Upbringing, heritage put Tikhonov at home in hockey
One of the most unforgettable aspects of director Gabe Polsky’s widely acclaimed Red Army documentary about the history of the Soviet national hockey team is its soundtrack. Composed by award-winners Christophe Beck and Leo Birenberg, the instrumentals tell a story that invokes all sorts of emotions: sadness, fear, tension, melancholy and sentimentality being chief among them.
One particularly powerful score stands out from the rest. As the cellos make way for the pianos, the pianos for violins, you can’t help but feel an ominous sense of drama. This track quickens and slows, quickens and slows, its tempo beautifully in concert with the on-screen developments: the legendary Viacheslav Fetisov feuding with his despotic coach as he sought to free himself from the Soviet Union for a career in the National Hockey League.
This entry in the soundtrack goes by a one-word title, named after the corresponding scene’s antagonist: “Tikhonov.”
On an early morning late in the 2015-16 season after an Arizona Coyotes practice at Gila River Arena, the mood is much different. The building is quiet, almost too quiet, and laid back, with upbeat players’ excited voices occasionally bursting out of the silence, echoes amplified by the emptiness of the arena.
These Coyotes won’t make the playoffs, but they hardly seem to show it. Their mood seems unfazed by a late-season plunge that sunk their postseason aspirations after a surprisingly good start promised a better fate.
This is the fourth straight spring of no playoffs for the Coyotes. But with young talent like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s obvious that this organization, long troubled on and off the ice, has reason to have hope where there used to be none.
On this young, high-spirited bunch of Coyotes, the most easygoing player is a fourth-line winger who hails from San Jose, Calif., who seamlessly transitions in conversation from his newborn daughter, to the midseason transaction that landed him in Arizona and surfing.
“A bunch of San Jose (Sharks) guys surf all the time,” he says. “Brent Burns is probably the best at it. I think he goes almost every weekend. I’m probably average to below average. I can get up, I can get on a wave, I can turn left and right. That’s about it.”
As the he continues speaking, his tone is relaxed as he succinctly runs his fingers through his shoulder-length, sandy-blonde hair, sweat oozing from his youthful face as he swings his shoulder pads aside.
As the conversation turns to the Coyotes’ upcoming slate of games, it’s hard to believe that this innocent-looking, California surfer-turned-hockey player could be so intrinsically linked with the darkest entry of the Red Army soundtrack.
Except they are one and the same. This young Coyotes’ name: “Tikhonov.”
Viktor Tikhonov, the fourth-liner the Coyotes acquired via waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks in early December, is not what you think of when you hear the name Viktor Tikhonov. That image is normally of the villainous, KGB-appointed coach of the Soviet national team who disciplined and demanded complete control of his players, en route to two decades (1977-94) of international success guiding teams so dominant that only miracles could stop them.
It was once said by one of his players that if he ever needed a heart transplant he’d have asked for Tikhonov’s because it had never been used.
That Viktor Tikhonov is this Viktor Tikhonov’s grandfather. The Viktor Tikhonovs are very different people.
“We usually just called on birthdays,” the younger Tikhonov said of his grandfather. “New Year’s was another big one. Most of the holidays we’d talk a little bit and that was it. It’s one thing when you talk on the phone, but you don’t actually see his face.”
Distant, divided by both ocean and culture, was long the relationship between the two Viktor Tikhonovs. This was a result of the career moves of Vasili Tikhonov, the son of one Viktor Tikhonov, the father of the other, who was one of the brightest young coaches in Finland with Ässät in the early 1990s before taking an assistant coaching job with the San Jose Sharks in 1993.
Vasili Tikhonov’s coaching career continued until the day of his tragic death at age 55 three summers ago, when he fell from a fourth-story window in his Moscow apartment, where it seemed he was trying to repair a damaged screen. His father, one of the patriarchs of Soviet hockey, died 15 months later at the age of 84 following a lengthy illness.
Before the oldest Tikhonov passed away, he pieced together a grandfatherly, but hardly strict—as you may expect—relationship with his grandson. This relationship was built when Vasili Tikhonov was hired by CSKA Moscow (what’s left of the fabled Red Army team) in 2002, moving his wife and young daughter to Russia and uniting his 14-year-old son with his legendary grandfather for the first time in their lives.
“I always knew my grandfather’s accomplishments,” Tikhonov said. “I always knew they were really big. It really hit me when I got back to Russia. There’s still people that come up to you in the street there. More than they come up to you and say ‘hey, great job,’ they come up and say ‘say hi to your grandpa, we’re really proud of everything’s he’s done.’
