The Russian Penguins: The bizarre and unforgettable partnership between the Penguins and CSKA Moscow - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

The Russian Penguins: The bizarre and unforgettable partnership between the Penguins and CSKA Moscow

It was about the pucks and bucks, first and foremost, but lest we forget the acrobats, blood-soaked mascots and accidental on-ice sex acts. There’ll never be another partnership like the one between the Pittsburgh Penguins and CSKA Moscow, which changed Russian hockey forever.
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It’s 1993, and the historic CSKAMoscow program – a.k.a. the Central Red Army Hockey Club – is nearing defeat. All of the team’s best players – Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and many others – have headed for the greener pastures of the NHL. Funding for sports clubs is no longer a priority for the Russian government, and CSKA is broke. It can’t afford uniforms or equipment, and almost no fans come to watch the team.

SERGEI BRYLIN: (Left winger, CSKA 1991-92 to ’92-93 & CSKA/Russian Penguins 1993-94) The whole country was going through a transition, from the Soviet Union to Russia. Obviously, hockey wasn’t the main priority. My first two years playing for the Red Army were pretty challenging years.

CSKA reaches out to several NHL teams looking for support. The Pittsburgh Penguins answer the call. The Penguins’ ownership group, which includes Tom Ruta, Howard Baldwin and his wife Karen Baldwin, forms Penguins Army International Limited, a joint venture between the Pens and Central Red Army. Superstar Mario Lemieux and actor Michael J. Fox are also involved as silent partners.

 MERGER MEN Nopponen, Warshaw and Gusev got in on the ground floor when it came to promoting this unlikely partnership.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

MERGER MEN Nopponen, Warshaw and Gusev got in on the ground floor when it came to promoting this unlikely partnership.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

TOM RUTA: (Co-owner, Pittsburgh Penguins; co-owner/president, Russian Penguins) We created a company where the Pittsburgh Penguins owned 50 percent and the Russian partners owned 50 percent. That’s the structure they required at the time. You couldn’t have Americans owning 51 percent of a Russian company.

HOWARD BALDWIN: (Co-owner, Pittsburgh Penguins; co-owner/chairman/CEO, Russian Penguins) We thought we could make money because good players were coming from the Red Army team. If a Russian player was drafted, the NHL team who picked him would have to pay a pretty fat fee to his Russian team, I think it was around $250,000 for a first-rounder.

RUTA: At first, we’d give all the draft money to CSKA, until they got on their feet, and then we’d split it with them. So, in the beginning, they’d be able to rebuild their program and pay all their bills. And then eventually, we’d get a 50-percent share.

HOWARD BALDWIN: We also thought a partnership would give us an edge in knowledge on Russian players and give us a way to get sponsorships, because North American companies were looking to come over and start doing business in Russia.

RUTA: The Red Army was a great hockey program, and Howard didn’t want to see it die. And it was dying for want of a small amount of money. I’m not saying we were altruists, but Howard is a hockey person, and if there was a way we could do things that were good for us and still have some part in preserving the tradition of great hockey in Russia, we’d be interested.

The other half of the team is owned by Viktor Tikhonov and Valeri Guschin. Tikhonov is the famed coach of the Red Army and Soviet/Russian national teams since 1977, and he’s known for being harsh with his players. Guschin played under Tikhonov for Dinamo Riga in the mid-1970s and was now CSKA’s GM, responsible for the team’s travel arrangements and business dealings.

HOWARD BALDWIN: Tikhonov was like the Scotty Bowman/Vince Lombardi of Russia. He was an iconic hockey figure. When we first met him, he was very stoic and not that warm. But once you scratched the surface, socialized with him and spent time, he’s just a wonderful guy. Tikhonov could care less about all the marketing stuff. He could have cared less if there was one person or 10,000 people in the stands. But then he warmed up to it. He got into it. Both Karen and I were very fond of him.

REED NOPPONEN: (VP of sales and marketing, Russian Penguins) Of course, I was in awe of Tikhonov. I was born in 1966, so the Miracle on Ice in 1980 was one of the defining moments of my youth. Watching the Soviet hockey team all those years, it was somewhat shocking to see Tikhonov every day and work with him.

