Thursday, October 30, 2008
Andrew Meier is the author of "Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall." His most recent book is "The Lost Spy." This article will appear in Play, The New York Times sports magazine, this weekend.
On a chill Friday night in October with seconds left to play in the most anticipated hockey game of a young season, tied three goals apiece, Avangard Omsk, the pride of southwestern Siberia, and Atlant Mytishchi, an upstart from the Moscow suburbs, have players from seven countries on the ice young men whose hometowns stretch from Canada to Kazakhstan. This is professional hockey in Russia now, at its best. And across the land of the old Soviet sports machine, whether the place is a rink, soccer pitch or basketball court, the scene repeats itself: few countries better reflect the newest face of globalization in sports. In Russia, foreigners round out the pro teams legionery, legionnaires, they call them, with a mix of awe and disdain. In Omsk, the transcontinental gap matters little. With more than 10,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs, communication is rendered moot. As the final seconds tick by, and both clubs express a level of hustle, stick work and hunger worthy of any match in North America, one man towers above all others: Jaromir Jagr. In Omsk, a black-collar city of 1.2 million souls, where the oil flares burn all night, marking the edge of town and the promise of the future, Jagr, the superstar who until midsummer reigned as the captain of the New York Rangers and a winner of nearly every trophy in the National Hockey League, now rules what he calls "the big ice."
On the weekend when his old team is preparing to open the NHL season in Prague, where the stands will be filled with Czechs wearing his old jersey, Jagr tells me that he couldn't be happier. And, he adds, "I never look back."
Why should he? In this remote post-Soviet hinterland, Jagr, at 36, is revered as the Second Coming (he played 32 games in Omsk during the NHL's 2004-5 lockout season), and his face has been ubiquitous throughout Russia in the months since he signed with Omsk. There is a new league, the Kontinental'naya Khokkeinaya Liga, the Continental Hockey League, or K.H.L, that has supplanted the old Super League, a shambolic enterprise that never managed to pull Russian hockey into the present. Coming at a time when the specter of a new cold war hovers over the relations between the United States and Russia, the KHL's creation is a deliberate, and direct, slap shot at the NHL With 24 teams and a porous salary cap for each team of 620 million rubles ($24 million), the KHL will have its own version of the Stanley Cup: the Gagarin Cup, in honor of the first man in space, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. And in Jagr, the KHL has its icon. There are plenty of familiar faces to keep him company: the league has lured dozens of former NHL players, including Alexei Yashin, Alexei Morozov and the goalies in Omsk that night, Ray Emery and John Grahame. But Jagr, as he will make abundantly clear to me long after the game, feels the weight. In his outsize hands, he holds, perhaps more than any other athlete in the country, the hope for the rise of pro sports in Russia.
IT'S A TALL ORDER. Try to remember way back, to the darkest days of the U.S.S.R., when Americans once feared the Big Red Machine. For decades, the Soviet sports monolith cast a pall over East-West athletic competitions. In the minds of Western coaches, the Soviet machine was a seemingly invincible state apparatus, unfettered, or so they imagined, by budgetary constraints or amateur regulations and blessed with endless conveyer belts that scooped up the genetically gifted at age 2 and churned out the likes of Olga Korbut, Sergei Bubka, Arvydas Sabonis and Slava Fetisov.
The fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 brought an end to all that. The first post-Soviet decade became known as another Time of Troubles in the nation's history as it lurched from political upheaval to economic crisis. Sports were among the first to suffer. Russians soon knew less about statistics and technique than about the metastasizing crime groups, organized or not, that were strangling their teams. NHL teams would usually pay clubs whose players moved to North America, but it was never clear how much made it to the clubs. In 1996, Vladimir Bogach, the business manager of the Central Army Sports Club, which comprises hockey, soccer and basketball teams, was shot dead while playing tennis at the club. The following spring, Valentin Sych, a longtime hockey power broker, was gunned down as he left his dacha outside Moscow. Amid the anarchy, athletes and coaches all but the oldest and most exhausted fled for the exits, and the Soviet sports machine ended up in the ash can of history. In its wake, Russian sports, both amateur and professional, floundered. The Olympics became a quadrennial debacle, the hockey leagues cheap colonies for the NHL, and when it came to soccer, you had to mention only two words, "World Cup," to ignite diatribes about the need to restore the lost empire.
