One can sympathize with Tikhonov's dragging his feet. Fetisov, who has been called the Bobby Orr of Soviet hockey, is still at the top of his game, with no heir apparent ready to take his place on the Red Army blue line. Actually, as Sinden pointed out last week, Fetisov plays more like Denis Potvin, the former Islander star, than Orr. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, Fetisov is the most physical of the Soviet players, with a fearsome hip check and a mean streak that will make him well-suited for the NHL game. He flattened Boston's Greg Johnston with a wicked elbow that earned him a five-minute major penalty, a transgression for which he apologized to Bruin coach Terry O'Reilly. Fetisov doesn't rush the puck end-to-end as Orr did, but is a master of the long breakout pass. His goals—he has scored 230 in his 12-year career with the Central Red Army and Soviet National Teams—come as he moves in from the point to the top of the slot, where he unleashes his blistering drives. He's faster than Potvin was, but is blessed with a similar on-ice intensity. Like Potvin, he occasionally has mental lapses that lead to giveaways in his own zone—when the game isn't on the line.
New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who visited the Soviet Union last summer to negotiate for the services of Fetisov and Kasatonov, has enlisted Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Yuri Dubinin as an ally in obtaining Fetisov for the Devils. Dubinin, New Jersey principal owner John McMullen, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead, a minority owner, got together to drop the ceremonial first puck before the Devils' game against Central Red Army—a 5-0 Red Army whitewash in which Fetisov scored a goal and received two standing ovations—and afterward Dubinin assured Fetisov he would wire Moscow to try to expedite Fetisov's move to New Jersey. Fetisov, who holds the rank of major in the Soviet Army, also needs the permission of the U.S.S.R.'s defense ministry to resign his commission.
All indications are that the permissions will be forthcoming, if for no other reason than a monetary one. Eighty percent of Fetisov's salary, he says, will go to the Soviet Ministry of Sports and Physical Culture. The remaining 20% will go to the Central Red Army Hockey Club. Fetisov, who's unmarried, will draw a monthly stipend to cover his living expenses, much as he does now. After his playing career is over, he would return to the Soviet Union. "We're nationalistic," says Fetisov, who spent much of his off-ice time last week decked out in a Devils sweatshirt. "We're not brought up to defect, even though I've been approached many times. We love our homeland, and I am looking forward to retiring in Moscow even after playing in the NHL."
He's also looking forward to getting out from under the thumb of Tikhonov, who has coached him for the past 12 years. "I can now predict almost every time what Tikhonov will do," Fetisov says. "I know all his weaknesses, and he knows all mine. It's so boring, you should either change the coach or change the players."
Indeed, the cry in Soviet hockey has increasingly been: Oust Tikhonov. The players are restless, the fans in Moscow are bored, and, most damning of all, there's increasing evidence that young Soviet players aren't being developed as they could be. How so? Because they are deprived of genuine competition. Tikhonov selects the best players for his team—he can do this because all young men in the Soviet Union must serve two years in the military—where they remain together, steamrolling the other 13 teams in the Soviet National League, for years. "In the last few years there has hardly been any competition, because our team has the cream of the crop," says Igor Larionov, player of the year in the Soviet league last season and center for wingers Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. The Larionov-Makarov-Krutov threesome has been the top Soviet line for the past eight years. "It's not interesting to the fans or to the players," Larionov says. "Hockey's not as popular now as it was five years ago in my country, and it's all Tikhonov's fault."
Larionov, 28, went public with his criticism in October in a six-page letter to the Soviet magazine Ogonyok. He complained of Tikhonov's oppressive training methods and coaching tactics. Central Red Army trains together for 10 to 11 months a year, according to Larionov, during which time the players live in dormitories, apart from their families. "Sometimes we can go home after a game and spend the night, but we must be back in training camp by 11 o'clock the next morning," Larionov says. "Or on other occasions we are allowed to go home at 10 a.m., but we must be back in training camp by four in the afternoon. I have a daughter, Elena, one year, nine months, whom I cannot see every day because of this arrangement. I love hockey, but it's too much. It's hard to live like this. The coach will never change, because this is his system. It's easier to keep an eye on the players when they're in training camp. He thinks that is why we win, but in my opinion, we win because we have the best players. As a result of this letter I have got much support from my teammates and the fans and the families of the players, but nothing has changed."
Tikhonov didn't speak to Larionov for two months after publication of the letter, in which Larionov also recounted how the Soviet players often ignored Tikhonov's strategies and concocted plans of their own. "Most of the times when we decide to go against his wishes, we win, so it doesn't matter to him," says Larionov, who expects to leave Central Army after this season to play for Khimik Voskresensk, a team based in the small city of Voskresensk, 50 miles southeast of Moscow, from which Tikhonov plucked him eight years ago. That is, unless Larionov signs with the Vancouver Canucks, who own his NHL rights. "Hockey players are treated like human beings on Khimik's team," says Larionov, who suspects that he will lose his place on the Soviet National Team, which is also coached by Tikhonov, once he leaves Central Red Army. "Tikhonov has to realize that hockey players are people and not robots."
That has never been made more apparent than during the last week.