COVER

THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT

THE SOVIETS WORRY ABOUT THEIR GAME

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1989
COVER

THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT

THE SOVIETS WORRY ABOUT THEIR GAME

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 20 1989

THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT

COVER

THE SOVIETS WORRY ABOUT THEIR GAME

Midway through the Soviet Union’s current winter of hockey discontent, the most exciting conflicts have tended to take place off the ice. A divisive controversy in Soviet hockey erupted last fall when one of the star players for the national team, Igor Larionov, accused coach Viktor Tikhonov of forcing team members to work such long hours that “it is a wonder our wives manage to give birth.” As well, Viacheslav Fetisov, who is regarded by many hockey experts as the best defenceman in the world, said that Tikhonov was blocking his attempts to leave the Soviet Union in order to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). Last month, Fetisov protested by refusing to play for the national team. Tikhonov accused him of selfishness and public drunkenness. Shortly after, Anatoly Tarasov, the main founder of the Soviet national hockey program, issued a blistering critique of the game’s present condition, citing outmoded training techniques and poor organization.

All those incidents bewildered many people, including Oleg Khanin, who has been covering hockey for the daily newspaper Sovietsky Sport for 33 years. Said Khanin, referring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or increased openness: “This is most unlike the previous era of stagnation.” In fact, the present state of Soviet hockey mirrors the self-criticism and occasional turmoil that much of the country is undergoing. Internationally, the Soviet national team, which won the gold medal at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, continues to dominate most events. In exhibition games starting last December against NHL teams, two touring Soviet teams posted a record of six wins, she losses and two ties. At home, the Soviet sports ministry estimates that more than two million people play hockey in organized leagues, and more than three million children participate in an annual “Golden Puck” contest that tests hockey skills.

Despite that, there is growing concern over the future of the nation’s hockey program— and the wide disparity among teams in terms of

strength. Because of the Soviet policy of giving a handful of top-level teams in the Soviet National League their choice of the country’s best players, one team—the Central Red Army—has won the Soviet championship for 12 consecutive years. Critics say that has resulted in declining interest among fans. As a result, during the past three years, soccer has replaced hockey as the country’s No. 1 spectator sport. As well, some observers say that the lack of competition has resulted in some teams not improving or making innovative improvements in their training or playing techniques. Added Khanin: “All our teams look the same

and play the same. None of our players learn how to think for themselves.”

Complaints about the state of Soviet hockey are strikingly similar to those expressed in Canada in 1972 when the Soviet national team shocked the country by almost winning an eight-game series against an all-star team of Canadian professional players. Such former stars as goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, now retired, and forward Valeri Kharlamov, who was killed in a car accident in 1981, are discussed with the same reverence that North American fans accord to former Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe and Boston’s Bobby

Orr. Indeed, some young Soviet players complain that the reputation of the great Soviet players of the past gives them an almost impossible standard to live up to.

Still, Soviet hockey experts say the real change that has occurred during the past decade is a sharp improvement in the North American game. Since they were first surprised by the Soviets’ strength, North American coaches have paid much greater attention to diet, physical conditioning and training methods. Those improvements have been so dramatic that some Soviets say it is now their turn to adopt their rivals’ techniques.

Regimen: For their part, several Soviet players have said that they would be better prepared emotionally and physically if they had less—not more—training time. In a blunt open letter to Tikhonov in the weekly magazine Ogonyok last October, star forward Igor Larionov complained bitterly about the length of time that players are separated from their families. He cited the case of one player who ; was forbidden to take time off to ° attend his father’s funeral, and an§ other who was not allowed to visit jg his sick child in hospital. At pre| sent, the team’s year-round regi“■ men involves near-isolation for 10 months a year.

Even during the summer months, Larionov said, players spend up to 10 hours a day with their teams. He said that, as a result, many Soviet players lose enthusiasm and retire early. One who did, said Larionov, was Tretiak, who “had to retire at age 32, despite being the most popular hockey player in the world.” In dealing with Tikhonov, added Larionov, Soviet players “had no strength to resist your style, or, to be more concrete, your tyranny.”

Intensity: But the differences between Larionov and his coach pale alongside the intensity of Tikhonov’s feud with Fetisov. The 30-yearold Fetisov, whose NHL rights are owned by the New Jersey Devils, was expected to join the team at the start of the season. Since then, his request to be released from the Soviet army, in which he holds the rank of major, has not been granted. When Fetisov accused his coach of working behind the scenes to block his release, Tikhonov denied the charge. But last year, after Fetisov said that he wanted to join the NHL, Tikhonov stripped him of his captaincy of the national team.

Tikhonov later said that he had done so because of an incident in early October in which Fetisov became involved in a fight at a service station while “drunk as a lord.” Since then, Fetisov has refused to play for either the national team or the Central Red Army team, which Tikhonov also coaches. Said Tikhonov last week: “An athlete who stops training, uses

his time for philosophical matters and expresses himself in the media is finished as an athlete.”

Conflicts: Despite the difficulties some players have in obtaining permission to play abroad, more Soviet athletes than ever have been permitted to leave. More than 30 Soviet athletes, most of them soccer players, are currently playing in other countries. That is primarily because Goskomsport, the principal Soviet government sports organization, now is expected to finance its own operations.

As a result, the organization, in collaboration with another Soviet sports organization,

Sovintersport, allows Soviet athletes to play for Western countries but keeps more than half the players’ salaries.

But those arrangements still depend on the approval of the management of the players’ original teams—and some Soviet hockey organizers have been reluctant to grant that.

Still, the problems in the Soviet hockey program extend beyond personality conflicts between players and management. Although Sovi-

et officials do not keep attendance figures, longtime fans in Moscow and other major cities say that the size of crowds has been dropping steadily in recent years. At the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow, which seats about 17,000, there are often fewer than 5,000 fans for regular-season games. Many fans say they resent the fact that the Central Red Army team is given the pick of most top players in the country. Said Andrij Vesselovsky, an avid fan in Kiev: “Every time we have a star, we know he will be taken elsewhere.”

Pressure: That disillusionment is shared by hockey experts, who say that the lack of competition hurts the development of the country’s top players. Tarasov, a coach and administrator who is credited with raising the standards of Soviet hockey to their present level, has said that the country should consider adopting a system similar to the NHL’s annual player draft, which allows the league’s weakest teams to have first choice of graduating junior players. Tikhonov has also criticized the present Soviet system, which he says does

not put enough pressure to excel on players. As well, the Soviet sport ministry is currently negotiating with the NHL to increase the number of exhibition games played annually between Soviet and North American teams. In a new move worked out by the NHL and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation, in an effort to bring Soviet and North American hockey closer together, two NHL teams are expected to conduct part of their training camps in the Soviet Union next fall.

Surprise: Despite the problems, most experts say that the Soviets are in no danger of relinquishing their place as one of hockey’s dominant forces. Sam Pollock—a former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens—for one, said recently: “People are always saying the Soviets are in trouble. But in the meantime, they just keep on winning.” For their part, many Soviets seem surprised—but philosophical—about the new controversies facing the sport. Said Tikhonov last week: “The winds of a changing society took us, in ice hockey, by surprise.” Added sportswriter Khanin: “Times have changed. Finally, we have realized our sportsmen are not machines and should not be treated like ones.” For a new generation of Soviet athletes, what matters, it seems, is not only whether they win, but how—and where— they play the game.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH