SPORTS

Playing for dollars

Soviet athletes adjust to life in North America

BARBARA WICKENS January 8 1990
SPORTS

Playing for dollars

Soviet athletes adjust to life in North America

BARBARA WICKENS January 8 1990

During the eight years that Igor Larionov played on the Central Red Army team, the Soviet superstar spent 11 months a year living in a hockey training camp. Partly because of that, the Vancouver Canucks’ new star centre and his family have had some problems adjusting to the Canadian way of life. When Larionov, 29, arrived in Vancouver last July to play for the NHL team, he, his wife, Yelena, and the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Alyonka, moved into a rented four-bedroom house. Now, the Larionovs have moved into a smaller, downtown apartment. Said Yelena, a well-known Soviet figure skater who placed eighth at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia: “I can’t live in that house. The baby gets lost. It’s monstrous.”

Larionov is one of 11 Soviet athletes currently playing in the major professional leagues in North America. The athletes include nine Soviets who play in the NHL and two in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with the linguistic and cultural differences to which they have to adjust, the newcomers have discovered major changes in the way their sports are played. They say that both hockey and basketball are more physical games in North America than in the Soviet Union.

The athletes are adjusting to the different playing styles with varying degrees of success. Sergei Makarov, 31, a right winger who is playing with the Calgary Flames, is the most successful Soviet scorer in the NHL with nine goals and 33 assists—leading all rookies. That is similar to the pace he maintained in his homeland, where he holds the title of Soviet Master of Sport, the rough equivalent of being enrolled in the NHL Hall of Fame.

By contrast, Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov, 31, a Soviet defenceman who now plays with the New Jersey Devils under a reported three year, $2-million contract, has been inconsistent. Sports experts say that Fetisov, with only two goals and 11 assists, was the Soviet player of whom the most was expected. As a result, the New York City-area media have heavily criticized Fetisov for his sometimes-lacklustre play—and for his refusal to fight the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Wendel Clark after Clark punched him in October.

Still, Fetisov seems to have taken it all in stride. Speaking through an interpreter, Fetisov told Maclean’s: “I’m used to seeing my name in the papers in the Soviet Union. There are some reporters there who are prejudiced too and others who were more objective. Some are more objective here, and others are more sensational. It’s really very much the same as in the Soviet Union.”

This year’s influx of Soviet athletes into North America has been one of the side effects of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness). Starting in 1988, Soviet sports officials began allowing older athletes to go to Western teams in exchange for a sizable portion of their salaries. More recent arrivals were able to negotiate more favorable terms for themselves. Formidable international competitors, Soviet teams won the hockey gold medal at six of the last seven Winter Olympics and won the gold medal in basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Even under the new Soviet policy, officials in Moscow will not let some younger stars leave. As a result, Alexander Mogilny, 20, defected in Stockholm last May after the Soviet hockey team captured the world championship. Mogilny now plays for the NHL’S Buffalo Sabres.

For some Soviet athletes in North America, language is one of the most intractable problems. Makarov, for one, often appears to have difficulty understanding English. Still, Calgary Flames coach Terry Crisp says that Makarov speaks English better than he sometimes indicates. Added Crisp: “He understands what he wants to understand. He misinterprets what he wants to misinterpret.” In Vancouver, the urbane Larionov, who has generally adapted to North American life successfully, has stopped interpreting for his Canucks teammate and fellow countryman, Vladimir Krutov. Together with Makarov, the three men once formed the famed KLM line on Soviet national teams. Now, says Larionov: “Vladimir must talk for himself. He must learn English.”

At first, language was also a problem for Sarunas Marciulionis, a Lithuanian basketball player who now plays guard for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif. Marciulionis had difficulty calling out plays to fellow players on the court. Said Marciulionis, who learned English by studying with a dictionary: “I think I will play better when my English improves, because right now I am thinking about the words.” Marciulionis, who signed a three-year, $4.4-million contract, is averaging 10.9 points a game.

Although most of the Soviet athletes playing in North America say that they have not yet decided whether they will return to the Soviet Union when their contracts end, they at least appear to have elected to enjoy the trappings of the good life while they are in North America. Marciulionis, for one, who grew up in poverty in Kaunas, Lithuania, last summer bought a Mercedes-Benz 300E automobile and has filled his spacious house in Alameda, Calif., with video equipment. At times, life in North America can be a major challenge for some Soviets. When Fetisov and his wife, Lada, arrived in New York in July, she became separated from her husband in Saks Fifth Avenue department store. Said Fetisov: “When I found her, she was crying in the middle of Saks. It’s her first time here and it’s a big adjustment for her.”

But most of the players have had 5 little difficulty adjusting to the North American economic system. Makarov, for one, said that he knows the better he plays, the more easily he will be accepted into the commercial world of endorsements. Already, Makarov has spent an afternoon signing autographs at a Ford dealership in Calgary in return for the 1989 Ford Thunderbird that the dealership has loaned him. Said Makarov: “If I don’t play well, nobody will care.” Unlike the Larionovs’ reaction to their large house, Makarov clearly is ready to embrace all aspects of the capitalist system.