. 1990-1996

4 1990 . 
Soviets Try to Find Their NHL Feet;1st-Year Adjustments Have Come Slowly // The Washington Post 

Robert Fachet.

When the National Hockey League season began, club officials and players complained loudly because incoming Soviet veterans were eligible to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Nothing has been heard on the subject lately, for good reason. The Soviets' impact has been much less than expected, to the point that the current Calder favorites are two young American forwards, Mike Modano of Minnesota and Darren Turcotte of the New York Rangers.

Since all five members of the Soviets' famed Green Unit are presently in North America and Calder eligible, it is obvious they have not adapted to the NHL as quickly as they or anyone else expected.

Two of the five, center Igor Larionov and left wing Vladimir Krutov, are skating for the Vancouver Canucks, who are stumbling along in last place in the Smythe Division. General Manager Pat Quinn expected better things from both Soviets.

"They've come along slower than hoped for, but realistically we'd all say they're making reasonable progress," Quinn said. "The first year always has been a tough year for all European players, Swedes or Finns or Czechs, and the Russians are no different. There's a sense of adjustment, both social and on the ice, that requires a good bit of time."

The leading scorer among NHL rookies is another of the Soviet Big Five, Calgary right wing Sergei Makarov. But many of Makarov's 46 points-10 goals and 36 assists-have come because he is skating with talented Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts.

Coach Terry Crisp has been upset with Makarov's defensive play and Makarov is unhappy with his ice time, so pure numbers do not tell the whole story. As for compatriot Sergei Priakin, who has one goal in six games, it is apparent he is in Calgary solely as a companion for Makarov.

The same situation existed for defenseman Sergei Starikov in New Jersey, but he no longer is a nonplaying adjunct to longtime Soviet captain Viacheslav Fetisov. Instead, Starikov is playing with the AHL Utica Devils, where his new partner is Alexei Kasatonov, the fifth member of the Green Unit.

One can only wonder what will happen when Kasatonov is promoted, because he and Fetisov are not friendly. When Fetisov and Larionov led a revolt against Soviet Coach Viktor Tikhonov last year, Kasatonov was the principal Tikhonov supporter and Fetisov has not forgiven him.

The other Soviet veterans, right wing Helmut Balderis of Minnesota and goalie Sergei Mylnikov of Quebec, have made no impact whatever. Balderis has three goals in 16 games and Mylnikov, who reported overweight, is 0-3-2 with a 4.48 goals-against average.

The 10th Soviet is right wing Alexander Mogilny of Buffalo. Mogilny, 20, defected in August and has been brought along slowly by the Sabres. Still, he has earned the nickname of "Magic" with his clever passes, has contributed nine goals and would appear to have a bright future in the NHL.

Of the veterans, Larionov seems to have fit in best, for a variety of reasons. He speaks English, he always has enjoyed North American culture and he is a center.

"Larionov is having an easier time because a center's responsibility is similar to what is expected of centers in European or Soviet hockey," Quinn said. "A winger's job is quite a bit different-in method of attack and defensive zone coverage.

"Krutov also is struggling because his personality is different and his language ability is different. Vladimir is more of an introverted type of guy."

Larionov has 11 goals, tops among the Soviet contingent. Krutov, who has only six, faced a whole new set of circumstances after his first month, because he flew back to the Soviet Union and returned with his wife and two sons.

"We certainly wanted his family here and having them with him helped Vladimir personally," Quinn said. "But it created a whole new set of circumstances he didn't have without his family. The whole family has no use of English and that has made things difficult."

Even Larionov, for all his adaptability, has not found the NHL an easy nut to crack.

In an interview with Pravda, Larionov said: "Almost three-fourths of {our games} have ended up with a one-goal difference. It's a constant, uncompromising struggle. Quite often {in the Soviet league} you could easily predict in advance that the game would be easy. There's no such thing in the NHL."

Although Makarov's numbers are impressive, he has found his sojourn with the Stanley Cup champions almost as rocky as the nearby mountains. Calgary is trailing Edmonton and critics cite Makarov as one of the reasons for the Flames' problems.

A principal complaint is that Makarov stays out too long on his shifts, reducing the ice time for Joe Mullen, a 51-goal scorer who has only 13 this season. Also, Makarov rarely enters his own zone, which was fine in the Soviet Union but creates problems in the NHL.

Makarov and Crisp recently sat down for an extended discussion, complete with interpreter, and Crisp reported: "I guess he had a lot of things on his chest that he hadn't said to coaches for a lot of years. He said something like `Nyet ice time, coach.' I heard the word Tikhonov once. I don't know if he was saying I'm another Tikhonov or what.

"He said, `I have to be Sergei Makarov.' I said, `We want you to be Sergei Makarov.' But he's got to give a little. It's got to be a two-way street."

Fetisov found himself in the middle of a major squabble after he was benched by Jim Schoenfeld for the Devils' game in Calgary Nov. 4. Schoenfeld shortly thereafter was fired by General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who has virtually staked his job on the Soviets' contributing to a major push by the Devils.

As the key figure in the Soviets' domination of world championship play in the '80s, Fetisov was expected to become a dominant player in the NHL, something that obviously has not happened. He takes too many chances in his own end and he has been hampered by an aggravated injury to his left knee, wearing a brace that limits his mobility.

"Sometimes he goes to make a move and it just locks on him," said John Cunniff, the man who replaced Schoenfeld. "But his age is the biggest adjustment. This is a tough game to play when you're over 30. You have to be quite a player to do it."

Fetisov said: "I don't think I've really played my game yet. I was just starting to build myself up when I hurt my knee {Nov. 22}."

On the subject of Kasatonov, Fetisov was asked whether he would like to see his old teammate join the Devils.

"No, I would not be happy," Fetisov replied. "He sold out. We five were close. Four stayed together. He went alone."

For all of the problems they have faced, none of the Soviets has expressed publicly any regret about making the move. Even Starikov, who found the NHL a tough proposition, replied: "Never. Everything about playing here is more enjoyable."