Escaping Hockey's Gulag Russia is the last place its talented kids want to play

April 20, 1998
April 20, 1998

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April 20, 1998

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Escaping Hockey's Gulag Russia is the last place its talented kids want to play

By Allen Abel

At five o'clock in the morning in one of the world's most
fertile hockey towns, the mother of a nine-year-old boy gently
rouses him from sleep. Dawn is still hours distant as Sasha
Ilutovich begins his 30-minute hike toward the arena, crunching
along the deserted streets of the small Russian city of
Voskresensk, whose name translates as Sundayville. He is passed
only by a few belching buses and sputtering Zhiguli sedans.
Waiting for Sasha at the rink are two dozen classmates in
imported skates and sundry hockey sweaters--Mighty Ducks of
Anaheim, St. Louis Blues and, in garish Tweety Bird yellow, the
local pro club, Khimik (or Chemical). The boys will hustle and
chirp through a 90-minute workout, then dress, eat breakfast and
go out in the snow to play soccer. When school is in session,
the morning skate is followed by classes and then more skating.
The boys' dream, they say with smiles, is embodied in three
letters: "En kha el." The NHL.

This is an article from the April 20, 1998 issue Original Layout

Voskresensk (population 121,000) is an industrial town on the
Moscow River, two or three hours' drive southeast of the
Kremlin, depending on the number of times a motorist must halt
to pay "fines" for imaginary offenses to the underpaid traffic
police. Sundayville is not a handsome place--the smokestacks of
the chemical factory dominate a stolid Stalinist skyline--but
something in the heavy-hanging atmosphere turns ordinary boys
into hockey supermen.

Eight current NHL players are alumni of the Voskresensk hockey
school, which was once one of the jewels of the Soviet Union's
sports empire. Four of these players--Igor Larionov and Slava
Kozlov of the Detroit Red Wings, Valeri Kamensky of the Colorado
Avalanche and Valeri Zelepukin of the Edmonton Oilers (and
formerly of the New Jersey Devils)--have their names chiseled
onto the Stanley Cup. Canada's most cherished tureen has become
a Russian icon.

Sasha Ilutovich and his 12-year-old brother, Misha, dream of
following the 55 players who came up through the old Soviet
system and have spent at least part of this season in the NHL.
Their bedroom is wallpapered with hockey trading cards. Those of
Larionov, Kozlov and the other Voskresensk idols are in the
uppermost row. But while Russian schoolboys pursue their fantasy
of glory and riches in North America, their country's hockey
superstructure is falling apart in a tragicomedy of bankrupt
teams, empty arenas, absentee superstars, ham-handed extortion
and unsolved murders.

In Moscow, not even the most blatant inducements to male
spectators--topless women and free beer--have been sufficient to
fill the arenas where such fabled clubs as Central Red Army,
Dynamo and Spartak play. With virtually every high-caliber
sniper gone to the NHL, or to Scandinavia, Germany or the North
American minor and junior leagues, attendance at Russian arenas
has fallen to the hundreds.

A squabble within the Central Red Army sports hierarchy has
turned so surreal that two teams now play under that name in the
same league. One of them, coached by the grim and brilliant
former Olympic mentor Viktor Tikhonov, is so depleted that this
season it was relegated to the second tier. It's a far cry from
the years when 30,000 people would crowd into the Dynamo Stadium
to cheer their heroes, outdoors, at 20 below.

"They have ruined our hockey," Boris Mayorov, a former Olympian,
complains at the headquarters of the Russian Hockey Federation,
just outside Moscow's giant (and still un-renamed) Lenin
Stadium. "I understand when the talented players leave for the
NHL. We can't pay those crazy salaries. But I'm astounded when
NHL teams invite players with absolutely no talent. Sometimes I
have the impression that the NHL is going to take everyone in

Mayorov, the manager of the national team, glowers menacingly,
as if his fury might bring the boys home. He was a left wing
with the gold medal Soviet side in the 1964 and '68 Winter Games
and a participant in those bone-chilling outdoor games at
Dynamo. "Some of our players live for seven, eight or nine years
in America, and they lose contact with Russia," he says. "Some
don't even want to come home on vacation. They take out U.S.
citizenship. The majority have green cards."

