SPECIAL REPORT

The Russians Remember

MALCOLM GRAY September 29 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

The Russians Remember

MALCOLM GRAY September 29 1997

The Russians Remember

SPECIAL REPORT

The broad face, above a powerfu' frame now soft ened by a slight paunch, still draws brief flickers of recognition in Moscow. Aleksandr Ragulin was a rock-like presence on the blue-line for the So viet national hockey team 25 years ago, and even now he cannot park his car-an ordinary blue [ada-in the centre of the city without en countering fans who want to recall the Super Series. That's what Rus sians call the first eight-game en counter for the 1972 Canada Cup, which pitted the best Canadian players of the National Hockey League against a Soviet team that was professional in all but name. To the relief of a country whose na tional identity seemed to be on the line, Canada scraped through to vic tory when winger Paul Henderson scored in the last minute of the final game in Moscow. "There were 36 seconds left actually," recalls Rag ulin, handing out a correction as crisp as the checks he delivered during his playing days (though he is. as it hanoens. two seconds off).

“Perhaps some good came from our losing. If we had won, then no one in Canada would want to remember our names.”

The memories live on in both countries, for all the tumultuous changes. The Soviet Union, of course, has disappeared, taking with it the Cold War chill that helped turn a simple hockey series into an epic clash of competing ideologies.

Gone, too, is the Big Red Machine, the statesupported juggernaut; Russian teams are still strong internationally, but they no longer strike fear into opponents’ hearts. Meanwhile, Russian stars like Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov collect multimillion-dollar salaries in the National Hockey League, stripping domestic leagues of top talent and leaving behind an oftenviolent struggle for power and money in organized hockey. Ragulin remains philosophical: “It doesn’t bother me that we were the pioneers, that the 1972 series paved the way for Russian players of today to play abroad,” he says. “I could have played in the NHL, and competing against the best would have made me an even stronger player. But I never thought about leaving. That would have meant defecting and that would have made me a traitor to my country.”

Time has also taken its toll on the Russian veterans of that ’72 series. Boris Kulagin and Vsevolod Bobrov, the legendary coaches, are dead. So are three members of the 28-man roster, including star winger Valeriy Kharlamov, who was killed in a 1980 car accident. Those who remain are greyer, a step slower and carrying a bit more weight than during their playing days. Some have struggled to ad-

Former Soviets helped pioneer the global game

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just to a rapidly changing society and are bitter about their lot. But others have prospered—most notably Vladislav Tretiak, the agile goaltender who allowed Henderson’s winning goal but has smoothly managed the change from athlete to businessman amid Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism. Tretiak is a Russian representative for Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., has done regular training-camp stints as a goaltending coach with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks— and even helped promote the Canadian Mint’s silver dollar commemorating the 25th anniversary of Henderson’s heroics.

Like Tretiak, Ragulin and many other former players have strong ties to a game that elevated them to the most privileged levels of a supposedly classless society. Rags, as he was nicknamed by Canadian sportswriters, is 56 now. As one of the so-called hockey soldiers who, with Moscow’s mighty Central Army squad, usually formed the core of Soviet national teams, Ragulin draws a colonel’s pension. With a small salary from his current post as president of a veteran hockey players’ association, he has a monthly income of only about $400.

He also has vivid recollections of the 1972 series. His personal highlight was the Soviets’ surprise 7-3 win in the opening game in Montreal. “It was actually easier for us to play abroad,” says Ragulin. “Without pressure from our fans we could concentrate on the games themselves. When we returned to Moscow, all of us thought that we were going to win the series on our own soil."

Ragulin has photographs that show him squaring off against Canadian team captain Phil Esposito. Despite later revelations that the Soviet government had indeed studded most of the buildings in central Moscow with listening devices, Ragulin believes the authorities probably did not eavesdrop on Team Canada, as Esposito and others have alleged. “Ah, Phil," Ragulin says. ‘We are good friends now. But I think he was mistaken about our government bugging Canadians' hotel rooms. No one was interested in their secrets. After all, they were hockey players, not spies.” As he speaks, he runs a finger along a scar under his right eye. a permanent souvenir from the series. “That was a present from Esposito’s stick,” he adds.