What a difference a sea of oil and gas makes. Russia, as oil-company executives in Houston can tell you, boasts the largest reserves of oil and natural gas outside OPEC. Even after this year's precipitous drop in Russia's stock market and the beating that the global financial crisis has administered to its banks and business titans, Russians have enjoyed one of the greatest booms of the new century. Thanks to a combination of Kremlin muscle, oligarchic fealty and the surging price of Ural crude under Putin, the country's gross domestic product has risen nearly ninefold in nine years, and Russia is again an emerging market. And sports, once considered a luxury, are back on center stage.
Across the country, dozens of sleek stadiums, arenas and rinks are rising. The state and a host of petro-rich biznesmeny have invested billions into a new generation of pro clubs and the results have stunned Europe. Even the casual observer of tennis knows that Russian has become the second lingua franca on the women's tour, but Russia's rise extends far beyond the WTA rankings, where 7 of the top 14 women are Russian. Last September, the national basketball team, coached by David Blatt, an American-born Israeli, won the European championship for the first time since the Soviet collapse.
In the spring, the march continued. Zenit, the St. Petersburg soccer club beloved by many in the Kremlin, pulled off a triumph that resounded across 11 time zones by winning a major season-long European club tournament in Manchester, England, in May. Days after that UEFA Cup victory, the national hockey team beat Canada, 5-4 in overtime, for its first world championship in 15 years. Then in June, the national soccer team, under the guidance of a Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, and led by Zenit's star playmaker, Andrei Arshavin, made it to the semifinals of the European championships.
The greatest comeback may be yet to come. The advent of the hockey league has been the biggest news since the Americans stole the gold with "the miracle on ice" at Lake Placid in 1980. "Once Again We've Surpassed the Americans," a headline announced on the sports page of Komsomol'skaya Pravda, a popular tabloid. In its inaugural season, the KHL has already raised expectations at home and fears in the United States. Even as the NHL is finally entering Europe last month, a quartet of NHL teams played their season openers in Prague and Stockholm; last year, two teams began the season in London it is experiencing a reverse migration. Instead of Russian players moving only west, NHL players many but by no means all of them Russian are heading east. In 2001, 77 Russians played in the NHL Now the number is 26. As tensions rise and the two leagues remain unable to agree to a new international transfer agreement, the trend is set to increase. And the eastern pull may yet draw more. When a Russian reporter asked Kobe Bryant at the Beijing Games if he'd consider coming to Russia, Bryant floated a balloon that he later called a joke: "Without a doubt, $40 million a year and I'm there," adding, "You cut the check, and I'll bring my Nikes."
The Russians, as they like to say, whether in the Siberian hinterland or in the cigar clubs of Moscow, are back. Nowhere is the resurgence of power, patriotism and pride felt more than on the country's athletic battlegrounds.
WHILE BORIS YELTSIN'S love of tennis sparked a tennis boom, his enduring gift to the sports renaissance was his chosen heir. The first time I encountered Vladimir Putin, it was courtside at the Kremlin Cup, a post-Soviet tourney dreamed up to extend the pro tour eastward. As an event, the Moscow tournament had yet to establish itself, but Putin was there at midcourt, surrounded by bodyguards and sitting stiffly in a polo shirt and boxy black blazer. It was late in the fall of 1999. Putin, most recently the head of the Federal Security Service, had just been catapulted to power; he was serving as Yeltsin's prime minister, still utterly unknown to the vast majority of his compatriots. But sports for Putin, as his subjects would soon learn, were no minor obsession, no flash dance of machismo born of advancing middle age and a latent exhibitionist streak. Instead, as he embarked on a campaign to make Russia once again a velikaya derzhava (great power) a small man's drive to pump up the shrinking post-Soviet sphere of influence sports would dominate his tenure.
One of Putin's first acts upon settling into the Kremlin was to install a private gym in the remodeled presidential offices. In "First Person," Putin's version of a campaign memoir (it's largely a Q & A with Russian journalists, published in 2000), he revealed that sports and a preadolescent yearning for a KGB career saved him from going astray in Leningrad. Putin "didn't like socializing much," a schoolteacher remembered. "He preferred sports. He started doing martial arts in order to learn how to defend himself." He became expert in sambo, a Soviet mix of judo and wrestling. "If I hadn't gotten involved in sports," Putin was quoted as saying, "I'm not sure how my life would have turned out. It was sports that dragged me off the streets."
