Peter Stastny was 11 years old in august 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. He remembers the radio warnings that resistance would be futile and how the road signs between his grandparents' village, Pruzina, and the city of Bratislava had been turned around in a pathetic attempt to point the Soviets in the wrong direction. When the Stastnys returned home to Bratislava, Peter saw the tanks that had blasted away the democratic reforms of Alexander Dub‚àÜí‚àö√üek's brief regime without firing a single shot. "I hated them," he says.
Stastny recalls, too, the wild celebration in the streets the following spring when the Czechoslovakian hockey team twice defeated the Soviets at the world championships in Stockholm. "What other way did a country our size have to fight back?" he said. "It was David defeating Goliath."
On a September morning 20 years later, Goliath is seated next to David on a hockey bench in Quebec City. Center Peter Stastny of Czechoslovakia sits alongside goalie Sergei Mylnikov of Chelyabinsk, U.S.S.R. They both wear the blue Nordique practice uniform, as do the Americans, Canadians and Finns on the team. And though these men have been assembled for no grander purpose than to build a tower of Babel to the top of the Adams Division of the NHL, the effect is far nobler. Speaking Russian, Stastny leans over to explain a drill to Mylnikov as Mylnikov's translator, teammate and friend. "You can't hate the person," says Stastny. "You do not like the politics of his country, but the human being is warm and modest, and he will help this team."
Last season the Nordiques had the worst record in the league, largely because their goaltending was weak. To improve, they could either meet another NHL club's black-market price for a good goaltending prospect or they could raise a glass in toast to Mikhail Gorbachev and then call Rent-a-Soviet in Moscow. The folks there now deliver.
Thanks to glasnost, cuts in government subsidies to U.S.S.R. sporting programs and years of knocking on bureaucratic doors by the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks, eight Soviet players have been given permission by their country to skate in the NHL this season. Of course, the front door didn't swing open for them to leave the Soviet Union until brilliant 20-year-old winger Alexander Mogilny sneaked out the back door to Buffalo in May 1989. His defection to play for the Sabres, coupled with the resolve of some veteran Soviet players to be rewarded for their years of service, undoubtedly gave the U.S.S.R.'s sports leadership pause to ponder further losses of top young talent.
Thus has right wing Sergei Makarov, 31, one of the game's most dynamic talents, come to play for Calgary. He joins Sergei Priakin, 25, a player of lesser renown who joined the Flames late last season and appeared in two games. Vladimir Krutov, 29, a powerful and speedy left wing, will perform with the Canucks alongside Igor Larionov, 28, a slick playmaker who centered Krutov and Makarov on both the Central Red Army and Soviet national teams. Viacheslav Fetisov, 31, only a few years removed from being the world's best defenseman, has brought a Central Red Army teammate, defenseman Sergei Starikov, 30, with him to the Devils. Mylnikov, who is 31 and has national team experience, and Mogilny have no countrymen on their new teams. Nor does Helmut Balderis, a 37-year-old winger who was barely hanging on with the Minnesota North Stars at week's end.
The Soviets have been heartened by their reception. Mogilny received a lengthy ovation when he scored a goal in his first exhibition game as a Sabre. "I appreciate, I appreciate," he said in English, which he learned by going to the University of Buffalo six hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks over the summer. Canucks fans, who have left the team in droves over the years because of its failure to win, chanted "EEEE-gor" during Larionov's Vancouver debut.
Not everyone has reacted so magnanimously, of course. There is an undercurrent of resentment by North American players, both because of jobs lost to the Soviet athletes and a lingering cold war antipathy, but so far only the concerns over jobs have been publicly expressed. Certainly, if these Soviet hands are still capable of the magic they produced in Olympic and Canada Cup competitions, they will get a fair shake. Meanwhile, the world will watch, fascinated.
"I had my doubts this would ever happen," said Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1980. "This is so nice. I really believe this and other things that we hear are happening over there tell us that we are heading into a nice, peaceful period in the history of mankind."
