. 1990-1996

21 1996 . 
Russian hockey in off-ice brawl // The Globe and Mail. Toronto

Geoffrey York. 

POWER PLAY / Instead of celebrating a 50-year history of glory and triumph, the game has been tainted by personality feuds, insults, backroom struggles and corruption allegations.

Moscow -- THE elite of Russia's sports world was gathered at the Kremlin last night for a glittering gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Russian hockey. But the party was overshadowed by a fresh wave of the financial scandals and power struggles that have plagued the Russian game in recent months.

Fifty years ago this month, the Soviet Union held the first matches in its first hockey championship. Few people in Canada paid any attention at the time, but within three decades the Russians were regularly winning the world championship and frequently beating the Canadians.

The Kremlin gala was intended to celebrate a history of glory and triumph. Instead, it has been tainted by another outburst of corruption allegations, personality feuds, insult-tossing and fierce backroom fights for power.

At press conferences to promote the 50th-anniversary events this week, Russian hockey officials have been confronted with embarrassing questions about the latest clashes between the top-ranking figures in Russian hockey.

Slava Fetisov, the Detroit Red Wings defenceman who ranks as one of the greatest players in Russian history, triggered the battle by giving an extraordinary interview to a Moscow newspaper this week. The city's sports world has been buzzing with gossip about Fetisov's no-holds-barred assault on the hockey bosses.

In the interview, Fetisov launched a vitriolic attack on two of the most senior hockey figures in the country -- the veteran coach Viktor Tikhonov and the Russian hockey federation president Valentin Sych.

The former Soviet superstar, defending the poor performance of the Russian national team in the recent World Cup, blasted Tikhonov as a "time-server" and described Sych as a "Soviet functionary" who has all the vanity and pomposity of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Meanwhile, to compound the embarrassments, the most famous hockey team in Russia -- the fabled Central Army team, still coached by Tikhonov -- is embroiled in a bitter power struggle.

A senior official in the Russian army, who attempted to seize the team by posting uniformed soldiers at its arena last summer, is making a renewed attack on the club. He has persuaded the Russian tax police to raid the team's offices, and now the team could face bankruptcy if it cannot pay a $900,000 tax bill.

On the ice, the Russians are trying to recover their fallen honour with a better performance at the Izvestia Cup in Moscow this week. After crushing a squad of Canadian minor-leaguers by a 6-0 score on Thursday, they can capture the tournament by defeating Sweden today.

But a victory at the Izvestia Cup will hardly compensate for Russia's humiliation at the World Cup in September, when a high-calibre team of Russian superstars was defeated by the United States in the semi-finals.

The defeat has prompted much soul-searching and breast-beating in Russia. One popular theory is that the high-salaried Russian stars in the National Hockey League were spoiled and undisciplined. They were accused of skipping practices, carousing in bars at night, setting conditions for their participation, and insisting on accommodation at a luxury hotel in Moscow instead of the usual spartan training base. "Some players seemed to have no fire in their belly," a Moscow newspaper complained. It said the national team was engulfed in "semi-anarchy" during its World Cup preparations.

Fetisov, one of the veterans on the World Cup team, lashed back at the critics in his interview with the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets this week. He took aim, especially, at Sych, the long-time boss of the Russian hockey federation, who headed the Russian entry in the World Cup.

"Sych appointed himself the general manager, like Brezhnev decorating himself with Hero Stars," Fetisov said. "For so many years he has been a sports functionary. He will stay in his office for many years, and the Russian team will keep losing. He and his deputy . . . they're not professionals. They only want to grab benefits from the state."

Fetisov said he will never have any dealings with the Russian hockey federation as long as Sych is president. He recalled how Sych had accused him of buying a luxury car instead of helping provide money for Russian hockey old-timers. "Yes, I've bought a good car, a Mercedes, but I spent my own money," Fetisov said. "Me and [former Soviet star and current Red Wing teammate] Igor Larionov and many other guys have helped the old-timers."

He was equally scathing in his criticism of Tikhonov, with whom he has feuded since the 1980s when Tikhonov refused to let him leave the Soviet Union to play in the NHL.

After an exhibition game in Moscow during the national team's training for the World Cup, he said, Tikhonov and Pavel Bure, the Vancouver Canucks forward, rushed up into the stands to greet Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. He said Tikhonov failed to invite anyone else to meet the Prime Minister. "He has the outstanding abilities of a time-server. He knows how to deal with the defence-ministry generals and the functionaries of the [Communist Party] Central Committee."

Sych and his cronies have tried to divide the Russian players, Fetisov said. "It's a favourite tactic of the Bolsheviks -- divide and rule."

He accused the federation of failing to provide adequate uniforms and equipment for the team. "The guys had helmets of five different colours."

Even worse, the federation accepted a hectic schedule that forced the team to crisscross 11 time zones in two weeks, he said. "Sych thinks of himself as a patriot, but he agrees to whatever is offered by the West. We had no time for any health treatment. We restored our strength only on the airplane."

The Moscow newspaper was sympathetic to Fetisov. The hockey functionaries had spent a lot of money on the Kremlin gala, but they invited political heavyweights and didn't bother to invite great players such as Fetisov, the newspaper said.

Tikohonov, meanwhile, is facing another bitter fight with his nemesis, Colonel Alexander Baranovsky, the head of sports operations for the Russian army.

Baranovsky already has forced Tikhonov to retire from the Russian army, where he held the rank of colonel. Earlier this year, he dispatched soldiers to the arena of the Central Army club, trying to wrest control away from Tikhonov and general manager Valery Gushin. The attempt failed when Tikhonov won a court case and regained access to the arena. But the army club was split into two teams -- one controlled by Tikhonov, the other by Baranovsky. Today, both teams are uneasily sharing the same arena, although Tikhonov's team is the only one playing in the top Russian league.

In the latest development, Baranovsky persuaded the Russian tax police to conduct a raid on Gushin's office and apartment. They seized contracts and ordered the team to pay $900,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties.

"The past six months have been very difficult for our club," Tikhonov told a press conference in Moscow yesterday. "We've lost a lot of practice time. Baranovsky lies all the time. Probably he knows how to make money, but he doesn't know sports. He is trying to annihilate us."

Tikhonov says the army colonel is trying to gain control of the team to exploit the commercial potential of its property. He appealed to the Russian defence minister, Igor Rodionov, to settle the dispute.

Gushin, for his part, said the tax police had "terrorized" the team's employees. The team has no profits, yet it is being hit with 100-per-cent penalties on its unpaid taxes, he said. "He wants to seize our accounts. We can't develop hockey in such a situation."

He took several swipe at Baranovsky, saying the colonel travels with more bodyguards than the entire Russian army.

Another long-time Russian star, defenceman Alexei Kasatonov, found himself embroiled in the power struggle when he returned from the NHL to be a player-coach on Tikhonov's team this year. "It's the problem of my country," he said yesterday. "The whole system is changing, and it's the same in hockey. It's a big fight for power."

Many people had advised him to stay away from Tikhonov, he said. But he praised the coach for his tenacious spirit. "He's a real fighter, and his team is alive. When I decided to come back here, I made up my mind that I would overcome all hardships -- but this conflict has hurt the team. We should struggle against those who would destroy our sport."