Nine years since his appearance at the Kremlin Cup, Putin nominally no longer runs the Kremlin, but he still rules Russia. He remains, moreover, the arbiter of all things athletic, from the ski slopes of the North Caucasus to the rise of his hometown club, Zenit, to his ultimate dream: Sochi 2014, the Winter Games that he secured with a virtuoso display of English and oligarchic prowess. Although Sochi lies only a short drive from Abkhazia, one of the restive provinces in neighboring Georgia, preparations for the Games promise to be historic in scale. A massive Olympic village is under construction, and a new port, large enough to hold the yachts of tycoons who have pledged troths of hundreds of millions, is set to dominate the Black Sea shoreline. (In April, a government official warned that the price tag could rise to $24 billion.)
Young Putin soon graduated from sambo to judo. Martial arts, as he said at the start of his political ascent, is not just a sport: "It's respect for your elders and for your opponent. It's not for weaklings." On his 56th birthday, I sit in Moscow traffic under black skies and hear a news bulletin: Putin, now prime minister, has given a "birthday present" to his subjects, an instructional DVD, "Learning Judo With Vladimir Putin." The level of sports development in the country, Putin declares, defines the development of the country itself. "Because without sport, it's impossible to speak of a healthy way of life, or even a healthy nation."
A JOCK IN THE KREMLIN would not have been enough had Russia not possessed the riches to sustain a revival. The three clubs I visited during a tour of Russia last month, Zenit, Dynamo and Avangard, are not only centers of attention in Russia. They also reflect, not coincidentally, the narrow spectrum of ownership models in the country. Zenit is owned by a state-controlled company, Dynamo is associated with a state-security organization, with additional private support, and Avangard, like the KHL, seems to be an amalgam of three models, a combination of state-controlled companies, oligarchic empires and the state itself. A spokesman for the league, Vladimir Mikheev, offers a description that only underscores its contradictory nature: It "may be a state-run, but not a state-owned, company, with a mixture of state and private interests."
Visit the Zenit soccer club in St. Petersburg, and you quickly see how those resources can "accelerate success," as its Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, put it. Zenit, formerly known as Stalinets, was founded the year after Lenin's death and for most of the Soviet century languished in the shadow of the more muscular Moscow teams. That changed in 2005, when Gazprom, the natural-gas giant, bought a controlling stake. Gazprom went on a shopping spree, investing around $100 million in mostly foreign players (13 of the team's 25 players hold non-Russian passports), hiring Advocaat like Hiddink, a well-regarded import from the West and starting construction on a 65,000-seat stadium designed by a Japanese architect. The results followed in short order. And it's a measure of that success, perhaps, that two Spanish newspapers, El Pais and ABC, published stories this fall, based on alleged police leaks, claiming that the Tambov gang, one of Russia's most infamous mafia groups and long the shadow power in St. Petersburg, paid an opponent, Bayern Munich, to take a dive, paving the way for Zenit's UEFA Cup championship last spring. (The club issued a heated denial and threatened to sue the papers. "There is a lot of jealousy about what we have achieved," Advocaat told a Scottish paper.)
Gazprom, one of the world's largest corporations, is not so much a company as a state within the state. It is also one of the financial powers behind the KHL The president of the league, Alexander Medvedev, happens to head Gazprom Export. "Flip a switch around here," goes an old joke at Gazprom headquarters in Moscow, "and the lights go out in Frankfurt." Indeed, natural gas from Russia supplies more than 25 percent of the European market, and Medvedev controls that flow. Aides are quick to point out that the 53-year-old KHL boss is no relation to Russia's new president, Dmitri Medvedev, who is 43 though the latter is Gazprom's most famous alumnus (he was chairman of Gazprom's board).
The Dynamo basketball team coached by David Blatt is part of a large sports behemoth in Moscow, once the core, alongside the Central Army clubs, of the Soviet machine. Dynamo has traditionally been associated with the police, or MVD, as the Ministry of Internal Affairs is known. On a tour of Dynamo's stunning new arena, Blatt makes clear how things have changed in the age of Putin. Blatt, who played at Princeton under Pete Carril and has won championships everywhere from Tel Aviv to Italy, is considered one of the best coaches outside of the N.B.A. (Blatt's players include Jannero Pargo and Bostjan Nachbar, who moved to Russia this year after eight seasons in the N.B.A.) He would like to show me the downstairs health club, he says, but he can't. It's the preserve of the FSB, the Federal Security Service. In the arena lobby, I glance at a wall of keys hanging behind an attendant's desk. Small black tags, above more than a dozen keys, are marked "ZONA FSB" the FSB zone.
