NHL, HERE WE COME

The Soviets struck gold again, and now may strike more in the NHL
March 07, 1988

Tore jobs, assistant hockey coach for Norway, after his team lost to the Soviet Union 5-0 in the opening game of the Olympics: "If you're them, you should beat us more than 5-0."

Ludek Bukac, Austrian national team coach, after losing to the Soviets 8-1: "They have some problems. They win not so easily as they used to."

Bob Johnson, executive director, Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S., after Team USA was beaten by the Soviets 7-5: "They're more vulnerable than ever before."

Could this Soviet team be had? Yes, but only by a squad of hostile biathletes with unlimited ammunition. In Calgary no one touched the Big Red Machine—at least not when it counted.

The Soviets' perceived weaknesses—a lack of scoring balance, merely mortal goaltending, low morale—went up in smoke at about the same instant the Olympic flame was ignited. All remaining thoughts about their vulnerability were snuffed 26 seconds into Friday night's game against Sweden, when Viacheslav Fetisov blasted a slap shot over Swedish goaltender Peter Lindmark's right shoulder to begin another rout, this one 7-1, and assure the Soviets of their seventh hockey gold medal since 1956.

Save a scare from the U.S., which lost a shoot-out, and an inconsequential 2-1 loss to silver-medal winner Finland on Sunday after some heavy-duty celebrating, the Soviets steamrolled their six other opponents by a combined score of 37-6. Said an obviously relieved Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, "There has been a lot of criticism of the national team and of Viktor Tikhonov."

To say the least. Despite finishing with the best won-lost record (8-0-2) in the 1987 world championships, the Soviets lost the gold medal to Sweden on the basis of goal differential. Then last fall the NHL's Team Canada beat the Soviets two games to one—the score of all three games was 6-5—to win the Canada Cup. Finally the Soviets failed to win their own international Izvestia Cup tournament in December, losing to Canada's Olympic team, and it became clear that Tikhonov's career would be on the line in Calgary.

His critics claim Tikhonov has refused to restructure a hockey system that has remained essentially unchanged since 1972. In most circumstances that would not matter. Properly executed by skilled and experienced forwards—Vladimir Krutov, 27, and Sergei Makarov, 29, rank with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the best in the world—the swirling Soviet style can be undefendable. But the renowned Krutov-Igor Larionov-Makarov line had gone flat at the Izvestia Cup, and hopeful opponents began to wonder if the aging superstars had burned out.

That theory gained credence in an eyebrow-raising article Larionov wrote for Sovietsky Sport in December. Larionov, 27, complained that players were separated from their families for too long—11 months in his case—and that preparations for the Olympics started too early. Larionov didn't recant his criticisms at Calgary. "My opinions would be backed by other members of the team," he told Canadian sportswriter Larry Sicinski, who speaks fluent Russian.

Overworked and homesick as they may have been, Krutov, Larionov and Makarov—plus Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, the defensemen usually teamed with the KLM line—owned the ice at the Saddledome, accounting for 19 of the U.S.S.R.'s 45 goals.

Meanwhile someone forgot to tell goaltender Sergei Mylnikov that his team was having trouble replacing the legendary Vladislav Tretiak. A backup to the injured Evgeny Belosheikin and the purported faulty cog in the machine, Mylnikov allowed only 13 goals in eight games.

As Mylnikov was coming into his own, a second potent Soviet line was gelling. Anatoli Semenov, Sergei Svetlov and Sergei Jashin accounted for 17 points in Calgary. Their emergence was a heartening, if slightly irritating, development for Tikhonov. Jashin, a freewheeling winger, is too much of a maverick for Tikhonov; he played for the Soviets in the '84 Canada Cup but then dropped out of sight until Calgary.

Off the ice the big news out of Calgary was that the Soviets are on the verge of signing an agreement with the NHL and the league's players association whereby some 10 Soviet Olympic stars will play for various NHL teams during the 1988-89 season. The NHL club that stands to benefit most from this arrangement is the New Jersey Devils, who hold the rights to both Fetisov, who has been described as a "latter-day Bobby Orr in a red jersey," and Kasatonov, who is a pure defensive defenseman.

Kasatonov says that he won't move to New Jersey unless he can take his wife and child with him. Fetisov claims he has no such family problems because he's a bachelor, but the Devils are under the impression that he is married and has a child.

For five years Fetisov was regarded as the best defenseman in the Soviet Union, but he seemed to lose interest in hockey following an automobile accident in 1985 on the outskirts of Moscow. Fetisov lost control of the car, and his younger brother, Anatoli, thought to be his successor as the Soviets' premier defenseman, was killed. Fetisov walked away unhurt. For two seasons he played below his standards, and it was not until these Olympics that he fully regained his commanding form. Playing like an NHL star in the option year of his contract, Fetisov scored four goals and nine assists at Calgary. With Fetisov and Kasatonov in their lineup, the Devils make the playoffs this season.

The Soviet players will not come cheap. In addition to paying the players six-figure salaries, NHL teams will have to fork over a substantial six-figure transfer fee—or its equivalent in, say, Levis or Def Leppard cassettes—to the Soviet Hockey Federation. "They're becoming quite the capitalists," says Johnson with a chuckle.

Not everyone associated with Soviet hockey is looking forward to an NHL career. As Tikhonov, smiling, made his way through the Saddledome following the win over Sweden, a reporter approached and asked, "What lies in store for Viktor Tikhonov?"

"Work," said the coach.

"Don't you get a holiday now?"

"No way," answered Tikhonov. "After three days off, we play 40 games with the Red Army team. I will rest in the airplane."

Won't Larionov be delighted.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONMakarov's artful score wrote off Team Canada 5-0. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONMarried or single, Fetisov sure would look good wearing the uniform of the New Jersey Devils. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIt was high sticks all around as the Soviets celebrated their seventh Olympic gold since 1956. TWO ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)