 VIKTOR'S WAY Coach Tikhonov could make players such as Aleksei Krivchenkov and Alexei Kasatonov quiver in their skates.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

VIKTOR'S WAY Coach Tikhonov could make players such as Aleksei Krivchenkov and Alexei Kasatonov quiver in their skates.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

HOWARD BALDWIN: Valeri Guschin was like Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. He was just a character. And yet, he had an endearing quality. Very warm, engaging, friendly guy. He tried hard, and he did care. He wanted people in the building. His approach was more businesslike.

KAREN BALDWIN: (Co-owner, Pittsburgh Penguins; co-owner/executive VP, Russian Penguins) Guschin spoke some English. Whenever we would ask him what we should do to make the team better, his standard response was, “Mercedes for Guschin!”

If you want to have a marketable team, it helps to have a memorable logo you can put on jerseys, hats and T-shirts to sell to fans. CSKA is rebranded as the Russian Penguins, replacing its simple insignia with a cartoon penguin clad in a hockey uniform. Karen Baldwin worked on early designs of the logo, first sketching it out on a restaurant napkin.

HOWARD BALDWIN: When we showed Tikhonov and Guschin the original design, they both got hysterical.

KAREN BALDWIN: They laughed because, apparently, the way I drew the nose and beak, it looked like one of their generals, and they thought it was hilarious. We changed the nose on the penguin, and changed its uniform.

BRYLIN: Obviously, it was unusual to see the penguin as our logo, because it’s the Red Army organization, and if you know the logo, it’s pretty simple, it’s pretty strict. It took a little time to adjust to it. But we were young kids. For us, everything was new and interesting.

KAREN BALDWIN: The whole idea was to get sponsorships and promote, and be able to do some fun things with marketing. So, we wanted a logo that was kid-friendly but also adult-friendly. It got a lot of positive response.

Baldwin and company partner with Disney to create a finalized version of the logo and uniforms. Steven Warshaw is tasked with sales and marketing of the Russian Penguins. His goal was to draw fans and sponsorships to the rebranded Red Army team.

RUTA: CSKA was only drawing crowds of 500 people, and Tikhonov told us it was impolite to cheer when you got a goal. Five hundred quiet people in a huge building, that isn’t American hockey. Steve introduced a whole new thing there.

STEVENWARSHAW: (Executive VP of sales and marketing, Russian Penguins) Guschin would knock on doors and collect money from people in the arena. They were making more money renting out offices and space in the building than they were in ticket sales before we got there.

NOPPONEN: Up at the top of the Soviet Ice Palace were these boxes, which weren’t intended as luxury boxes, but were used as storage rooms. Or people were living in them. We had to clean them up and renovate them. We took out the windows so people could feel closer to the action.

On opening night, teams line up for the faceoff, but there is no puck. A female acrobat, dressed in a CSKA uniform, rappels down from the rafters, skates a lap around the rink, then gives a puck to the referee. The crowd goes nuts. Nothing like this has ever happened in a Russian hockey game before.

 OPENING DROP Russian fans went wild when they saw the western notion of promotions – an acrobat rappel with the puck.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

OPENING DROP Russian fans went wild when they saw the western notion of promotions – an acrobat rappel with the puck.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

BRYLIN: When the Pittsburgh organization came in, there was more focus on bringing people into the stands and making a show out of hockey, creating some kind of hype around the team. They did a real good job, because we went from no fans in the stands to selling out a 6,000-seat rink.

NOPPONEN: On Revolution Day (Nov. 7) of 1993, we had sold out the Ice Palace, which was shocking, because our team was basically kids and a couple of veteran players. But we were sold out, and it was done through creating an atmosphere of excitement. Game-day promotions, premiums, free beer, giveaways, contests, anything it took to fill the seats.

WARSHAW: We had 13 games a season on national television – prime time on Channel One! The only time our games were delayed or cut into was when Boris Yeltsin addressed the country. If you wanted to be on TV, you had to buy your way on. But they paid us $100,000 for the season, plus we got to control part of the advertising and got to select interview guests between periods, like players or CEOs of our sponsors.

NOPPONEN: Tikhonov saw Alexander Kharlamov, who was the son of Soviet hockey legend Valeri Kharlamov, doing a television interview that we arranged. Tikhonov got upset and said that the kid did nothing to justify any sort of media attention. I remember him ripping Kharlamov in front of me, using the dirtiest words I ever heard in my life.

RUTA: Howard and I went to a practice one time. Some fairly young player, like 17 or so, was on the ice and did something wrong. Tikhonov barked at him in Russian, went over and whacked him on the head and knocked his helmet off. He didn’t hurt the kid, but his point to the kid was, “Wake up!” The players were obviously frightened of him.

