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E.M. Swift
January 16, 1989
Viacheslav Fetisov, star defenseman for the touring Soviets, wants to join the NHL, but will he be allowed to?
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January 16, 1989

Is It Nyet Or Not Yet?

Viacheslav Fetisov, star defenseman for the touring Soviets, wants to join the NHL, but will he be allowed to?

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You could hardly have blamed Viktor Tikhonov, coach of Moscow's Central Red Army hockey team, if last week he had come right out and said glasnost was for the birdskis. The verbal bashing he has been taking from his players under the new Soviet policy of openness hasn't been pretty. But Tikhonov remained impassive on Saturday when he was asked about the recent criticism by several of his stars, who have accused him of everything from blocking their opportunities to play in the NHL to killing fan interest in Moscow to treating them like robots. "Rarely could be that everything is going smooth," Tikhonov said through a Soviet translator whose mastery of English was only marginally better than Tikhonov's. "If you created excellent conditions, they could blame you as well. Criticism should be constructive. Is no way."

Uh, right. One thing, however, became crystal clear during the grandiosely named Super Series between two touring Soviet teams, Central Red Army and Dynamo Riga, and the 14 NHL clubs that served as their hosts. Is no way that the best defenseman in the U.S.S.R. and, with apologies to the Boston Bruins' Ray Bourque, the world is anyone other than Central Red Army's 30-year-old Viacheslav Fetisov, who wants desperately to play in the NHL and compete for the Stanley Cup.

"It's more interesting playing hockey in North America," says Fetisov, "because in Moscow we don't have the fans. Hockey there has lost its importance. I have won all the other things: world championships and Olympic gold medals. I want to experience this Cup victory before I stop playing hockey."

For the record, the two Soviet teams and the NHL split the 14-game series 6-6-2, Buffalo saving face for the NHL with a 6-5 sudden-death victory over the Red Army team on Monday night. Still, the NHL has not won an exhibition series against the Soviets since the first meeting between the hockey superpowers, in 1972. In the eight series against NHL teams, the Soviets have won 29 games, lost 15 and tied four. Much has changed over 17 years. The Soviets, adapting to the smaller North American rinks, shoot from all angles now instead of patiently waiting for the perfect scoring chance. They even were seen last week working on dumping the puck into the offensive zone, a practice that was anathema to the Soviets a few years ago. Soviet forwards drive toward the net more aggressively than in the days when they darted in and out of the slot, never lingering, and they take more long shots from the point. "The NHL players are playing our game of more passing, and we're passing less," says Central Red Army's assistant coach, Boris Mikhailov, the top goal scorer in Soviet history.

Bruin general manager Harry Sinden went so far as to say, "I didn't see any difference in their style today and anybody else's," after Boston lost to Central Red Army 5-4 on New Year's Eve.

One thing, however, hasn't changed. Central Red Army, which went 4-2-1 in its seven games on the tour-losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-2, as well as to Buffalo—is one of the top three or four teams in the world. "They all play with the confidence of a Gretzky or Lemieux," said Hartford coach Larry Pleau after his Whalers were manhandled 6-3 Saturday night in a game in which the Soviets took a 6-1 lead in the first 26 minutes and then worked on their skating. "They get you mesmerized watching the puck and then move into an area that none of your players are defending. They're highly skilled athletes, and they two-on-one you better than anybody I've ever seen."

This road show did little in the way of unearthing future Soviet stars—with the exception of the superb goalie of the mediocre Dynamo Riga team (2-4-1 on the tour), 21-year-old Artur Irbe—or of exposing the fading skills of aging ones. Most of the Soviet surprises came off the ice where the players, virtually inaccessible during previous tours, were allowed to and willing to open up, much to the chagrin of Tikhonov, who came across as the Stalin of U.S.S.R. hockey.

He certainly was viewed as such by New Jersey Devils fans who, having been hopeful that Fetisov might join the Devils in time for their drive to make the playoffs, booed Tikhonov mercilessly when he was introduced before New Jersey's Jan. 2 game against Central Red Army. "They have a right to boo him," said Alexei Kasatonov, Fetisov's teammate and former partner on defense, whose rights are also owned by the Devils. "Tikhonov understands why the fans boo him. I think because he won't let Fetisov go."

Tikhonov denies he's blocking the move by Fetisov, who, if he joins the Devils anytime soon, would be the first Soviet player to compete in the NHL. "There are three things that must happen," Tikhonov said last week. "His coach must be willing for him to go, Central Army club officials must be willing, and he must be willing." Tikhonov raised two of his fingers. "Coach: Da! Fetisov: Da!Club officials: Nyet! For this year, no. Maybe next year."

But Fetisov, who was stripped of his captaincy this year by Tikhonov because he was worried more about going to the NHL than about the play of Central Army, which is in first place and en route to a 13th consecutive Soviet League title, isn't buying the way his coach has been passing the ruble. "If Tikhonov gave the word, there would not be a problem," Fetisov says. "He's all talk and no action. He's an actor, a very good actor."

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