Unlike Ragulin, the shine of the 72 series has been overshadowed for winger Aleksandr Yakushev by a crushing, personal loss. With seven goals and four assists, the tall, wellbuilt Yakushev was among the leading scorers in the series.

After his 17-year playing career ended in 1980, Yakushev had well-paying coaching jobs in Austria and Switzerland for four years before homesickness pulled him back to Moscow. But in 1994, Katya, his 21-year-old daughter, left the family apartment to go for a walk and did not return. Police retrieved her body from the Moscow River 72 days later but have never solved her murder. “What do I have to live for?” one of his former teammates recalls him saying.

Now, after three years in an apartment where he is constantly reminded of his daughter, Yakushev and his wife, Tatiana, are moving to new quarters in another district.

Life has been tough on Evgeni Mishakov, as well. The former winger, who won five world and two Olympic championship medals during his 12-year pro playing career, lives in a two-room Moscow apartment. He has a monthly army pension of just over $100, and a limp caused by hockey injuries. “It’s hard getting by these days,” Mishakov says. “My health is not good and I can’t afford proper medical treatment. I have to say that I preferred life under the old system.”

Mishakov’s life still revolves around the rink at Central Army’s storied Ice Palace arena in Moscow. There he has access to an office as the coach of Zvezdy Rossii, or Stars of Russia, a club of veteran players who have seen a schedule of 30 exhibition games annually—and the small income it brought—dwindle to only four or five. The office is tucked away on a shabby fourth-floor corridor accessible only by stairs because the elevator is out of order. Tire door bears a plaque dedicated to the memory of coach Bobrov, and inside there is a good view of the rink where Victor Kuzkin, another 72 alumnus, was on this day leading Central Army players through a scrimmage.

Mishakov is one of scores of rink rats who each day line the boards at practice sessions at the Red Army rink, killing time. He has strong

feelings about the Russians stars now skating in North America. “I think Russians who are playing in the NHL should donate a small percentage of their salaries to help the veterans who paved the way for them,” he says. “Either that or they should participate in charity games for older players who are hard up.”

Kuzkin well remembers the emotional roller coaster of the 72 series, from the euphoria of that opening victory to the crushing emptiness of the last-game loss. But as an assistant coach of the current Red Army squad, he has little time to dwell on the old days. “I have a good life, a nice apartment and a wife and daughter whom I love,” he says. “I could use more money, but who couldn’t.” Besides the drain of top talent to teams abroad, he blames the disappearance of government subsidies and the closing of state-supported hockey schools for the rapid decline of the Russian game.

For Valeriy Vasiliev, a defenceman on the 72 team, the biggest crime may be the government’s treatment of former Soviet stars who had not adjusted well to the disappearance of the old union. “They were pioneers in the development of the international style of hockey that is played now,” he says. “But now the government neglects them—some are in poor health and some have become alcoholics. For those, drinking is a way out, a means for them to forget.” Vasiliev, on the other hand, lives in a prestigious district of southern Moscow. There, from the windows of an airy and wellappointed 10th-floor flat that he now owns, he can look across the street to the apartment occupied by his neighbor and former teammate, Tretiak. Vasiliev bears the marks of his hockey days: a crooked nose that was broken three times and a scar above one eyebrow—a souvenir of a high stick during a 1974 exhibition game in Winnipeg. And he will never forget the game that got away, those momentous final seconds: Henderson cutting in on goal; defenceman Gennadiy Tsigankov moving to block him; Vasiliev skating over to deliver a partial check; Henderson falling to the ice and shooting towards the net; the puck arcing over Tretiak’s outstretched arm; the red light flashing on. ‘We knew that it was over then,” said Vasiliev. “There was some time left, but some of the Canadian players told me afterwards that they would have done anything to ensure their win.” But Vasiliev is not obsessed with that series. Business—he is about to open a new bar—and time spent coaching hockey in a town near Moscow keep him rooted in the present. When asked where his trophies are, he rummages through a closet before unearthing a nondescript black plastic briefcase. Inside, in a tangle of colored ribbons, lies a glittering array of championship prizes, including two Olympic golds. “Even Olympic gold medals are not really made of gold,” Vasiliev says quietly. For anyone who contested—or even watched—the 1972 series, Vasiliev has a simple message: it was a classic matchup that led to changes and improvements in hockey. But while he likes visiting the past, he has no desire to live there.

MALCOLM GRAY