BRYLIN: Tikhonov was an old-school coach. His winning records, Olympic and World Championship gold medals speak for themselves. He did something right. Obviously, he was very demanding, but I felt like when you played hard and gave everything you had, it was never a problem. Tikhonov had to adjust, because he didn’t have the same kind of power he was used to. It was a transition for everybody.

Warshaw visits a Russian strip club one day after work, and he decides to hire a few exotic dancers as cheerleaders for a game. It does not go according to plan.

WARSHAW: The idea was to have these women come out with full CSKA uniforms on and then do a striptease down to pasties and a G-string. My Russian wasn’t good, and I couldn’t find Victor Gusev (VP of media and broadcasting) to translate. So, I tried to explain to them that I wanted them to dance in unison. I was saying “synchronize,” but they misunderstood it as “sexual.” So, they started performing this sexual act on the ice, in full synchronization. I started banging on the glass, telling them to stop. So, then everybody started banging on the glass. The more people banged on the glass, the more salacious the act became. It became one of our most infamous moments, and was the beginning of us getting media attention for this hockey team.

KAREN BALDWIN: It’s important to note that the attendance went up dramatically for the next game.

 ICEBURGH BRAWL A Pittsburgh Penguins mascot was brought in and the man inside the suit ended up getting into a scuffle with a special police unit.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

ICEBURGH BRAWL A Pittsburgh Penguins mascot was brought in and the man inside the suit ended up getting into a scuffle with a special police unit.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

Then there was the time that Iceburgh got beat up – and not by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

NOPPONEN: We brought in a Pittsburgh Penguins mascot costume and put a Russian Penguins logo on it. We hired a guy named Alexander von Bush to play the mascot. He was an eccentric character, but a nice guy.

WARSHAW: He was a terrible skater. Opening night, von Bush was carrying the big CSKA flag on the ice and he wiped out. He was very clumsy, but that’s what made the big ol’ penguin even more charming. Fans used to throw beer and food at him and check him when he came off the ice.

NOPPONEN: One time, von Bush put on the costume and went out into the stadium before the fans arrived. The OMON (special police unit of the military) were providing security at the game. Somehow, von Bush had gotten into an altercation with security, and they beat the crap out of him. The penguin outfit had blood all over it, that is something that is still ingrained in my memory.

The Russian Penguins tour North America in February 1994, playing against minor pro teams in the old International League, starting with an exhibition in Pittsburgh against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ farm club, the Cleveland Lumberjacks. The Russian Penguins lose 8-1. The team then tours all 13 IHL cities, with games counting in the IHL standings. The Russian Penguins compile a 2-9-2 record.

WARSHAW: It was an incredible tour, but it was brutal from a playing standpoint. We packed 14 games in 25 days. The Russian Penguins were much younger, smaller, less experienced than the IHL players.

BRYLIN: It was a great experience for everybody. We weren’t used to playing back-to-back games and traveling in between. It was great to play in front of North American crowds.

HOWARD BALDWIN: We were very pleased with the way the tour went. We sold merchandise, and it introduced the team to our culture over here. That was a win-win all the way around. I liked the IHL. It was a fun league.

WARSHAW: There were some former NHL players on these IHL teams who lost their jobs in the NHL to Russians. And now, here they were in the minor leagues. So, here was their way of sending a message. “You’re taking our jobs. I’m 28, and I’m pissed off, and you’re 18. F--- you, you’re going into the boards face-first.” It was brutal for our guys. Every arena we went to there was all this “USA! USA!” bulls---. It was like the Cold War.

BRYLIN: I just had great memories. For some reason, I remember Kalamazoo, because it was kind of a weird name (laughs). And playing in Phoenix and San Diego in February and seeing oranges grow on trees.

During its partnership with the Pittsburgh Penguins, CSKA steadily improves its record during the 1993-94 and ’94-95 seasons. But perhaps more importantly, CSKA is making money.

RUTA: We put some money in, raised ticket prices, fixed up the seats, cleaned up the boxes, and it worked. The team started to sell tickets and get advertising. The games got exciting and people loved it. The atmosphere was like hockey here.

WARSHAW: When we started winning, the young kids in the crowd would chant “Tik-hon-ov! Tik-hon-ov! Tik-hon-ov!”

