Lars-Erik Eriksson put down his glass of vodka and orange juice and paused to survey the crowded, labyrinth-like bar of Moscow's Intourist Hotel, the only tavern in town open past midnight. "If we cared about this tournament," said Eriksson, "do you think we would be here?" And with a slow sweep of his glass, he indicated the entire Swedish national hockey team and the WHA's Winnipeg Jets gulping postgame screwdrivers and Russian champagne. It was the only comfort they found last week during the hardship assignment of the European hockey circuit—the Soviet Union's annual Izvestia Cup tournament.
Inducing the participants to come to Moscow in return for lucrative Soviet tours through their own countries, the Soviet Hockey Federation for 10 years now has dragged Sweden, Finland and Czechoslovakia to the Izvestia event, where the only prize is a snowman statue. This year the Winnipeg Jets, the WHA champions, also made the trip to slushy Moscow as the price for an eight-city Soviet tour of the U.S. and Canada that began this week. Although there were 10 European-born professionals on their roster, the Jets purported to represent Canada and thus helped the tournament sell out for the first time since 1969, when the Soviet team's rivalry with Czechoslovakia was at its hostile peak.
Debilitated by their own busy schedules, the players' distaste for Moscow and their hankering to be home for Christmas, visiting teams usually fall easily to the host Soviet squad during the week-long tournament sponsored by the government newspaper Izvestia. The Soviets, sparked by the return of superstar Valery Kharlamov, who broke both his ankles in a car crash last May, hardly worked up a sweat while slicing through their first three opponents. In the championship game, though, they ran into the bulldozing Czechoslovaks, and only some friendly refereeing by a Finnish official allowed the Soviets to prevail 3-2 and win the snowman for the eighth time in 10 years.
Winnipeg finished fourth in the five-nation round robin, managing only a 4-4 tie with Sweden and a 2-1 defeat of Finland. Canada's original representatives, the WHA Quebec Nordiques, underwent a recent ownership change and could not go, so after playing seven WHA games in 10 nights, the Jets hopped a plane, turned their watches ahead eight hours and skated into the 14,000-seat Palace of Sport to play Czechoslovakia. The tough opening game against the world champions was Soviet retribution for the order of matches in the Canada Cup last September, when the Soviet Union faced the Czechs in the opening round.
The Soviet coaching staff, which usually seems reluctant to display the national team's full strength unless the World or Olympic championships are at stake, this time fielded a team for the Izvestia Cup that was a close gauge of the true Soviet muscle. "This team is just as strong or stronger than the team they sent to the Canada Cup," said Winnipeg's Bobby Hull, who played on the victorious Team Canada in that tournament. "Anytime you have the line with Kharlamov going for them, they're stronger." Still, while Kharlamov and linemates Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov were back on ice after missing the Canada Cup, the Soviet hierarchy managed to camouflage its hand by sitting out the line of Alexander Yakushev, Vladimir Shadrin and Victor Shalimov. The explanation was that all three had minor injuries and that their recent performances had not been up to par.
So, the three reserves and their wives watched the tournament from seats at center ice, Yakushev suave in a fawn-colored suede sports jacket and his wife Tanya swathed in glistening black fur and suede. "Boring, isn't it?" said Yakushev as he walked away from a game between the Soviet Union and Sweden.
The WHA had innocently undermined the strength of the Czechoslovak team by arranging a tour through North America against WHA clubs concurrent with the Izvestia Cup and awarding the Czechoslovak Federation a financial premium for any "name" players it sent. Thus, seven national team members were missing from the Czech team in Moscow, including Frantisek Pospisil, the defenseman and team captain; Milan Novy, the top scorer and most valuable player in the Canada Cup; and Goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla.
Also, Jiri Holik. a 32-year-old Czechoslovak forward, had enough seniority to beg off the Izvestia assignment. Josef Augusta, a 30-year-old forward, and his close buddy. Forward Ivan Hlinka, were so miffed at their friend Holik that they sent him a telegram one morning at one o'clock summoning him to the tournament. Holik, too wise for such trickery, telephoned the jokers in Moscow and laughed at them.
The Swedish and Finnish squads were also missing a number of national team regulars who simply refused to come to the tournament. "I can't tell them to come," said Coach Lasse Heikkila of Finland. "I'm only the coach. In all the world there is only one tournament now, the Canada Cup. This is just another tournament." So why does Finland participate? "We have to come," said Heikkila, "or else the Soviets will not come to Finland. In Finland and Canada and all other countries there is politics and there is hockey, but here everything is politics."
The politics are working well for the WHA, according to Larry Gordon, the league's executive vice-president. "There is money in the tournament as a tradeoff for the games we will have in North America." he said. "We pay our own way here, and they pay their own way to North America. It's very good because the tour produces great interest in all our cities. And it's an excellent opportunity for the WHA to go to the fore in international competition."