“The best would probably be after a Red Army game when I first moved there and was younger. My grandpa had a cabinet, like an office, by the locker room. After every game, I’d always run into his office and he’d have all his awards and stuff. I’d sit in a chair and he’s be there writing about the game. Then all of a sudden, all of the legends would walk in, one by one. I’d listen to them and remember their stories.
“You’d have to squeeze the stories out of him. I still haven’t seen that movie,” he said of Disney’s 2004 Miracle. We still have an active bet going with my good buddy. He’s a goalie. If he stops five penalty shots in a row, I’m going to sit down and watch that movie with him.
“It was different with me. My grandfather never yelled at me once. He’d go to my games and always give a calm—really calm—breakdown of my game. Work on this, work on that. I never really got that treatment that the old Soviet guys got.”
Had the older Viktor Tikhonov coached an anonymously-named player like his grandson, it’s hard to say how he’d have been handled. On one hand, his 6-foot-2, 190-pound namesake has all the physical gifts to be a star power forward. He’s positionally sound and hardworking, and displays the caginess needed to outwit defenders and score goals.
On the other hand, you’d have to say his grandson’s career has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far. Yes, he’s been an accomplished All-Star in the KHL and represented Russia in the 2014 Olympics. But as a former first-round pick of the Coyotes in 2008, he’s struggled translating his game to the NHL, where he often looks a half-step behind and has only chipped in 11 goals and 11 assists in his first 111 career games, and finished with just six points in 50 games in his return to the NHL after four years as a star in Russia.
With his contract with the Coyotes expiring after this season, it’s possible that Tikhonov will be starring in the KHL again this time next year. He’s not quite John F. Kennedy Jr., but you also wonder how North Americans would feel if the children and grandchildren of their preeminent sports heroes showed up on their TVs in ushankas, barely having grown up on this side of the ocean and speaking English as a second – third, in Tikhonov’s case – language.
Sure, this Tikhonov identifies as Russian. But so do the offspring of so many of the Soviet Union’s final generation of hockey heroes, despite their English-speaking, American accents and westernized upbringings.
Slava Fetisov’s daughter, Anastasia, grew up in Michigan and New Jersey, attending Fordham University before interning for the United States Congress. Vladimir Konstantinov’s daughter, also named Anastasia and Americanized by way of Michigan and New Jersey, is a fitness trainer in Miami. Alexei Kasatonov’s son, Leo, lives in Russia, but made his childhood home in the greater New York City area, where’s he’s somewhat of a beer league legend. This is the same area of the country that Igor Larionov’s daughter, Alyonka, calls home. Alyonka Larionov is a media personality who has been employed by the NHL Network, MSG Network, Barclays Center and the Pittsburgh Penguins, among others.
It makes you wonder: How would Americans and Canadians feel if the children of their countries’ most preeminent sport heroes identified as Russians more than North American? In the 1980s, probably very unfavorably. In the present, probably much less so.
At the same time, the Tikhonov family legacy is very much linked to Cold War-era politics. This is what makes it such a fascinating case study that the grandson of the Soviet national team’s vilified—in North America, at least—patriarch has become so Americanized, despite being born in the Soviet Union a year before the Berlin Wall fell.
In fact, it seems as if the children of many of the Soviet Union’s grandest sports heroes have become Americanized in this way, a stark contrast from the present Russian players who didn’t have famous bloodlines, but have exclusively remained culturally Russian.
Viktor Tikhonov, the grandson, made his largest impact this season teaching his Russian teammates how to speak English.
First, it was Artemi Panarin in Chicago, who Tikhonov helped in every conversation with teammates and media, before being outshined on the ice by his close friend and being picked up by Arizona. With the Coyotes, Tikhonov fills the same capacity for Sergei Plotnikov, acquired by Arizona from the Penguins at the trade deadline.
“I don’t really mind it,” Tikhonov says. “It’s part of the job. Glad to do it.”
Right about this time, Plotnikov shuffles his way across the dressing room, stopping right behind Tikhonov. Putting his hands on Tikhonov’s shoulders for a quick massage accompanied by a faint giggle, Plotnikov then mutters something in Russian to which Tikhonov replies, also in Russian. Even if you don’t speak the language, it’s obvious that Tikhonov’s presence is required elsewhere.
Tikhonov doesn’t finish speaking in English before flashing a warm smile and offering his clenched hand for a quick fist bump. But just as quickly, he disappears behind a sliding door and down a hallway with Plotnikov, the comrades vigorously conversing in another language. It was Plotnikov’s native language. It was one of Tikhonov’s.
Tikhonov seems so American that it’s almost hard to believe when you see him turn on the Russian again. Although you get the feeling that it might be the other way around.
And as Tikhonov, seemingly as American as he is Russian, walks away, you can’t help but wonder if this is the last we’ve seen of him in the NHL.