SPORTS

Soviet invasion

Foreign players are shaking up the NHL

JOHN HOWSE October 9 1989
SPORTS

Soviet invasion

Foreign players are shaking up the NHL

JOHN HOWSE October 9 1989

Soviet invasion

SPORTS

Foreign players are shaking up the NHL

The crowd of 20,000 packed into Calgary’s Saddledome exploded with a roar of appreciation. Dressed in the white, red and gold uniform of the Calgary Flames, Soviet hockey star Sergei Makarov last week took part in a deft assault on the Edmonton Oilers’ goal to chalk up his first National Hockey League assist. As the NHL teams embark on their 80-game regular season schedule this week, the presence of rightwinger Makarov and eight other Soviet players promised to inject new excitement into the 21team league. At the same time, the presence of the Soviet players sparked controversy. Canadian hockey administrators cast envious eyes on the more than $3 million that the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation is reported to be receiving for the services of their stars under a confidential agreement between each player and his team. “We need disclosure of the actual amounts paid,” said David Branch, vice-president of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the administrative body that distributes $2.1 million in transfer funds to 40 junior hockey clubs in three leagues around the country. “We will be negotiating with the NHL.”

The arrival of the powerful Soviet contingent in the NHL came about as a result of the policies of perestroika (restructuring) introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Moscow decided last March to allow Soviet hockey players to join NHL teams. But Soviet officials are believed to have stipulated that half of their salaries have to be paid to the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation. The nine Soviet players signed to play in the NHL this season are thought to be earning average total salaries of $700,000. Some NHL regulars are not amused. “It is an absolute fraud for the NHL to seek out Communist party members to play here to take jobs from North American players,” said the controversial Edmonton-based Rich Winter, who represents 12 NHL players. “But it is exciting for the fans, and I don’t see it being reversed.” Some NHL players also are critical of the money being paid to the Soviet federation. As the Los Angeles Kings’ superstar Wayne Gretzky said in an interview: “My parents raised Wayne Gretzky to play hockey and put all their money into it. But I don’t see anybody handing them $700,000 or $500,000 like they are to the Soviet federation.”

Still, the arrival of the Soviets in North America, along with the regular influx of European players—35 Swedes alone played in the NHL last season—has helped the NHL achieve more parity throughout its four diverse divisions. This season, the lowly New Jersey Dev-

ils have signed Soviet players Viacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Starikov, and have improved their prospects in the league’s volatile Patrick Division. The Buffalo Sabres, of the traditionally strong Adams Division, which includes the Montreal Canadiens, nabbed defector Alexander Mogilny, while the Quebec Nordiques signed Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov. Of spe-

cial interest are the members of the Soviet National Team’s famed “KLM line”—left-winger Vladimir Krutov and centre Igor Larionov, who will both play for the Vancouver Canucks, and the Flames’ Makarov.

In the forthcoming season, the league’s most competitive division is likely to be the Smythe, made up of the four western Canadian teams, plus Los Angeles. The 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames have begun a major rebuilding campaign. As well as signing two Soviets, including right-winger Sergei Priakin, who joined the Flames late last season as the first officially approved Soviet player to move to North America, the Flames have signed two highly touted Swedes: defenceman Roger Johansson and right-winger Jonas Bergqvist. Centre Jiri Hrdina, ex-captain of the Czechoslovakian National Team, joined the Calgary team in March, 1988. In fact, the Flames have become so polyglot that, during the team’s six-

game visit to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in September, European hockey commentators sometimes referred to the Flames as a “world team.”

Vancouver is rated as one of the league’s best defensive units, in part because of 19year-old centre Trevor Linden, a Medicine Hat, Alta., native regarded by hockey experts as a potential superstar in the Gretzky and Mario Lemieux galaxy. For their part, the Los Angeles Kings this summer looked to Canada and signed Montreal Canadiens’ veteran defenceman Larry Robinson. “I got the feeling the Canadiens felt they would be doing me a favor by signing me for another year,” said Robinson, 38, who played for 17 seasons with Montreal. “I don’t want any favors. I’m talking Stanley Cup with this team.” In another key move, the Kings’ flashy millionaire owner Bruce McNall—who made his money dealing in ancient coins—replaced his abrasive coach, Robbie Ftorek, with ex-New York Rangers coach Tom Webster. “Tommy will communicate with you,” said Bernie Nicholls, the Kings’ centre. “He’ll tell you what’s on his mind. He’ll let you talk to him. Robbie wouldn’t.”

