Viacheslav Fetisov, star defenseman for the touring Soviets, wants to join the NHL, but will he be allowed to?
January 16, 1989

You could hardly have blamed Viktor Tikhonov, coach of Moscow's Central Red Army hockey team, if last week he had come right out and said glasnost was for the birdskis. The verbal bashing he has been taking from his players under the new Soviet policy of openness hasn't been pretty. But Tikhonov remained impassive on Saturday when he was asked about the recent criticism by several of his stars, who have accused him of everything from blocking their opportunities to play in the NHL to killing fan interest in Moscow to treating them like robots. "Rarely could be that everything is going smooth," Tikhonov said through a Soviet translator whose mastery of English was only marginally better than Tikhonov's. "If you created excellent conditions, they could blame you as well. Criticism should be constructive. Is no way."

Uh, right. One thing, however, became crystal clear during the grandiosely named Super Series between two touring Soviet teams, Central Red Army and Dynamo Riga, and the 14 NHL clubs that served as their hosts. Is no way that the best defenseman in the U.S.S.R. and, with apologies to the Boston Bruins' Ray Bourque, the world is anyone other than Central Red Army's 30-year-old Viacheslav Fetisov, who wants desperately to play in the NHL and compete for the Stanley Cup.

"It's more interesting playing hockey in North America," says Fetisov, "because in Moscow we don't have the fans. Hockey there has lost its importance. I have won all the other things: world championships and Olympic gold medals. I want to experience this Cup victory before I stop playing hockey."

For the record, the two Soviet teams and the NHL split the 14-game series 6-6-2, Buffalo saving face for the NHL with a 6-5 sudden-death victory over the Red Army team on Monday night. Still, the NHL has not won an exhibition series against the Soviets since the first meeting between the hockey superpowers, in 1972. In the eight series against NHL teams, the Soviets have won 29 games, lost 15 and tied four. Much has changed over 17 years. The Soviets, adapting to the smaller North American rinks, shoot from all angles now instead of patiently waiting for the perfect scoring chance. They even were seen last week working on dumping the puck into the offensive zone, a practice that was anathema to the Soviets a few years ago. Soviet forwards drive toward the net more aggressively than in the days when they darted in and out of the slot, never lingering, and they take more long shots from the point. "The NHL players are playing our game of more passing, and we're passing less," says Central Red Army's assistant coach, Boris Mikhailov, the top goal scorer in Soviet history.

Bruin general manager Harry Sinden went so far as to say, "I didn't see any difference in their style today and anybody else's," after Boston lost to Central Red Army 5-4 on New Year's Eve.

One thing, however, hasn't changed. Central Red Army, which went 4-2-1 in its seven games on the tour-losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-2, as well as to Buffalo—is one of the top three or four teams in the world. "They all play with the confidence of a Gretzky or Lemieux," said Hartford coach Larry Pleau after his Whalers were manhandled 6-3 Saturday night in a game in which the Soviets took a 6-1 lead in the first 26 minutes and then worked on their skating. "They get you mesmerized watching the puck and then move into an area that none of your players are defending. They're highly skilled athletes, and they two-on-one you better than anybody I've ever seen."

This road show did little in the way of unearthing future Soviet stars—with the exception of the superb goalie of the mediocre Dynamo Riga team (2-4-1 on the tour), 21-year-old Artur Irbe—or of exposing the fading skills of aging ones. Most of the Soviet surprises came off the ice where the players, virtually inaccessible during previous tours, were allowed to and willing to open up, much to the chagrin of Tikhonov, who came across as the Stalin of U.S.S.R. hockey.

He certainly was viewed as such by New Jersey Devils fans who, having been hopeful that Fetisov might join the Devils in time for their drive to make the playoffs, booed Tikhonov mercilessly when he was introduced before New Jersey's Jan. 2 game against Central Red Army. "They have a right to boo him," said Alexei Kasatonov, Fetisov's teammate and former partner on defense, whose rights are also owned by the Devils. "Tikhonov understands why the fans boo him. I think because he won't let Fetisov go."

Tikhonov denies he's blocking the move by Fetisov, who, if he joins the Devils anytime soon, would be the first Soviet player to compete in the NHL. "There are three things that must happen," Tikhonov said last week. "His coach must be willing for him to go, Central Army club officials must be willing, and he must be willing." Tikhonov raised two of his fingers. "Coach: Da! Fetisov: Da!Club officials: Nyet! For this year, no. Maybe next year."

But Fetisov, who was stripped of his captaincy this year by Tikhonov because he was worried more about going to the NHL than about the play of Central Army, which is in first place and en route to a 13th consecutive Soviet League title, isn't buying the way his coach has been passing the ruble. "If Tikhonov gave the word, there would not be a problem," Fetisov says. "He's all talk and no action. He's an actor, a very good actor."