As the world shrinks, so will the rinks for these players. They'll all have to adjust to a more punishing game on the smaller ice surface of the NHL (international rinks are about 15 feet wider on average) with closer corners and goons, and the relentless grind of three and four games every week. The adjustment, as seen in the limited success of several veteran players from Czechoslovakia who have been released to play in the NHL, is not an easy one. For that reason Buffalo has most likely gotten the best deal in the signing of Soviet players by landing the speedy Mogilny. "If it takes the older players a few years to adjust, they'll be well into their 30's," says Rick Dudley, Buffalo's coach. "If it takes Alex a few years, that puts him right into his prime."
Don Luce, the Sabres' director of amateur evaluation and development, approached Mogilny at the junior world championship in Anchorage, Alaska, in December 1988 and informed him that the Sabres had drafted him in the fifth round the previous June. "If we can ever be of service, don't hesitate to call," Luce told Mogilny. That call came on May 2 from Stockholm, where Mogilny had traveled with the Soviet national team to play in the world championships.
"Alexander Mogilny is prepared to defect, if you are interested," a voice on the telephone told Luce. Gerry Meehan, the general manager of the Sabres, called back several times and confirmed that the information was genuine. He and Luce were on their way within the hour.
Meehan met Mogilny in a Stockholm hotel. "I talked to him about how he felt about North America, and whether he realized the gravity of what he was doing," says Meehan. "He convinced me he understood." They were on a plane out of Stockholm the next day.
"Why did he do it?" says Meehan. "I think what he said when we cleared security at the airport and walked into the passengers-only area sums it up. He said, 'I am free now?' "
"When we drafted him, we had the usual rumor information that he was a different kind of Soviet player," says Meehan. "He was outspoken, he was aggressive, he favored western clothing, and he was having some problems with the constrictions of Soviet hockey. We felt if anyone might ever come out, he would be the most likely one."
Mogilny, who says he had been planning his defection for a year, became angry at Soviet hockey authorities because of a broken promise to give him his own apartment in Moscow. He chafed at his dormitory existence and the almost 11-months-a-year training camp conditions the national team players endure. "Like hospital," he says. Also, like most athletes who played for taskmaster coach Viktor Tikhonov on the army and national teams, he hated Tikhonov.
"Only his wife and his dog like him," says Mogilny. "And I do not understand how they do. I didn't want to wait 10 years of my life and destroy my health waiting to be released to play in the NHL. They play for garbage in the Soviet Union. You play for nothing, and what they give you won't buy anything anyway. You cannot get laundry detergent in the stores anymore. And because the people use sugar to make liquor, you cannot find sugar either. And they think things were changing. I did not see the changes."
Mogilny, an army officer, was tried in absentia in Moscow over the summer and found guilty of desertion. His parents were forced to attend the trial. "When they returned [home to Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia], someone had gone through their flat and made a mess, and some things were missing," he says. "My mother used to have a job in a store. I don't believe she has it anymore."
When Mogilny tried to call home, the operator said the number had been disconnected. His family did get a call through to him in early September at the suburban Buffalo townhouse he is temporarily sharing with the couple who accompanied him to Buffalo—Soviet èmigrè Sergei Fomichev and Lena, his Swedish wife. Mogilny says that his parents are not angry at him and that they believe they have already faced the worst of the reprisals. Asked if he considered what his family would endure when he defected, Mogilny says firmly, "I understand everything. Everything. My decision can show other people how to think. Nobody there would ever believe I would do this. They are all such a part of the system that they could never even think about something like that."
The Sabres are still waiting for Mogilny to be given a permanent U.S. visa, which will allow him to travel to and from Canada. They believe they have gained a player of superstar potential and call Mogilny's decision courageous. It might also be considered selfish: Like many other young athletes who have signed big contracts—Mogilny got a $150,000 bonus and will make about another $150,000 this season—he has already gone on a spending spree. Among his purchases has been a Corvette. Says Dudley, "I'd probably worry if I didn't see the quality people like [teammates] Christian Ruuttu and Phil Housley that he is spending time with."
