. 1990-1996

30 1990 . 
Signing Soviet prospects 'still a big gamble' // Toronto Star

Damien Cox 

More Soviets than ever before are playing in the National Hockey League, but they're still a fairly risky proposition.

In fact, most of the Soviets who have tried to play in the NHL have not fared well.

"It's still a big gamble," said David Poile, general manager of the Washington Capitals, who recently brought defenceman Mikhail Tatarinov from the Soviet Union.

"There are all sorts of off-ice and on-ice problems to overcome."

Where the Maple Leafs have succeeded in the acquisition of their first Soviet, defenceman Alexander Godynyuk, is getting him at a young age. Soviet and Eastern European athletes who have come the NHL in their late 20s have usually found the competitive nature and grind of an 80-game season too tough to handle, not to mention the adjustment to an entirely different social order.

Younger Soviets, however, don't have families and are eager to taste the lifestyle and earning potential of the West. They also haven't been burned out by the rigorous international schedule of the national team program.

"I'm glad we got (Tatarinov) when he was 24, not 30. We all learned from the lessons of last season," Poile said last week.

Lots of problems

"Everything is totally different for these players. For example, in North America you have to drive everywhere, but in Moscow (Tatarinov) and his wife walked everywhere. So neither of them know how to drive, which causes all sorts of problems."

Leaf GM Floyd Smith voiced similar thoughts in September when he brought goalie Robert Horyna over from Czechoslovakia. Horyna speaks no English, and the Leafs have him living with a Metro family and playing with the Newmarket Saints to ease his adjustment to North American life.

Godynyuk is part of what is essentially the third, and most important, wave of Eastern Europeans to hit the NHL.

Some Eastern bloc stars such as Vaclav Nedomansky of Czechoslovakia made it to North America by defecting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but only one Soviet, Viktor Nechaev, made it to the NHL when he played briefly for Los Angeles in the 1982-83 season.

The second wave came last year when experienced Soviet stars were permitted by Soviet hockey authorities to leave. Of that group, only Sergei Makarov can be said to have played well, while Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov have been disappointments. Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Starikov, Helmut Balderis and goalie Sergei Mylnikov were utter disasters.

The final wave sees the best and brightest of the young Soviets and Eastern Europeans making their way to North America. Sergei Federov left the Soviet team at the Goodwill Games last summer, and Alexander Mogilny is in his second year with Buffalo.

Tatarinov has surfaced in Washington, and 26-year-old Alexei Gusarov is expected next week in Quebec city. The imminent signing of Godynyuk by the Leafs shows that the NHL - barring a new bilateral agreement - will now have access to all the Soviet Union's hockey talent.

As well, Czech youngsters Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Holik, Horyna, Martin Hostak, Peter Bondra and Robert Reichel have all arrived this season.

Toronto can only hope it has better luck with Godynyuk - the team's first Soviet draftee - than with its previous European acquisitions. Only Sweden's Borje Salming, signed in 1972, made a major impact.