Russian players unified only in NHL ambitions Younger, more selfish cast loses to Czechs

February 13, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

MERIBEL, France -- The uniforms are frayed and patched. The stars are dispersed to Europe and North America. Those left behind are scrambling to impress National Hockey League general managers.

This is the Big Red Machine, running on empty.

The Soviet Union may be extinct, but its hockey team, by whatever name, is still a force in the Winter Olympics. The players are younger -- and hungrier. But they can no longer spin the intricate webs of passes that gave Soviet hockey its signature and its seven Olympic championships.

"So many changes in our country," said assistant coach Igor Dmitriev. "So many problems with our hockey."

Last night, the problems were exposed in a dramatic game against Czechoslovakia. In the final period, the time when the veteran Soviets once stormed past their rivals, the young kids of the Unified Team collapsed, losing 4-3.

As the Soviets stood in stunned silence, waiting for a line of post-game handshakes, they watched as the Czechs mobbed goaltender Petr Bryza. This wasn't a crushing defeat, since the Unified Team is now 2-1 in Pool B play. But it was instructive, pointing again to the chaos that surrounds a country that no longer exists.

"Quite a lot of our players have gone to play in foreign countries," Dmitriev said. "This has caused damage to our ice hockey. The players who performed well at our national championships, they don't show that performance in international games."

Eleven of the current national team players have been drafted by NHL teams. Within weeks, they'll join more than a dozen former Soviets now playing in the NHL. They'll try to become stars like Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, Calgary's Sergei Makarov and Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny, a second generation of Soviet stars turned future millionaires.

The best and brightest of the young Soviets who remain are jewels in a crown that looks as if it's about to be hocked. Playing in the 1992 Olympics is Alexei Kovalev, an 18-year-old who speaks little English but can recite the name of the team that he may skate with next month, the New York Rangers.

Vladimir Malakhov, 23, is headed for the New York Islanders. And Aleksei Zhamnov, 22, is bound for Winnipeg.

"Their country is in such bad shape, it's kind of like a kid growing up in a bad area in a city in the United States," said former NHL goaltender John Davidson. "Some get out of those areas through rTC boxing. Others through basketball. These guys do it through hockey. They'll be on aircrafts heading out of the country within a couple of weeks."

Exporting stars is still new for the Soviets. Once, the sport was the play thing of Stalin, a diversion for the masses and an extension of a system of disciplined aggression.

Rising from the ashes of a plane crash that wiped out the national team in the 1950s, the Soviets created a program that emerged from the shadows once every four years at the Olympics. The Soviets gave the world tantalizing peaks of hockey brilliance, until the early 1970s, when they showed up for the Hockey Summit and came within one goal of defeating a team of NHL All-Stars.

"At one time, they could do anything," said Davidson, a commentator with CBS Sports. "They played beautiful hockey."

Now, they're a tougher, more undisciplined version of themselves. Viktor Tikhonov, the imperious coach who has overseen the program for more than a decade, remains. But he is trying to mold a young team with an average age of 23.1.

"Before, if you played the Soviets, their stars didn't give you the puck for two minutes," said Bryza, the Czech goaltender. "Sometimes, with the superstars, I didn't think they liked the normal scores. They tried to score in empty nets. Now, they have this aggressive style. This is NHL style."

The Soviets still give you that great power play. But in even-up situations, discipline breaks down and the kids start flashing to the net, charging in alone for goals, and contracts.

In the old days, this was the kind of game that would shake the Olympics. Ever since the Soviet tanks rolled through Prague in 1968, this has been the fiercest hockey rivalry, one tinged with political overtones.

But last night, it was just a hard-hitting game, period.

"Two, three years ago, it was like a war, for us," Bryza said. "We fight for our people. Now, it's over. It's just hockey."

Without the Cold War, without a government bureaucracy to fund the players and the teams, the old Soviets look for new ways to keep hockey alive. They talk of creating a 20-team professional league. Of luring foreign sponsorship. Of one day paying players in dollars, instead of rubles.

"We are looking for investors," Dmitriev said. "Maybe someone wants to buy a Soviet team?"

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