The making and eventual unmaking of Russian hockey players roughly parallels their progress in picking up certain words and phrases of the English language. As rookies the Soviets learn how to say "Hi" and "Boo-by Orr." On their next several trips to North America they master the tricky terms "room service" and "three Cokes cold." Once they become veterans of the international circuit, they discover the magic word "Smirnoff," as in vodka on the rocks. When that happens, though, they might soon find themselves coaching peewee teams in South Moscow or Siberia.
By Russian standards the Moscow Selects—really the Soviet National Team playing under an assumed name—may still be in the Boo-by Orr and room service stages of hockey development, but last week they put three more teams on the rocks during their eight-game U.S. tour and they left little doubt that only three North American clubs—the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens and a new Team Canada—would be in their class. The Selects are all-stars from the Russian major league and their average age is less than 24. On New Year's night in Colorado Springs they toyed with Denver University 9-1, then flew west to play three teams in the professional Western Hockey League. In frigid Portland, where the noisy home crowd kept yelling, "We gave them the wheat, you give them the chaff," the Selects gave the Buckaroos the business, scoring eight goals, hitting the post five other times and then securing their 8-3 victory by organizing a pentagonal shell around center ice and playing keepaway with the puck for most of the last 10 minutes.
For the Selects' next game in rainy San Diego, their third in three nights, Coach Vsevolod Bobrov rested his best forward line, including Right Wing Valary Kharlamov, the swiftest Soviet, and played his Kid Line of Vyacheslav (Fast-Relief) Anisin, Yuri Lebedev and Aleksandr Bodunov instead. The kids combined to produce goals the first three times they took the ice. Lebedev got the hat trick and the potent Soviet power play needed only eight and then 11 seconds to score goals the first two times San Diego players went to the penalty box. Late in the game the Selects were ahead 8-3 and seemed quite content not to run up the score, but a San Diego defenseman aroused them by taking an unnecessary swipe at Anisin. In an angry exhibition of powerful finesse, the Russians whipped in three goals in the final 85 seconds to win 11-3. Two nights later, weary and overconfident, the Selects caught a fired-up Seattle Totems team and were beaten 8-4, but their U.S. record was 6-1 and their point was made.
What the Russians were accomplishing was a strong case for a return to the best competition this continent can offer. "It is clear that we have outclassed this kind of opponent," Bobrov said in San Diego. "There is only one league left for us now: the NHL. We must grow, they must grow—and the only way for both of us to grow, to advance in hockey, is to play each other. It is imperative that we play six or eight games at the least against the NHL next year." Boris Kulagin, who is the technical brain behind the Selects (Bobrov represents the political front), agreed. "We both will boil in our own syrup," he said, puffing a U.S. cigarette, "unless we play each other immediately." The postmortems merely increased the serious hockey fans' feeling of frustration, because two Soviet teams had been scheduled to play a total of eight games against NHL clubs six weeks ago. Those plans were scrapped when 1) the Russians refused to pay taxes on their share of the profits—potentially a $250,000 slice—and 2) the International Ice Hockey Federation's mysterious Bunny Ahearne, speaking from his base in hockey-loving England, threatened to withhold his official sanction.
Since losing to Team Canada's NHL All-Stars 15 months ago in the most thrilling hockey series ever played, the Soviets have reorganized. This process began with a purge of some top-level personages. Hockey boss Andrei Starvoitov followed Anatoly Tarasov, the successful former national team coach and "father of Russian hockey," into obscurity. Several older members of the national team, notably Defenseman Aleksandr Ragulin and Forward Anatoly Firsov, were, as Kulagin said, "given the farewell treatment"—removal to minor coaching positions. With Ragulin, alas, went the free-spirited hijinks that usually marked the Soviets' visits to the U.S. Last week the players were kept under close scrutiny inside their hotels, and the coaches scheduled long tactical meetings between meals. One night Aleksandr Yakushev, the Selects' best left wing and probably the most complete left wing in all hockey, did try to purchase a bottle of vodka for a birthday party—his own—but he lost interest when the cocktail waitress at a motel lounge told him it would cost $23 over the counter.
On the tactical level, Kulagin has introduced several effective changes. "We will never abandon our collective game," he said, "and we will never become a bunch of fighters and wrestlers and karate choppers like they have in the NHL. We are seeking an in-between. We want to be stable in our nervous system, not madmen." This year, Kulagin says, there has been twice as much body checking in the Russian major league as ever before and more individual play, too, particularly on defense, the one area in which the Soviets still have discernible problems. "One Boo-by Orr would take care of that for us," Kulagin said. "What we need are more mobile defensemen. They do not participate enough."
Kulagin has also altered the Soviets' attacking pattern, the better to utilize a flock of left-handed shooters. Of the 15 forwards who dressed for the games in Portland and San Diego only one, Center Vladimir Petrov, was right-handed. To accommodate his lefties—the Kharlamovs, Yakushevs and top rookies such as Aleksandr Volchkov and the members of the Kid Line—Kulagin has introduced an exciting new counterclockwise offense in which the two wingmen constantly circle around the net at full speed and wait for passes from their centerman. "What they do is lovely to watch," said Portland Coach Ron Stewart. "The trouble is, it's so lovely that our guys tend to do just that—stand around and watch."
Hockey aside, the most striking change in the Russians since the Team Canada series involves their physical and material presence. When they arrived in Montreal for the games with Team Canada, the Russians all had short army-style haircuts and wore gray, brown and navy-blue clothes. On the West Coast last week they could have passed for any NHL team away from home. The players wore their hair long, with sideburns plunging several inches below the bottom of the ears. Kharlamov one day sported a maroon suit with wide lapels and a belted back. Captain Boris Mikhailov showed off a pair of plaid pants with high cuffs and a tailored double-breasted blazer. And they all wore shoes or boots with elevated heels. It is quite possible the decline and fall of the Soviet empire has begun.
Thanks to the sponsoring Amateur Ice Hockey Association of the U.S., the Russians did not lack for the little niceties. While in the U.S. they ran up daily hotel bills of more than $1,500, including almost $1,000 for food charges—some $30 daily for each of the 29 members of the party. "The first thing they do when they check into a hotel is call room service and order some hors d'oeuvres and vodka," said Walter Bush Jr., president of the Minnesota North Stars and an organizer of the tour. In Minneapolis, Bobrov persuaded Bush to take him shopping one day, and when they had finished Bobrov owned a new set of hub caps, a dozen polished dashboard knobs and new hot-rod sidewalls for his old car back in Moscow. "He bought everything except gas," Bush said. Toward the end of the tour Bush tried to save meal money by booking the Russians on a dinner flight from San Diego to Seattle. When Bobrov discovered that a Boston-New York NHL game would be on television that night in Seattle, he rescheduled the flight for midafternoon and planned a tremendous team dinner after the game.
Meals and massacres—that was the gist of the Soviet story. Their financial take from the visit will be only about $25,000—minus what Bobrov has to pay for a new pair of shin pads for Goalie Aleksandr Sidelnikov. Make that $24,700, Comrade.