Down the hall from Mayorov's den of woe is the office once
occupied by federation president Valentin Sych. In April 1997
Sych was being chauffeured to his country home near Moscow when
a man leaped out of a parked car and opened fire with a machine
gun. The hockey czar was killed instantly. A few months earlier,
Vladimir Bogach, the equipment manager of the Central Red Army
team, had been murdered in the same way as he left a Moscow
tennis club. (Neither homicide has been solved.) Such
Godfather-ish mayhem--along with reports that several Russian
NHL stars have been victims of extortion attempts by the
amorphous Russian "mob"--may explain the eagerness of some
expatriates to sever their ties with the old country.

Yet while hockey languishes in Moscow, it flourishes in the
hinterland, where teams such as Khimik Voskresensk, Torpedo
Yaroslavl, Avangard Omsk and Mettalurg Magnitogorsk fill their
6,000-seat arenas for most games at two or three dollars per
ticket. Then again, what else is there to do on a Saturday night
in Omsk?

Back in Sundayville, the Khimik club and its tributary hockey
school, where Sasha and Misha weave their dreams, remain alive,
funded by the local government, the chemical factory and its
"joint stock" investors, terminology that in the new Russia can
define a capitalist enterprise or be a euphemism for a criminal
gang. The boys' mother, Antonina, a grocery clerk, does not have
to pay for her sons' on-ice education. Their father, Sergei, a
former pro player, died of stomach cancer in October.

"My boys start at the age of five or six, and certainly the best
example for them to follow is the NHL," says Alexander Korkin,
Misha's coach. Korkin is wearing a New Jersey Devils toque,
advertising his pride in the fact that he trained the
Cup-winning Zelepukin when he was a teenager in Voskresensk.
"Every young hockey player all over the world sees himself
playing in the NHL.

"This country does not have the ability to spend lots of money
on art and sport. I don't think we'll be able to get out of this
crisis quickly. We might sink to a very low level. But hockey is
so close to the Russian character--so close to our soul--that
even if we sink to the zero level, someday we will build it back
up and win the gold." But the reality is that the few dollars
that are found for Russian hockey serve merely to cultivate a
new crop of skaters for export.

"Why bother to train them if you know that they will leave?" I
ask Mayorov.

"It's like a tradition," he replies. "We hope that we can
rebuild our hockey and that some of the players, at least, will
remain here. Everything has changed in our lives. The
liquidation of the Soviet Union influenced the whole system of
management of everything in our country. We hope to live better
someday. We hope that our players will not strive for the West
and that our arenas will be full."

Last summer Kozlov and Larionov triumphantly brought the Stanley
Cup home to Voskresensk, where they, too, had risen at five in
the morning to trudge to hockey school. A photograph on display
in the lobby of the arena shows Misha and his teammates
clustered around the holy relic.

"We got to hang out with the players and see the Cup and even
touch it," Misha remembers with awe. "But the biggest thrill was
we got to shake their hands."

"I touched it [the Cup] with my own hands," 12-year-old goalie
Sergei Khrenov says, beaming. "There are lots of Russian players
performing in Detroit. We are so proud of them."

None of the boys voices a wish to play for Torpedo Yaroslavl. "I
want to play in the NHL and gain fame and glory and get big
money," says Dima Saviliev, summing up the yearnings of his
peers and the plight of hockey in Mother Russia. "Then I'm
dreaming of coming back to Voskresensk. Everybody will treat me
as the best hockey player in the world."

--Allen Abel

COLOR PHOTO: PETER BLAKELY/SABA GO WEST, YOUNG MEN After boys have touched the Stanley Cup, it's tough to play in Omsk. [Two young hockey players speaking to coach]COLOR PHOTO: PETER BLAKELY/SABA DAWN PATROL Students at the hockey school in Voskresensk are on the ice before the sun comes up. [Several hockey players]
"I understand why talented players leave. We can't pay those
crazy salaries," says Mayorov.