The Blog

COLD WAR ON ICE

12:00 AM, Jun 10, 1996 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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I am an avid hockey fan--and also a great admirer of Ronald Reagan. As I watch the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, I can't help noticing the influence Reagan has had on the National Hockey League. Just look at some of the names playing in the NHL.

Growing up, I saw names like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and Guy Lafleur on the backs of hockey jerseys. NHL players were mainly Canadian, with a handful of Americans and Western Europeans. Those days are long gone. The political and economic disintegration of the Soviet Union allowed many of Russia's top hockey talents to defect to the United States and Canada to play in the National Hockey League. They wanted freedom from a dictatorial hockey regime that paid them little and a government that did not care about the welfare of its citizens.

The first Russian player to defect was Sergei Priakin in 1987. His defection led to a torrent of emigration, as player after talented player left the socialism of the Soviet Union for the multi-million-dollar contracts, large homes, and freedom of North America. The best in the Soviet hockey world played for the Central Red Army team (CSKA) and were considered active members of the Soviet armed forces.

Thus, in the early days of the exodus, some players who defected to the West were classified as deserters, and military prosecutors in Moscow filed criminal charges against them in absentia. But only seven NHL seasons later, the Stanley Cup had its first Russian names on it, when the 1994 New York Rangers won the championship.

Today, the NHL has 55 Russian players, spread out through its 26 teams. Last Monday, I watched many of the best Red Army imports playing in a city where imports aren't widely applauded. Detroit Red Wing fans have dubbed their team's five Russians-Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and Igor Larionov--the "Detroit Red Army" and the "Wizards of Ov." Together, these Russians, who sometimes take the ice as an all-Russian unit, have scored more than one-third of Detroit's regular-season goals. More important, though, have been their actions off the ice, which have been distinctly anti-Communist.

These and other transplanted Russians have been waging their own Cold War against the Russian Ice Hockey Federation in Moscow. The federation is putting together a Russian national team to compete in hockey's first-ever World Cup tournament in August and wants many of the NHEs Russians to play on it. But before they will play for Russia, they want Boris Yeltsin to dump the former Central Red Army coach, Col. Viktor Tikhonov, who is expected to head the national team that will play in the World Cup. Many of them played for Tikhonov and consider him as outdated and discredited as Lenin himself.

Tikhonov coached the Central Red Army team for more than a decade and also coached those dominating Soviet Olympic teams that regularly destroyed their competition. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, though, Russian hockey, once the pride of the nation, has been in a tailspin for lack of funding and what has become a civil war between the private sector and the Red Army for control of the sport. The Army has apparently won. Col. Tikhonov was fired by the Defense Ministry as coach of the CSKA, and the Army has now begun to pour millions of dollars into upgrading Russia's aging hockey facilities. "It was like an army coup," said the team's public relations director Viktor Gusev. " The military men walked in, and ten minutes later it was over."

One particular sore spot for the NHEs Russians is the sorry plight of their Red Army predecessors. Fedorov, Fetisov, and Larionov of the Red Wings have asked Yeltsin to give part of the proceeds of the World Cup championship to veterans of the Red Army team who played under the Communist system and never had a chance to make big bucks in North America. Many of them now can't pay their medical bills. Some Red Army hockey vets "die at age 40," says Fetisov. "My friends, guys who I played with for so many years, and their families don't even have money for their funerals. It's just brutal"

The Russian Federation struck back at Fetisov and Larionov, who have been the main thorns in Moscow's side, by keeping them off the preliminary list of players to represent Russia at the World Cup. Fetisov sees the Communists back at their old games. "It was a Communist country for 75 years, and the Communists are trying a comeback. Same old problems." So at least on the ice, the Cold War isn't over. I hope Ronald Reagan is watching.