The All-Russian Sports Society Dynamo includes soccer, hockey and other teams and is the athletic home for a host of law-enforcement ministries, from the federal police to the tax agencies. "But it's more connected to the FSB these days," Blatt says as we walk the halls. The front office makes no attempt to hide the relations: Vladimir Pronichev, the FSB deputy director and head of the border-guard service, acts as chairman; Sergei Stepashin, a former head of the FSB under Yeltsin, leads the board of trustees; Nikolai Patrushev, another former FSB boss, is involved with the Dynamo volleyball team.
But in Putin's Russia, even the secret policemen need corporate sponsorship. Most prominent among private patrons has been Metalloinvest, the metals giant owned by Alisher Usmanov, a 55-year-old magnate who lately has backed the Dynamo soccer club, as well as Arsenal in London (he bought nearly 25 percent of the English Premier League team last year for more than $200 million). Usmanov, one of the unheralded titans to rise under Putin, is an ethnic Uzbek who served six years in Soviet jails for fraud and embezzlement. (The Uzbek Supreme Court overturned the convictions, and he was later pardoned.) Usmanov, who regards the Soviet charges to be a political conspiracy, has powerful friends in the Kremlin and in security bureaus.
In Omsk, you find all sorts of interests. Avangard players wear their sponsors on their jerseys in all capitals: across the chest, Gazprom Neft (the oil company, formerly known as Sibneft before Gazprom acquired it in 2005), and across their backs, Omskaya Oblast, the regional administration, which is publicly credited with financing the team and delivering Jagr to Siberia. Avangard's biggest sponsor, however, is not advertised on the team uniform. Despite public denials to the contrary, the club, as its president, Konstantin Potapov, explained to me, is 40 percent owned by the Prodo Group, a Russian company "close to Roman Abramovich" one of Putin's favorite oligarchs and the former owner of Sibneft, who now divides his time between London (where he owns Chelsea, the EPL team he bankrolled to its first league championship in 50 years), Moscow and a growing flotilla of megayachts.
Whatever the "sponsor," the ultimate power in Russian pro sports remains political. "The oligarchs are fighting each other for the chance to sponsor a team," Andrei Illarionov, once a top economic adviser to Putin and now in self-exile in Washington, told me. "But it's not their initiative. It's an order from the Kremlin. It was Putin, and now Medvedev, who tells them to support this or that team."
"WHAT'S GOING ON HERE, it's like nowhere else in the world." After the game, Jagr and I sit in the team's swank restaurant. It is late, and the players' wives and girlfriends, whippet-thin women wearing stilettos and short skirts, have taken their leave. Their table remains filled with scarcely nibbled dinners and an unfinished bottle of red wine a rare sight in Russia. For a time, two or three other players sit nearby, regarding the strange scene one of the world's greatest athletes plying an American reporter with a plate of farm-fresh grilled chicken and mashed potatoes at a respectful distance.
Chris Drury, his former teammate and now the Rangers captain, told me to convey his regards to Jagr. "He's one of the best of all times," Drury said. "And his leaving, that's not something that goes away easily." In Moscow, no less an authority than Slava Fetisov, the former Soviet and Detroit Red Wings star, would tell me sternly that "Jagr was no PR gamble, no marketing decoration." In 2002, Fetisov returned to Russia at Putin's behest, to head up Rossport, a new federal agency dedicated to reviving the country's sports infrastructure. (After we meet, Rossport would be folded into a new entity, the Ministry for Sports, Tourism and Youth Policy, and Fetisov kicked upstairs, to the upper house of the Russian Parliament.) Jagr, he told me, is "one of the greatest players to come out of Europe in the last 20 years maybe ever." Fetisov went on, "I should know, I had to play against him."
The roster says 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, but Jagr somehow seems much taller, and leaner. His quickness and strength are legendary, and tonight the Russian fans have seen a giant sinewy cat cover every inch of the ice. He is playing well these days. But with the pads off, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, he projects something contradictory, a 36-year-old kid who cannot help but fidget, a mass of statuary that cannot sit still. If when we first met the talk was slow, the sparse phrases tinged with regret, now, after the game, an unexpected confessional, in Jagr's own version of English, heavy on Slavic sibilants and short on definite articles, comes cascading forth.
