Red-letter days over for Russian hockey LILLEHAMMER 94

February 21, 1994|By JOHN EISENBEREG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The Soviet hockey team was known as the Big Red Machine when it was the bad daddy of the Olympic tournament. But now that it is neither big nor red, and certainly not a machine, the great horde of Russian couch potatoes is using, ah, different names to describe the team.

"The people are upset," Vsevolod Kukushkin, the team translator, was saying yesterday. "Russia is a nation of critics. If we aren't successful here, there will be criticism for a century."

First, McDonald's in Red Square. Now, heat on the talk shows!

"The hockey situation is distressing for everyone at home," said Alexander Tarakanov, a sportswriter for the Russian Information Agency. "Because they all remember the way it used to be."

The Soviets/Russians won eight of 10 gold medals and 60 of 68 Olympic games from 1956 to 1992. But the professionalization of the Games and the fall of communism have undermined one of the signature institutions of the Winter Olympics.

Now, the best Russian players are taking the money and running to the NHL, the Olympic team is composed of kids and the world is lining up to get in payback whacks for years of getting hammered and sickled.

Finland, 5-0. Germany, 4-2. The Russians did beat the Czechs yesterday to finish the first round with a 3-2 record; they're still probably one of the best teams in a watered-down field lacking NHL stars, so you can't dismiss them. But their diminished state is no secret among the puckish. "It's not the same," the Czech coach said.

How could it be? Forty-six of the best Russians have signed NHL contracts, and NHL owners refused to release any players to compete here. Another 30 Russians are in the Swiss pro league. Not a single member of the Albertville gold-medal team is back. As with most things in Russia today, it's a story about money, or the lack of it.

"We got no money from our [hockey] federation this year," Kukushkin said. "They said that since we were an Olympic team that the Olympic committee should pay our bills. It was very hard to get the team together and train."

As well, teams in the Russian pro league are struggling to stayalive in an era when many average fans can't afford tickets. The teams don't have the money to keep the players that the NHL teams want.

"The Russian people are mostly mad at the NHL owners for hurting our Olympic team," Kukushkin said. "Also the fact that we have paid to develop these players for you."

The pro teams are trying to improve their lot by getting into American-style sponsorship and marketing. The famed Red Army team is now called the Russian Penguins after signing an agreement with the NHL's Pittsburgh franchise.

"The Penguin games are spectacles," said Tarakanov, the sportswriter. "Lots of beer and striptease."

That's what he said.

Of course, you can barely take a step at these Olympics without running into a Russian talking up his money trouble. Aleksandr Golubev, the speed skater who beat Dan Jansen in the 500, trains on two slushy rinks. Alexei Urmanov, the men's figure skating champ, lives in a two-bedroom apartment and earns $30 a week.

"No one can understand what it's like to live in Russia today," said Alexei Michine, Urmanov's coach.

Yet, remarkably, the Russian team is performing as well here as it did when it was the state-supported, steely-eyed monster of the Winter Games: seven golds, 15 medals overall so far.

But the old, reliable centerpiece, the hockey team, is crumbling.

"The beginning of the end of the dynasty came a long time ago," said assistant hockey coach Igor Dimitriev, after the loss to Germany. "Maybe it's time to start talking about the end."

Not talking at all is the man in the middle: Victor Tikhonov, the imperious national team coach whom many view as the classic symbol of the old regime, with his fierce eyes, inscrutable manner and disdain of the international press.

He was popular at home when he was winning. Of course, popularity was a house rule when he was winning. Now, he's taking some heat.

"I don't understand him," said Tarakanov, the sportswriter. "He picked a strange team this time."

There is talk that it is time for a new coach who would relate better to younger players. "Some say yes, some no," Tarakanov said.

Things seemed a little better yesterday against the Czechs. The Russians, dressed in their Reebok uniforms, scored two power-play goalsin the second period to take a 4-2 lead that held up. Afterward, the wry Dimitriev was asked which team he wished to play in the medal round.

"The team we want to play did not qualify for the medal round," he said, eyes twinkling.

Then someone asked if the players had been punished for losing two games.

"Everything but a beating," he said.

No, they haven't lost their sense of humor. But, of course, given a choice, the Russian sporting public would rather them lose their humor than another game.

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