Actually, Mogilny's youth may allow him to adjust more easily than the other Soviets to both NHL hockey and its life-style. Circumstances could be a great motivator. He has to make it; he can't go home if he doesn't. Says Larionov with a shrug, "Mogilny can forget Russian now." Asked if he disapproves of Mogilny's actions, Larionov's usual grin disappears. "Every person has to make his own choice," he says.
Unlike Mogilny, the older Soviets, who have been selected in what-do-we-have-to-lose rounds in various drafts since 1983, decided to work their way here through channels. When the cumbersome bureaucracy in the U.S.S.R. would squeeze the passages shut, the players would push them open again. The most persistent was Fetisov. He believed that the release he hoped for after the 1988 Olympics had been pigeonholed by Tikhonov and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation and was determined that the bureaucrats not get a dime from his deal. He publicly attacked Tikhonov while touring with the Central Red Army team last winter and then quit the club team upon returning home. When Tikhonov responded by dropping Fetisov from the national team for the world championships in Stockholm, Larionov, Krutov and Makarov were among the top players who announced on Soviet television that they would boycott the tournament.
Tikhonov took Fetisov back—he was named the outstanding defenseman in the world championships—and in late May, Fetisov was granted his release from the military. In June he signed a $350,000-a-year, three-year contract and informed the federation that he would donate a share of his salary to a children's fund in the Soviet Union and also buy equipment for teams he had played on in his youth. The federation would receive nothing. "You have to see the respect Slava is held in over there to understand how he was able to accomplish that," says Lou Lamoriello, the Devils' general manager. "It helped that this had become a conversation piece in the Soviet Union."
"We wanted to assert ourselves so that [Soviet] athletes would have some rights," says Fetisov. "The sports committee could always do whatever it wanted. What I did was a very difficult process. But there was a powerful group of athletes who stood behind me."
Larionov and Krutov, who are represented by Mark Malkovich, a Newport, R.I., promoter who has cut North American deals for Soviet musicians, were released less than a week after Fetisov phoned Lamoriello to tell him he had obtained his visa. Krutov's and Larionov's deals with the Canucks and Makarov's and Mylnikov's respective contracts with the Flames and Nordiques—all last for three years—were negotiated by Sovintersport, the agency created to sell off Soviet athletic talent to the West. Larionov and Krutov each receive $375,000 annually. The federation gets an equal amount. It will also receive half of the $700,000 a year the Flames are paying for Makarov and half of the $300,000 a year the Nordiques are spending for Mylnikov. Starikov will earn $250,000 but, like Fetisov, will give money to the children's fund rather than to the federation.
The large salaries have caused many to wonder just where hockey is going to fit into the Soviets' priorities. Though the teams have assisted the players in finding housing and arranging for interpreters, the players and their families will face bewildering choices in their daily lives. When Lena Larionov, Igor's wife, got her first look at the butcher's department at a Vancouver supermarket, Jenniffer Smyl, the wife of Canucks captain Stan Smyl, who was accompanying Lena, had a hard time convincing her that she didn't have to fill her cart. Meat would still be there the next day.
"On one street corner in New York, you can have a multimillion-dollar townhouse and have people lying there sleeping on the street," says Fetisov. "The contrast amazes us. The pace of life here is much faster."
The hockey here is slower, though, than the wide-open, light-hitting international brand. And it has a schedule that the Soviets will have to adjust to. Players on the national team would play as many as 90 games a year, but the schedule had week-long training breaks and stretched out over a longer time span. "That will be the hardest thing for them," says Stastny. "By Christmas my first year, my body rebelled. My legs went dead, and I didn't know how to deal with it."