"I didn't come here just to hang out," Jagr says, although I hadn't asked. I had only raised the reports of his salary $7 million a year, taxes included, for two years, with an option for a third. Exaggeration, he said, echoing the front office. "I came to play and win," he goes on, adding an expletive. "It means everything, to win here. Did you see those fans? Did you hear them? We're doing something so new, this is fun, but it's not so easy. I mean this" his enormous forearms fill the air between us "is a huge challenge."
Earlier, after a morning skate-around, Jagr could only laugh when I asked about Avangard's business ledger, given the expense of a glittery new arena, the price of season tickets (the top seats cost almost $800), the lack of a merchandising tradition. "They don't care about the money," he said. "It's about the oil. It's all about sponsors here, and no sponsor's going to get their money back. If the oil is sponsoring you, and the price of oil went up three times, instead of making whatever, $100 million a day, you get $300 million a day."
"It's not a business," concedes Potapov, the Avangard president who spent 18 years at the Omsk refinery and wooed Jagr in Prague during the lockout at the request of the regional governor. "This is sports we're blessed with backers, people who give money not for a return in profits."
Jagr is the industry standard. "We needed a superstar," Fetisov told me in Moscow. "Someone who we could hold up to the world and say, 'Look who wants to come to Russia, to play for Russian fans.' That's the difference, the way Russia will change world sports."
Jagr, who once signed the richest contract in NHL history back in 2001, is well aware of his pivotal position and its attendant ironies. He is, after all, a boy who grew up on a Czech farm, whose grandfathers were jailed for political reasons and who has always worn the number 68 out of respect for the 1968 "revolution," as he calls it, when his countrymen challenged their Soviet occupiers and were crushed. But he feels a tie to this corner of Siberia, one that stretches back to the years after World War I. "Thousands of Czech soldiers were here," he says, "to fight the Russians." Omsk served as the base of Aleksander Kolchak, the White Russian leader who fought the Bolsheviks until 1920. The Czechs came in the employ of the allied interventionists, the British and the Americans. "Many of them," Jagr says he has heard, "stayed and never left."
There is no chance of this history repeating itself. Jagr says he will end his career where it began, with his hometown club, Kladno. But he says that in Russia he wants "to prove I can play." It was not an easy shift. KHL teams play fewer regular-season games than their NHL counterparts (56 rather than 82), but they start earlier. Jagr signed on July 5, and Avangard was on the ice 10 days later training three months before the NHL season opened. The biggest adjustment was "the big ice." Russian (and European) rinks are about 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, which are 85 feet wide. The bigger rink demands more of you, Jagr says. "If you want to get the puck, you have to skate. If you don't skate, you don't have a chance. The Russians have more skills because you can use skills on this ice. In the U.S., you don't have time to play with skills. It's hockey, with the same rules, but it's a different sport. You cannot dump and chase, because you'll never get the puck back."
When Wayne Fleming, the Canadian coach who arrived just six days earlier to take over Avangard, stops by our table, Jagr shares his worries about the future of Russia's relations with the NHL His reasoning is economic. In the NHL, he tells Fleming, "the top three or four guys eat up half the salary cap." Fleming nods. "That leaves all the rest of the guys far below, not making a ton of money." Fleming, a nice guy who was recommended to Jagr to be the team's new coach, nods again. "But now they're going to find out how it is over here. That they can make much better money, and you can live over here. They'll see it soon enough." Again Fleming nods.
"I've always thought the NHL's wanted to do something big in Europe," the coach says, "like a division."
"But I think they've missed it," Jagr says. "The Russians are ahead of them."
Just as the talk of a new cold war dominates political circles in Moscow these days, the fear of an eastward expansion by the NHL preoccupies Russian hockey officials. In Moscow, I would hear Fetisov echo Jagr's prediction. Fetisov was the first Russian star to leave for the NHL He not only "stood up to the system," as he put it, but he also proved that Russians could thrive in the American game. When Detroit fielded the first five-man Russian unit in 1995-96, Fetisov led the way to two consecutive Stanley Cups. He was living in New Jersey, pondering an NHL coaching career, when the Kremlin called: "I told Putin I was thinking about the NHL, but he said he could give me a bigger team." As the prime mover behind the new hockey league, Fetisov worries about how the West will react to Russia's sports revival.
"I warned Gary Bettman five years ago," he tells me, referring to the NHL commissioner. "You've got your business model, but if you take the best players out of Europe and Russia for cheap you'll kill the game, and your own market." North America, Fetisov argues, is "a small hockey market." He continues: "For years I've tried to tell the Americans to think big. Look beyond Russia and Europe. What about Asia? China? Even in India they play field hockey. Why can't the NHL see it? They're afraid. They want to preserve their market. Now it's too late. We're gonna take our market share. And you'll see, it'll be good for the game."
