Cold Russian Winner Despite a nasty public dispute over a $1 million arts donation, the Senators' Alexei Yashin remains a fan favorite in Ottawa and a strong MVP candidate

February 08, 1999

In a blow to Ottawa's white wine-sipping, Volvo-driving
culturati, the keenly anticipated Pucks and Tux concert
scheduled for last Friday at the Senators' home rink was
postponed indefinitely on Jan. 20, reducing that night's
entertainment choices to the La La La Human Steps dance troupe,
a new David Hare play and Patch Adams (seven theaters). A
marriage of serious music and the national game, the concert was
to have featured National Arts Centre conductor Pinchas Zukerman
and Ottawa Senators center Alexei Yashin, a 25-year-old Russian
with an interest in shots on goal and Shostakovich. Alas, at
eight o'clock, when the orchestra was supposed to have been
swinging into The Skater's Waltz (or whatever), the only
marrying going on was between the fried calamari and the
marinara sauce at Capone's restaurant, where Yashin was dining
in blue jeans.

Yashin, the local hockey hero, last week found himself caught in
a cat's cradle of charges and countercharges concerning what
strings might, or might not, have been attached to his $1
million (Canadian) pledge to the National Arts Centre (NAC) last
winter. His offer of $200,000 annually for five years, the
largest donation by an individual in the organization's 29-year
history, pleasantly surprised the arts community in his adopted
city. The NAC's announcement on Jan. 19 that Yashin had decided
to withdraw his support after the initial $200,000
installment--a withdrawal which prompted the postponement of
Pucks and Tux--shocked the nation. Last Thursday, when Yashin
offered his side of the dispute, 150 journalists attended and
three television networks broadcast the press conference live.
Reading a statement, Yashin said the NAC had made him "feel like
a criminal" when they informed him that an amendment to the
original deal, diverting up to $85,000 each year to his parents'
Ottawa-based company, Tatiana Entertainment Inc., which had been
set up to provide translation and other services for visiting
Russian artists, might be illegal.

Yashin's agent, Mark Gandler, then disputed an allegation by the
NAC that he had pressured the organization to prepare a phony
receipt for services rendered by Tatiana Entertainment Inc.
Gandler stated that during a Dec. 11 phone conversation with NAC
interim director Elaine Calder, in which he supposedly requested
that receipt, he had simply expressed Yashin's disappointment
that few Russian artists had been recruited to perform during
the past NAC season. Two hours later--in a classic case of life
irritating art--Calder discreetly implied that Gandler's
recollection was complete and utter bolshoi, or something to
that effect.

One story, two spins. Was Yashin trying to milk $1 million of
goodwill from an investment that got him a hefty tax write-off
and a nice subsidy for his parents? Or did arts apparatchiks
bungle a sincere gift from a one-of-a-kind athlete who happens
to know that Boris Godunov is not the sawed-off cartoon villain
who keeps messing with Rocky and Bullwinkle? Either way, the
spinning left Yashin dizzy.

"People get the idea I'm sitting in my house listening to
classical music 24 hours a day," Yashin said on the afternoon of
the stillborn Pucks and Tux. In the interest of full disclosure,
yes, he has read War and Peace. He has seen Uncle Vanya and The
Cherry Orchard. (Maybe the NAC should have tried Checks and
Chekhov.) He did put on a tie when his mother, Tatiana, an
electrical engineer, dragged the family to this play or that
concert back in Sverdlovsk--an industrial city of 1.5 million in
the Urals now called Yekaterinburg. And yes, that is soprano
Kathleen Battle next to him in the photo taken last fall.

There never has been a Russian player quite like this emerging
star on an emerging team, one that is chasing the Toronto Maple
Leafs for first place in the Northeast Division and one that
former coach Rick Bowness predicts will win a Stanley Cup within
three years if it finds the money to keep its players. Yashin's
22 goals and 56 points through Sunday ranked him sixth for points
and 11th in goal scoring in the NHL, just behind more prominent
names such as Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic.

Yashin is 6'3" and 228 pounds, but he has the puck skills of a
small man. Instead of playing the traditional Russian style of
attack, based on speed and frequent circling, Yashin barges
straight ahead, taking the shortest route to a scoring chance.
He still holds on to the puck too long--he has the conceit of
most great players, who assume they will make smarter decisions
and better plays than their teammates--and Ottawa coach Jacques
Martin thinks Yashin can expand his repertoire by using his
quickness to the outside more, but these are quibbles in light
of goals like the one he scored against the Carolina Hurricanes
a week before Christmas. Yashin took a pass in the slot,
pirouetted with defenseman Nolan Pratt riding his back and then,
as Pratt hooked him to the ice, snapped a shot over goalie
Arturs Irbe's shoulder.

That goal was a masterpiece of strength, balance and
flexibility, all the traits Yashin has nurtured during five
years of training in combat martial arts. Yashin is a black
belt, but he is more reluctant to discuss martial arts than
performing arts. "I don't want to make a big deal about it," he
said, "because it might be an insult to someone who does this as
a professional. He might think they gave it to me just because
I'm a hockey player." Yashin absolutely will not be cajoled into
demonstrating kicks or punches. But then, stubbornness always
has been his most enduring quality.

Yashin's first nickname in Ottawa was Yeah, But. He was just 19
and his English was embryonic, yet the first draft choice in
Senators history, in 1992, had the audacity to routinely reply
to a coach's instructions with "Yeah, but.... "

"Alexei is very proud," says Bowness, now a Nashville Predators
consultant. "He never meant it in a disrespectful way. He just
wanted us to hear his opinion. At times, he was right. We were
trying to roll our lines, get a tempo going, and he'd prolong
his shift. His thinking was that the player coming on wasn't as
good as he was, so why couldn't he stay on the ice? It was tough
to argue."

As most of Ottawa--and the NAC--has learned by now, you argue
with Yashin at your peril. There has been no final curtain on
the donation dispute, no resolution as to who is telling the
truth and who is spewing classical gas. Mustering all the
righteous indignation he can in his second language, Yashin said
at his press conference, "At no time did my family intend to
profit from this agreement." NAC board chairman Gean Riley later
called Yashin's wounded stance "theater."

The last word came, as it always must, from the audience. The
Senators' 9-2 victory last Saturday over the New York Islanders
was Ottawa's first game at the Corel Centre since the donation
story broke. Yashin was cheered lustily. Of course, scoring two
power-play goals and assisting on another might have won critics
over more than the press conference did. "This thing with the
NAC," Yashin said after the game, "will not affect my hockey."

But it does mean that his tuxedo remains in the closet. Yashin
paid $1,000 for the tux, and other than the soiree at which he
met diva Battle, he hasn't had an occasion to wear it. He
probably won't, either, until the NHL awards ceremony in June
when, if he keeps giving at the office, he should be one of the
three finalists for the most valuable player award. Bravo,

COLOR PHOTO: PETER SIBBALD Senior Senator Ottawa's first-ever draft pick, Yashin has blossomed into one of the NHL's top scorers.

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