NOPPONEN: Fans’ emotions didn’t rise and fall solely with the wins and losses of the club. They were just having a great time. People were coming because it was fun. It was like nothing they had ever seen before.

WARSHAW: It became the place to be seen. All of a sudden, our skyboxes became sought after. The mafia guys wanted their own skyboxes. Guschin had a few boxes to sell, and that’s where he put the people who were coming in with guns, the “novi (new) businessmen,” as he would call them.

 PUCK NAKED Nothing garnered the media’s attention like the time exotic dancers were hired to perform almost nude on the ice.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

PUCK NAKED Nothing garnered the media’s attention like the time exotic dancers were hired to perform almost nude on the ice.Courtesy of Steven Warshaw

NOPPONEN: You had this weird mix of people coming to the games, mafia bosses, army generals, multinational corporation types and hockey fans, all sitting together. It was a time in Russia where everybody mixed.

WARSHAW: We worked out a deal with Nike, but Guschin didn’t like it. He got a cut of the money, but he was mad that he didn’t have control or any say in the deal. So, the night before the Nike executives showed up, he cut the Nike logo out of the ice and covered the Nike logos on the boards with Adidas logos, just to embarrass us in front of the Nike executives. I made him change it back. That was the kind of insanity we had with our partners.

NOPPONEN: Procter & Gamble was one of the companies that advertised with us. Their marketing guy had this idea to have Viktor Tikhonov endorse Vicks Cough Drops. Tikhonov agreed. So, Procter & Gamble flew in all these advertising people and a film crew and shot footage of a game. The next day, they were supposed to film Tikhonov at ateam practice, where he’d say his lines for the commercial. But he refused and locked himself in his office. I shuttled in and out of his office, negotiating and trying to work it all out. In the end, Viktor acquiesced and did the commercial. This is how difficult things were at times.

The NHL and IIHF work out an agreement that drastically reduces how much money Russian teams are paid for losing their players to NHL clubs, making the Penguins’ arrangement with CSKA far less profitable. Even worse, the popularity of the Russian Penguins attracts a criminal element that wants a piece of the action.

WARSHAW: A lot of people were renting offices at the arena. I’d ask Guschin who they were and he’d say, “Don’t ask, or you’ll be hanging by your thumbs.” We had a lot of mafia in our building. You could not do any business in Russia unless you paid protection money. Russia didn’t have lobbyists, just guys with guns.

HOWARD BALDWIN: We did our year-end meeting after the 1994-95 season at a restaurant in New York. Tikhonov and Guschin came. And then, these two guys in black suits, white shirts and gold watches were introduced to us as our Russian partners’ “new bankers.” Let me tell you something, I’m sure they haven’t seen the inside of a bank.

RUTA: All of a sudden, we found our partners had other partners, and we didn’t quite understand who those partners were.

HOWARD BALDWIN: It was very clear that the arm was being put on us at that time. You know when you get that sense? We didn’t argue. We got the meeting over. The next day, Tom, Karen and I decided it was time to get out. It was dangerous to have people work for us in Russia.

RUTA: We didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, and we just said that this wasn’t a good idea. Certainly not for sport, and not for involving an NHL team. So, we just said no thanks, gave Tikhonov and Guschin the keys and said it’s yours. We got some of our money back and parted company as friends.

The American partners end the agreement with CSKA. Tikhonov and Guschin continue to run the club, and even use the Russian Penguins logo for another seven years. The team goes through internal troubles with the army and external problems with the mafia – stories for another time – but more or less stabilizes by the mid-2000s. Today, ideas used by the Russian Penguins in the 1990s, such as cartoony logos, music and cheerleaders, are the norm for the KHL.

WARSHAW: The Pittsburgh Penguins and CSKA were the first international joint sports venture in the world.

BRYLIN: It was a pretty interesting project. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. I thought Steven did a great job of promoting hockey and showing how things can be done.

HOWARD BALDWIN: We were doing well with it. We were having fun with it. I really enjoyed that, and I really liked the country. I enjoyed the experience.

WARSHAW: I was in Vancouver in 2010, promoting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for the Russian Olympic Committee. We had a big press conference, and Viktor Tikhonov was there. He hadn’t seen me in about 14 years. He shook my hand and said to the translator, “Many people have come to re-create what you did in Moscow, and no one has come close.” That was quite a compliment from the old fascist, you know?

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