On my last night in Omsk, long after the locker room has emptied, Jagr and I close down the arena. We pass in front of Alexei Cherepanov's locker, the Rangers' 19-year-old first-round pick in 2007, who 11 days later would collapse and die during a game, succumbing to an enlarged heart. ("I used to think I had one of the best shots in the league," Jagr tells me. "But his it's better.") It's after midnight; he insists on driving me to the hotel. We sit in Jagr's Mercedes, a dark sedan that slips unnoticed around town. As we cross over the broad Irtysh River, Russian pop fills the car, and I'm struck by an unlikely conclusion: Jagr is at home in Omsk, a city the size of Dallas but with all the luster of Albany. The team has found him an apartment (which he shares with his 22-year-old Czech girlfriend) and he loves it more than the rental he had in Trump Tower. Not that he had a problem in New York, he says. He never suffered the pressure, nor the press. "For hockey players, New York's not that bad," he says as we cruise past Lenin Square, where a statue of Lenin still stands. "Because you've got the Yankees, you got baseball and American football. Hockey? Maybe it's No. 5 in popularity. After fishing."
"Here, it's not like in the U.S.," Jagr says at a different point. "You got such freedom, it's hard to believe. In the U.S. you have so many rules, everything's regulated and structured. When you make a mistake you pay for it a lot." It is a theme that Jagr returns to often, the freedom of this strange place. It is not so much that his departure from New York has left a disquieting wake, but that he has discovered the unlikely and unexpected promise of Siberia. "Look at A-Rod," he says. "No matter how well you do they always want more. Expectations only climb higher. In Russia you don't have to worry if you make a mistake. And that's what I love about living here. There's always another way to make up for it. Nothing's too serious. Nothing is a problem, and at the same time, everything's a problem. But somehow no matter how bad things are, you can always work it out."
How, I ask, can he untangle the contradiction?
"I can't. I don't understand it myself," Jagr says. "It's not something you explain. You have to live it."
AFTER OMSK, after St. Petersburg, after making the rounds of sports officials across Moscow, on an unusually balmy afternoon in the Russian capital, I went to pay a visit to a Soviet legend. I went to the old Central Army rink to see Viktor Tikhonov, the premier coach of Soviet hockey whose coaching career spanned from Brezhnev to Putin and who at a robust 78 years old is one of the chief backers of the new KHL I knew I would hear the set refrains, the glory of the old days, when "athleticism" was not yet a dreaded synonym for modern Western techniques. Who needed all that, Tikhonov would tell me, "when our guys had unparalleled technique and training and intelligence?" The chorus, I was not surprised, remained the same, but the bark was gone. I had made the pilgrimage, though, to hear something else, the latest turn in one of the most improbable family sagas in Russian sports.
The irony could not be greater. Here was the dictator of Soviet ice, whose ironclad regime molded champions and brought gold home to the U.S.S.R., and the old-school contrarian who, when the stars started to defect one by one, fought hardest to maintain his grip. For years, Tikhonov chased NHL scouts out of his rink. As we sat in his office, beneath a massive map of Russia, amid black-and-white photographs dating to his years as a soccer star under Stalin's rule, it was clear that the coach had mellowed. But he seemed in an unusually sunny mood. His grandson, young Viktor, 20 years old and fluent in English and the suburban ways of Northern California, had just made the final cut with the Phoenix Coyotes.
"Gretzky's happy," Tikhonov told me straight off, referring to the Hall of Fame player and current Coyotes coach, "and that makes me happy."
Tikhonov concedes it is odd that, after the end of an empire and the rebirth of a country, the godfather of Soviet hockey could boast of a grandson poised for an American debut. But after an hour spent rewinding memories of his start under Stalin, after almost the entire national hockey team was killed in a plane crash in 1950 and "we soccer players were ordered to play hockey" and his time with the four hockey legends whose names now adorn the KHL divisions, Tikhonov drops his guard. His lips curl at the edges and he nearly winks as he leans forward to share a secret: young Tikhonov has an unusual clause in his Phoenix contract. "If he doesn't make the team," the old coach says, "he's not going to be demoted and get lost on some farm club he's got an out. He can come straight home." [?][?][?] ANDREW MEIER