season, spent the 1980s as the world's best left wing. Now, with his first NHL season halfway over, he's sputtering like a four-cylinder Lada. And he's not the only Soviet in a funk.
What gives? Krutov and the countrymen who migrated with him to North America were famous for their deft puck handling, slick skating and marvelous shooting. So far, though, they've delivered next to nichego. For all the hoopla surrounding their entry into the NHL, the grand experiment at this point has to be deemed a major disappointment.
Oh, sure, a couple of Soviets are playing a little above average, and more than enough time remains in the season for the others to raise their levels, but don't hold your breath. Most seem either too old, too heavy, too slow or too disoriented to wow the NHL. For all the money that the league is paying the players, and in most cases the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, which gave them permission to emigrate (one of the players, right wing Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres, defected), a number of guys at Moose Jaw could do at least as well for considerably fewer dollars.
Krutov is exhibit A of the Soviet malaise. Nicknamed the Tank because of his wide shoulders, the 5'9" Krutov was a picture of power, strength and speed back home. He had a scorching backhand shot, and he helped spur the Soviet National Team to two Olympic gold medals, seven world championships and an 8-1 rout of Canada's best NHL players in the 1981 Canada Cup final.
However, as of last Saturday, he had only six goals and 14 assists for the Canucks. After a summer of sloth in Moscow, the Tank reported to Vancouver's training camp at 212 pounds, 15 above his usual weight in the U.S.S.R. Krutov is down to about 205 now and says, in one of his few attempts at English, that things are getting "better." But that's not apparent in his play.
According to McCammon, the other Canucks sympathize with the difficulties Krutov has faced trying to adjust to the NHL. But the money Vancouver is paying—$750,000 a season over three years, split equally between Krutov and the Soviet federation—and the Canucks' woeful record have not helped the atmosphere on the team. Vancouver won only two games in December as Krutov's hands, once among the most gifted in the game, continued to seem as if they were made of stone. Official expressions of tolerance aside, patience among the Canucks is running thin.
"When we get traded," says Paul Reinhart, Vancouver's best defenseman, "we all believe we need time to get used to new teammates, new surroundings, new systems. Add language and lifestyle to that, and you understand what he is going through.
"At the same time, we're under the gun to win hockey games, and it's a lot easier to be patient when you win. Krutov is the typical Russian, not very emotional or talkative. If you accept that as a cultural difference, then fine, but there are guys on the team who don't understand that. They reach out to try to make him feel at home and after a while expect him to reach back. Nobody's turned away. But some are nearing that point."
The Canucks are one of three teams with at least two Soviets. In the Vancouver locker room, the cubicle next to Krutov's is occupied by Igor Larionov, who had been Krutov's center with the Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. As of last Saturday, Larionov had 12 goals and 18 assists.