Was that really the Russian hockey team, or was somebody pulling my goalie, so to speak? The Unified Team that won the gold medal on Sunday played air guitar in the athletes' village, exchanged high fives on the Mèribel ice and engaged dour coach Viktor Tikhonov in a group hug as warm and fuzzy as a Russian fur hat. Aren't they supposed to be hard? The only thing hard about many of these guys is the currency they'll earn one day in the NHL.
Following his squad's 3-1 win over Canada in the Olympic final, Tikhonov found himself leading a superlative national team that may soon be without players. Twelve of its 23 members have been drafted by NHL teams. The silver medalist Canadians, meanwhile, were led by two players—goalie Sean Burke and center Eric Lindros—now essentially without a team.
Which is—to circle way back, like 19-year-old New York Rangers-bound Russian wunderstud Aleksei Kovalev with the puck—where the former Soviet Union may soon be left: essentially without a team. Was Sunday the end of an era?
Already, in France, the Unified Team had no fans, no anthem and nothing but a small manufacturer's logo on the front of its otherwise familiar red uniforms. After the gold medal game, players performed an impromptu striptease, tossing helmets, pads, gloves and sticks into the stands as if they had no more use for them. Earlier in the fortnight a few Russians—the Lithuanian-born defenseman Darus Kasparaitis was the only non-Russian on the team—peddled their brand-new, long-ago-ordered parkas with CCCP stitched on the back.
And now, it appears, the Big Red hockey machine itself is being sold for parts. The devastated economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has made cash-starved teams in the Soviet elite league willing to negotiate for the release of their high-profile players. "If that team could be kept together, it would be dominant for years," said Canadian coach Dave King. "But whether they stay together is someone else's decision."
CIS hockey officials still exercise some control over their players, and Tikhonov acknowledged on Sunday what most observers already knew: that at least a few players from this Olympic team will be turned loose in North America. But he was quick to add a caveat. "In my opinion, there can be no end of Russian ice hockey ever," he said. "This can't be regarded as the end of an era. This [victory] will further the development of Russian ice hockey."
But logic seems to say this: Viktorama, get a grip. Six-foot-three defenseman Dmitri Mironov, 26, may be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs next month. Defenseman Igor Kravtchouk, 25, and forward Evgeny Davydov, 24, will be in Chicago Blackhawk and Winnipeg Jet uniforms, respectively, no later than next season. Already there are 20 former Soviets playing in the NHL, all of whom followed pioneer and 1988 Soviet Olympic captain Vyacheslav Fetisov from the mother country. And the majority of the players on the Unified Team are on the far side of their career arcs, so it may be a warm day in Siberia before we see another club like this.
The Unified Team scored the game's first goal on Sunday a minute into the third period when center and Philadelphia Flyer draftee Vyacheslav Boutsaev slapped a rebound in over Burke, whose future in the NHL is like those of his Russian attackers: It was brightened in Mèribel but remains in the hands of others.
To be sure, Burke, a 25-year-old NHLer in self-imposed exile, made many of the same preposterous saves during the Olympics as U.S. goalie Ray LeBlanc (box, page 30). "When it comes to stopping pucks," claimed an evidently drool-bucket-wearing writer in the Calgary Herald last week, "Ray LeBlanc couldn't share the same crease with Sean Burke."
Unfortunately Burke cannot literally share the same crease with Chris Terreri, the starting goalie for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils, for whom Burke has played throughout his four-year NHL career, bumped him to backup goalkeeper last season, and thus he demanded a trade last spring. When New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello would not accommodate him, Burke made good on his threat to play for the Canadian Olympic team, for which he also played in 1988.
On Sunday, Burke talked of returning to see his family and fiancèe in Calgary. "I'll keep myself in shape and wait until the [March 10] trade deadline is over in the NHL," he said. "And if nothing happens, I'm looking forward to my golf season this summer."
But even as he was pondering his pro-am schedule, Burke was well aware that his play in these Olympics had gone a long way toward determining whether he'll become a pro or remain an am in hockey this season. "I like to think you can never hurt yourself by playing well," he said. "But the other side of things is, in the past, New Jersey has asked for a lot for me in a trade. Maybe now they'll be asking for even more."
The buzz at Mèribel had Burke bound for Quebec, where his 18-year-old near-Elvis-caliber-celebrity Olympic teammate, Lindros, has vowed he will never play. The boy who allegedly turned down a 10-year, $50 million contract offer from the Nordiques was exchanging 10-frane coins every night in the athletes' village in La Tania, then playing video games into the wee hours. Which has nothing to do with why he looked alternately sleepy and spectacular during the Games. "The name of Lindros's book is Fire on Ice" CBS hockey analyst John Davidson remarked during an off-air break on Sunday. "But this is the first time I've seen him fired upon ice."
That's because he plays with the ease of the man on the flying trapeze: During Canada's first Olympic game against the Unified Team, on Feb. 16, Canadian forward Patrick Lebeau lost his stick near center ice. When the action reversed, a coasting Lindros found himself with the stick at his feet and Lebeau behind him. Without appearing to look down, the Next One casually used his own stick to flick the one on the ice over his left shoulder, as if shoveling snow. Lebeau didn't even break stride when the stick flew directly into his hands, as if it were a trapeze bar returning to him.
On Sunday, as he had all tournament, the pterodactylian Lindros checked Russians as though he were pasting up wallpaper. This ticked off Tikhonov, 62, who gave the teenager an earful of...what? "I don't know," said Lindros. "I don't speak Russian."
And, Lindros insists, he won't be speaking French to les Quebecois anytime soon, either. "I didn't think how I played here would have any effect on the NHL," said Lindros, who was the fifth-leading scorer in the tournament. "I don't think they're going to trade me."
Thus Lindros had immediate plans to go skiing in the Alps before returning to Canada, where he is a member of the Oshawa Generals junior team. Meanwhile his conversation mate, Tikhonov, was more coy about his own future. Would he return to coach in the next Olympics or does he see some Cyrillic handwriting on the wall? "It is too early to tell," he says. "Only God knows what will happen in 1994."
Should Tikhonov retire, the team would be inherited by his assistant, Igor Dmitriev, a slick Western-style hipster who currently coaches the Soviet Wings of the elite league. Dmitriev speaks English but insists on using a translator. Something suggests that the '94 team, whomever it may consist of, would be in sure hands with this man.
"Is this year's team hungrier than other teams that have represented your country in the past?" Dmitriev was asked by an earnest North American reporter last week. As the question was being relayed in Russian, Dmitriev cut off the translator in mid-sentence. "Tosh!" said the coach, or something that sounded similar, before walking away with a wave of his hands.
After pausing a beat, the nonplussed translator interpreted Dmitriev's monosyllable: "He says, 'Yes, yes, definitely. This team wants to win gold medals.' "