Most of the Soviet players understand some English from their many North American tours, but now they will have to speak it. Priakin, who came over to Calgary in March to test the waters for the Soviet stars, learned little English. Of course, these guys only have to read their checks in games, not translate Chekhov. "A blackboard, some chalk, some X's and O's and away we go," says Calgary coach Terry Crisp. "No problem at all communicating."
"The key is personality," says Calgary's veteran winger Jim Peplinski. "From what I've seen of the Eastern bloc, the people there are a little less vocal, and are more introverted. The difference will be whether they are willing to take the risk of mispronouncing a word. If they can make mistakes, laugh at them and learn from them, it'll be much easier."
It has been wondered, too, just how much emotional involvement a guy from Chelyabinsk can bring to playing for a team from Quebec City. The fact that few of the Soviets reported in top condition has been blamed on the disruptions of their late-summer moves. Since suspicions about their self-discipline arise fairly easily in some quarters, the extra pounds and heaving chests at practices haven't been ignored. There are also snickers about the Soviets' being Party members who have come here for a different kind of party.
"We know the reputation," says Pat Quinn, the Canucks" general manager. "Mr. Gorbachev has expressed concern about the [drinking] problem in his country, and we will watch it closely. It was discussed with the players. We told them if things get out of hand, they are going home. I don't think there will be a problem. They don't want to be an embarrassment."
Anyone who witnessed the brilliance of Krutov and Makarov on the ice, while losing three 6-5 thrillers to Wayne Gretzky and the rest of Team Canada in the finals of the 1987 Canada Cup, will have a hard time believing that these men can flop. "Whether it takes one day or one month or one year, they'll adjust," says Gretzky. "It's just a matter of how soon."
Makarov clearly is in the best situation, because he's going to play for the best team. "I don't know what a fair expectation is," says Cliff Fletcher, Calgary's general manager. "But I do know we're not counting on him to get us into the playoffs or be the missing link to a Stanley Cup. We just want him to fit in and contribute."
Larionov, who was spectacular in the 8-1 shocking of Team Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup championship game, and Krutov, the army major who was nicknamed the Tank, not because he drove one but because he is one, do have considerable pressure on them. They must score for a Vancouver team that couldn't score last year. But they do have each other to lean on.
The Devils have long lacked a big wheel on the back line, and Fetisov could be the answer. After several years of looking very average in international competition, he was his old self at the 1988 Olympics, possibly because the promise of playing in North America dangled before him.
Mylnikov, if he persists in his deep-in-the-net, European style of goaltending, will wait in vain for that final goalmouth pass that rarely comes in NHL hockey. Here he'll have to go out and challenge the players, who shoot early, often and hard. Still, Mylnikov plays down the problems of adjustment—but not the challenge that lies before him. "Playing in the NHL is the last thing left for me to try," he says. Says Krutov, "I have won every cup but the Stanley Cup." But perhaps Larionov put it best for all of them: "The people in the Soviet Union are watching this very closely, too. We do not want to fail."
It will take two to three years to reach a fair judgment, but the teams that have signed Soviets are not necessarily the only ones on trial. The Snider family, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers, has said it opposes doing business with the Soviet government because of human rights issues and would never pay the federation for a player. "I am open to changing my mind," says Jay Snider, the Flyers' president. "There is clear evidence of less political repression [ in the Soviet bloc]. But look what happened in China. Until these changes are institutionalized, I'm still wary."
As are some players. But they know the only way they are going to keep their own jobs is to protect their team's best players—of whatever nationality. "I don't care if they come from Mars," says Canucks' enforcer Greg C. Adams. "If they show me they give a damn about the team, I will stand up for them. The doubt will disappear unless they turn out to be chippy players. Then it will never stop."
"I heard the same questions when the Swedes first came," says Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld. "Some adjusted, some didn't. Trades put players into new situations all the time, and in one game they become part of the team. I really think too much is being made of this."
Only if one finds no significance in the U.S. and the Soviet Union beating their swords, so to speak, into hockey sticks. Stastny, citizen of the world and captain of the Nordiques, says, "This is the best hockey in the world. It should have the best players."