One can sympathize with Tikhonov's dragging his feet. Fetisov, who has been called the Bobby Orr of Soviet hockey, is still at the top of his game, with no heir apparent ready to take his place on the Red Army blue line. Actually, as Sinden pointed out last week, Fetisov plays more like Denis Potvin, the former Islander star, than Orr. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, Fetisov is the most physical of the Soviet players, with a fearsome hip check and a mean streak that will make him well-suited for the NHL game. He flattened Boston's Greg Johnston with a wicked elbow that earned him a five-minute major penalty, a transgression for which he apologized to Bruin coach Terry O'Reilly. Fetisov doesn't rush the puck end-to-end as Orr did, but is a master of the long breakout pass. His goals—he has scored 230 in his 12-year career with the Central Red Army and Soviet National Teams—come as he moves in from the point to the top of the slot, where he unleashes his blistering drives. He's faster than Potvin was, but is blessed with a similar on-ice intensity. Like Potvin, he occasionally has mental lapses that lead to giveaways in his own zone—when the game isn't on the line.

New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who visited the Soviet Union last summer to negotiate for the services of Fetisov and Kasatonov, has enlisted Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Yuri Dubinin as an ally in obtaining Fetisov for the Devils. Dubinin, New Jersey principal owner John McMullen, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead, a minority owner, got together to drop the ceremonial first puck before the Devils' game against Central Red Army—a 5-0 Red Army whitewash in which Fetisov scored a goal and received two standing ovations—and afterward Dubinin assured Fetisov he would wire Moscow to try to expedite Fetisov's move to New Jersey. Fetisov, who holds the rank of major in the Soviet Army, also needs the permission of the U.S.S.R.'s defense ministry to resign his commission.

All indications are that the permissions will be forthcoming, if for no other reason than a monetary one. Eighty percent of Fetisov's salary, he says, will go to the Soviet Ministry of Sports and Physical Culture. The remaining 20% will go to the Central Red Army Hockey Club. Fetisov, who's unmarried, will draw a monthly stipend to cover his living expenses, much as he does now. After his playing career is over, he would return to the Soviet Union. "We're nationalistic," says Fetisov, who spent much of his off-ice time last week decked out in a Devils sweatshirt. "We're not brought up to defect, even though I've been approached many times. We love our homeland, and I am looking forward to retiring in Moscow even after playing in the NHL."

He's also looking forward to getting out from under the thumb of Tikhonov, who has coached him for the past 12 years. "I can now predict almost every time what Tikhonov will do," Fetisov says. "I know all his weaknesses, and he knows all mine. It's so boring, you should either change the coach or change the players."

Indeed, the cry in Soviet hockey has increasingly been: Oust Tikhonov. The players are restless, the fans in Moscow are bored, and, most damning of all, there's increasing evidence that young Soviet players aren't being developed as they could be. How so? Because they are deprived of genuine competition. Tikhonov selects the best players for his team—he can do this because all young men in the Soviet Union must serve two years in the military—where they remain together, steamrolling the other 13 teams in the Soviet National League, for years. "In the last few years there has hardly been any competition, because our team has the cream of the crop," says Igor Larionov, player of the year in the Soviet league last season and center for wingers Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. The Larionov-Makarov-Krutov threesome has been the top Soviet line for the past eight years. "It's not interesting to the fans or to the players," Larionov says. "Hockey's not as popular now as it was five years ago in my country, and it's all Tikhonov's fault."

Larionov, 28, went public with his criticism in October in a six-page letter to the Soviet magazine Ogonyok. He complained of Tikhonov's oppressive training methods and coaching tactics. Central Red Army trains together for 10 to 11 months a year, according to Larionov, during which time the players live in dormitories, apart from their families. "Sometimes we can go home after a game and spend the night, but we must be back in training camp by 11 o'clock the next morning," Larionov says. "Or on other occasions we are allowed to go home at 10 a.m., but we must be back in training camp by four in the afternoon. I have a daughter, Elena, one year, nine months, whom I cannot see every day because of this arrangement. I love hockey, but it's too much. It's hard to live like this. The coach will never change, because this is his system. It's easier to keep an eye on the players when they're in training camp. He thinks that is why we win, but in my opinion, we win because we have the best players. As a result of this letter I have got much support from my teammates and the fans and the families of the players, but nothing has changed."

Tikhonov didn't speak to Larionov for two months after publication of the letter, in which Larionov also recounted how the Soviet players often ignored Tikhonov's strategies and concocted plans of their own. "Most of the times when we decide to go against his wishes, we win, so it doesn't matter to him," says Larionov, who expects to leave Central Army after this season to play for Khimik Voskresensk, a team based in the small city of Voskresensk, 50 miles southeast of Moscow, from which Tikhonov plucked him eight years ago. That is, unless Larionov signs with the Vancouver Canucks, who own his NHL rights. "Hockey players are treated like human beings on Khimik's team," says Larionov, who suspects that he will lose his place on the Soviet National Team, which is also coached by Tikhonov, once he leaves Central Red Army. "Tikhonov has to realize that hockey players are people and not robots."

That has never been made more apparent than during the last week.

PHOTOJERRY WACHTERWhaler Tom Martin was inhospitable to the Soviets (left), but Devils fans gave Fetisov a Cyrillic welcome to make him feel at home. TWO PHOTOSJIM TURNER[See caption above.] PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLDespite playing tough, Central Red Army suffered its lone NHL defeat in Pittsburgh. PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLTikhonov's players have started to rebel against his rigid coaching and training ways. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERA brilliant skater and stickhandler, Fetisov also knows how to mix it up along the boards.

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