Russians in the NHL and the Quest for the Stanley Cup - Part 2

Часть Вторая…

"Я живу в Америке [I live in America] - Russians in the NHL and the Quest for the Stanley Cup” is a thesis I wrote upon graduating from the University of Virginia in 2009. Originally assigned for a class entitled “Amerika through Russian Eyes”, the purpose of the class was to examine the relationship between Soviets or Russians with the American people and culture, from the point of view of Russian writers, artists, politicians, exiles, villains and heroes. In this piece, I explore the unique avenue that ice hockey gave a handful of Soviets seeking freedom, laying the groundwork for young Russians to later come to America in search of a dream. I hope to update this feature soon, as the KHL has developed, and the state of the Russian players on the Washington Capitals has changed since 2009. What follows is Part 2, but you can read Part 1 here

“‘Tikanoff’, as they pronounce his name abroad,” wrote legendary center Igor Larionov. “For nine years I was under charge of – or more precisely, under the press of, this man [and yet without him] it is impossible to discuss Soviet hockey, its successes and its failures.”[1] Tikhonov ruled Soviet hockey as a “dictator”[2] for fourteen years and during his tenure as head coach of both the national team and the best team in Russia – Red Army (CSKA) – Tikhonov made sure he had a hand all things hockey – both on and off the ice. “A strict disciplinarian, [Tikhonov] drove his players hard year-round, [and] was considered by many (including players) to be cruel, harsh, surly, and ruthless,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Merron[3].

His demand that the team – his team – submit to a militaristic lifestyle made him unpopular with his star players, especially with Igor Larionov who detested living in Tikhonov’s so-called barracks, and training for eleven months out of the year during which he was separated from his family. Rewards came in the form of meager financial bonuses and supervised international travel and although such rewards may seem small to Western audiences, these were privileges in the Soviet Union. But playing for Tikhonov meant one thing above all else: national prestige. His Red Army and national team players were heroes, heirs to a tradition of excellence that put them in a rarefied stratosphere in Soviet society.

Despite the militaristic lifestyle, young boys across the Soviet Union dreamed of playing for Tikhonov. Even Tikhonov’s greatest critics once dreamed of playing for him: Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, and Sergei Makarov, the famous KLM line, who together along with Alexei Kasatonov and Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov formed the powerhouse ‘Green Unit’, were all Tikhonov’s willing charges in the early 80’s, despite the way they would all come to despise and then abandon him by the end of the decade. Yet it was brainy centerman Igor Larionov and hulking defensemen Slava Fetisov who first demanded that the political glasnost of the 1980’s filter down into the world of professional sports. Larionov in particular had chaffed against Tikhanov’s system since his initial invitation to play with CSKA.

By 1988, it had become clear to Larionov that Tikhonov was man so set in his ways that he was practically welded to Soviet tradition, and that he saw little need to accommodate the fresh-thinking center. When the hopes of change seemed unattainable, Larionov took advantage of the new relative openness of the glasnost and perestroika initiatives to address Tikhonov publically. In 1988, he published an open letter to Tikhonov in the widely circulated Soviet sports publication, Ogonyok, demanding change and better treatment for players, a list of controversial complaints that essentially amounted to a call for freedom. “It was quickly discovered that while the Russian word ogonyok means ‘small fire’, what Larionov had set off was more like a bomb.”[4]

Word of the letter even travelled all the way to North America, especially exciting NHL general managers in New Jersey and Vancouver who had ‘drafted’ Soviet players (i.e. used their draft picks to express their desire for Soviets to play in the NHL) like Larionov and Fetisov since the early 80’s. Although his letter was groundbreaking, Larionov’s plea for change did little to affect the system, ultimately resulting in a clamp down on his travel privileges and multiple benchings during the 1988 season. This was the final straw for Larionov who treasured his freedoms, as limited as they might be. His battle with Tikhonov had now morphed into a battle beyond hockey; escaping Tikhonov now became about human dignity and liberty. To that end, Larionov and Fetisov began to tirelessly devote themselves to securing a legal route the West. In Russian, the route to the West translated as “en-haych-el”, НХЛ: the NHL.

While the aging legends of Soviet hockey Larionov and Fetisov were trying to pressure the Soviet government to legally release them from their military contracts, the young man dubbed the future of Soviet hockey had gone missing. Twenty year old Alexander ‘Sasha’ Mogilny was nowhere to be found, missing from a team bus in Sweden. “Mogilny, a junior lieutenant in the Soviet Army who had been selected by the [NHL club, the Buffalo] Sabres in the 1988 draft, had just left.”[5] After the Soviets had claimed victory in 1988 World Championships (a victory that was to be their 21st), he had simply walked out of his Stockholm hotel, swallowed his famous fear of flying, and boarded a plane with his American mentors bound for New York’s JFK airport.

As Larionov noted his in his 1990 biography, “Sasha dreamed of playing in the NHL. But he saw how [the Soviet officials] had harassed Fetisov, the famous Fetisov, for a whole year. Such a prospect could have hardly enticed a young player like him to stay.”[6] For Mogilny, the prospect of playing ice hockey in America, free from the restraints of Tikhonov as well as from Soviet laws that discouraged the flashy American lifestyle of celebrity and money, was too tempting. The youngster knew America to be the future, and the Soviet Union to be the past. His hockey future, as well as the future of the game – the only place to play now – was America.

News of Mogilny’s defection spread quickly throughout the Soviet Union as well as throughout North America, causing equal amounts of embarrassment for the Soviets and excitement for NHL fans. After all, American fans in Buffalo knew their team was readying home ice for the brightest young star of the famed Soviet school of hockey.[7] Yet Mogilny would not be the only Soviet player to make his NHL debut in the 1989 season. By the summer, the Soviet ‘powers-that-be’ finally relented and granted the persistent Fetisov and the patient Larionov permission to join their new NHL teams in the West by releasing them from CSKA: Fetisov to the New Jersey Devils and Larionov to the Vancouver Canucks. For the two legends, the realization of the dream to play in America, a world were freedoms were respected, was akin to a new lease on life. They had been given a new life, a new American life, free to pursue the life of the American athlete so admired from afar. And for Mogilny too, America was rebirth. “Mogilny would show his visa to everyone because it meant something special to him,” write Stan and Shirely Fischler, “like a birth certificate to the West.”[8]

Read Part 3.

[1] Igor Larionov. Larionov. Codner Books. Canada: 1990. 45.

[2] Larionov. 45.

[3] Merron.

[4] “Story #65: Igor Larionov revolts against coach, system.”

[5] Merron.

[6] Larionov. 145.

[7] Stan and Shirley Fischler. Red Line: Soviets in the NHL. Prentice-Hall Canada, Inc. Ontario: 1990. 39.

[8] Fischler, 133.

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