In Edmonton, the Oilers, who won four Stanley Cups during the 1980s under Gretzky, may have finally recovered from the stigma and psychological damage that resulted from Gretzky’s sale to Los Angeles by Oiler owner Peter Pocklington. “They come without the stigma of losing Gretzky,” said Lou Jankowski, the New York Rangers’ Western Canada scout.

Already, the increased foreign content on NHL teams is helping to stimulate potentially profitable regional rivalries. Last week, 20,000 fans packed the Calgary Saddledome to watch the Flames play the Kings in an exhibition game. The game, won 5-4 by Los Angeles, featured the kind of fighting and stick-swinging befitting a playoff battle. In Quebec, the already intense rivalry between the Montreal

Canadiens and the Quebec _

Nordiques is likely to be fanned by the return of former Canadiens’ superstar Guy Lafleur to Quebec City.

Lafleur, after playing his junior hockey in Quebec City, had a spectacular career with the Montreal Canadiens before retiring in 1984. Last year, he made a comeback with the New York Rangers, scoring 18 goals with 27 assists, and then signed as a free agent with the Nordiques last summer.

The Soviet imports are not the only NHL players earning exalted salaries this season.

Inspired by the pay to superstars like Gretzky (an estimated $2.4 million) and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ centre Lemieux (about $2.4 million),

NHL players are demanding— and getting—better pay. In September, Chicago-born de-

fenceman Chris Chelios, winner of the Norris Trophy for top defenceman in the 1988-1989 season, agreed to become the highest-paid player in Montreal Canadiens’ history with a reported salary of $700,000. Other highly paid defencemen include Boston Bruins’ Ray

Bourque ($600,000) and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Paul Coffey ($540,000).

Winter, for one, says it is high time that NHL salaries improved. “Salaries are too low for the rank-and-file players,” said Winter, who last June made an unsuccessful effort to unseat Alan Eagleson as executive director of the NHL Players Association. Though NHL salaries are traditionally kept secret in negotiations between player agents and team owners, Winter, who represents Philadephia Flyers’ all-star goalie Ron Hextall, said that “players are beginning to wake up. They are ready to vote for the making public of all salary details, because it tells them what they are worth.” In the meantime, high-scoring Flames defenceman AÍ Maclnnis, awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup playoff’s most valuable player last season, this week planned to submit increased salary demands to an NHL arbitration board. “We’re so far apart, it’s the best solution for both parties,” said Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher.

One side effect of higher salaries may be that better pay makes for less colorful players. “Something is missing from the game,” wrote Calgary Herald sports columnist Allan Maki. “It’s dry. Sometimes painfully dry.” Maki particularly laments the absence of such legendary hockey personalities as ex-Maple Leaf Eddie Shack and ex-Canuck Tiger Williams. “There are so few oddballs, characters and entertainers out there that the men who play hockey have become more like Wayne Gretzky and less like Rocket Richard.” Says Brian Burke, director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks: “I’m hard-pressed to come up with a guy in the NHL who is colorful. We in management tend to get rid of the players who pull a prank or stay out late. And that’s not entirely good.”

In the meantime, the Soviet athletes playing in the NHL this season may have their hands full adapting to the smaller North American rinks

_ and the different NHL rules

that allow a rougher style of play. Said the CHL’s Branch: “They are certainly in for a change in lifestyle and a change in the type of play, travel and number of games. Some may not pan out.” Even so, the Soviet players may turn out to be valuable catalysts for change in the NHL by providing new excitement and color in the league. Certainly, the traditional SovietCanada rivalries will diminish as Canadian fans get used to claiming the Russians as home-team regulars. But the eventual result may be one that all hockey fans could applaud—the formation of a world league linking top European and North American teams in hockey’s newfound global village.

JOHN HOWSE