La Russophobe has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Take action now to save Darfur

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Annals of Cold War II: The First Defector

The Chicago Tribune reports that Cold War II now has its first defector.

MAGNITOGORSK, Russia - The engine that drives this gritty, weather-beaten city of belching smokestacks and trolley lines is steel, but its heart and soul is hockey. The pro team here, Metallurg, polishes its prodigies from the age of 6. And it almost always fills its aging 3,500-seat stadium with screaming fans adorned in Metallurg red, white and blue.

So when Magnitogorsk's favorite son, Metallurg forward Evgeni Malkin, suddenly disappeared from the team Aug. 12 in Helsinki, Finland, Russians here gasped and waited. Four days later, when the 20-year-old superstar turned up in the U.S. to embark on a career in the NHL, they seethed.

"What he did isn't right - it's not honest and it's not fair to the team that did so much for him," said Pavel Alikayev, a Magnitogorsk psychologist, moments before catching a game at Metallurg's Romazan Ice Sports Palace.

The reaction from Malkin's bosses at Metallurg has been far more vitriolic. Metallurg general manager Gennady Velichkin called the affair "disgraceful" and accused the NHL of engaging in "pure sports terrorism."

Malkin is only the latest in a long line of Russian hockey marvels who have parted ways with the motherland for the sake of fat contracts and lucrative endorsements in North America. Since Soviet star Alexander Mogilny's defection in 1989, dozens of Russians have jumped ship to pursue fame in the NHL, from 1994 league most valuable player Sergei Fedorov and the speedy Pavel Bure to 20-year-old Washington Capitals phenom Alexander Ovechkin.

Russian hockey has been enjoying a modest renaissance of sorts, with a stream of middle-tier Russian NHL players returning to their homeland to finish out their careers. Nevertheless, Russian hockey continues to give its rising stars more reasons to leave than stay.

The NHL's average salary, $1.8 million, dwarfs wages in the Super League, the equivalent of the NHL in Russia. Corruption and crime continue to plague Russian hockey; several players and officials have been shot dead in contract killings since the late 1990s. And Russian players readily admit the action on Russian rinks is slower.

"Every hockey player in Russia thinks about playing in the NHL because it's the best league in the world," says Alexei Kaigorodov, 23, a center at Metallurg scheduled to leave Magnitorgorsk later this month to play for the NHL's Ottawa Senators. "It's as simple as this: If the best league were in Russia, players wouldn't leave."

There was a time when Russia stood atop the world hockey scene. Nicknamed the "Big Red Machine," the Soviet team won gold at seven Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988. They were led by such military-minded coaches as the famed Viktor Tikhonov, who kept his teams on grueling 11-month training regimens and sequestered them in dormitories.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian hockey withered. Red Army stars such as Bure and Vyacheslav Fetisov left for North America and storied careers in the NHL. With the advent of the 1998 financial crisis, player salaries dropped to as low as $10,000. Cash-strapped teams couldn't afford to replace aging equipment.

And at times there were telltale signs of organized crime's intrusion into the sport. Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Valentin Sych was shot dead in April 1997. The next year, an apparent contract killing claimed St. Petersburg hockey player Nikolai Nikitin. In January 2001, Metallurg Magnitogorsk goalie Sergei Zemchyonok was shot to death in the lobby of his apartment building.

The economy's rebound under President Vladimir Putin has rejuvenated Russian professional hockey, which now is persuading players who left for North America to return. Most of the players are older or play for NHL minor leagues, but their return has injected new life into Russian pro hockey.

Metallurg left winger Ravil Gusmanov, 34, said he doubled his $100,000 salary by leaving the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves and returning to Russia. "The situation here has changed since the 1990s," Gusmanov said. "You can earn good money here, and there's a lot of competition to start."

Still, Gusmanov readily admits the NHL is every Russian player's holy grail, which is why he doesn't blame Malkin for what happened. Malkin, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sept. 5, had always made clear his desire to play in North America. Velichkin and Metallurg management arranged a meeting with Malkin and his parents Aug. 6 in an attempt to persuade him to stay.

What happened at that meeting remains in dispute. According to U.S. media reports, Malkin's agents say Metallurg pressured Malkin into signing a contract extension that would keep him in Magnitogorsk through the 2006-07 season. Velichkin denies any coercive tactics were used."When a player is offered a $3 million salary, do you consider that to be pressure?" Velichkin said.

Six days later, Malkin and the rest of the Metallurg team flew to Helsinki to play in a tournament. When the team arrived at the Helsinki airport and boarded two buses, players noticed Malkin was missing.

Malkin's agent, J.P. Barry, took his star client to a hotel and hid him there until he could obtain an American visa. Malkin arrived in the United States. on Aug. 16.
Barry told The Associated Press that he hid Malkin from the team because he was worried team officials would try to get him back.

"We were worried . . . they would try to look for him, and if they could find him, they would try to continue the psychological pressure," Barry said.

The NHL usually pays teams from other countries $200,000 as a compensation fee. However, Russia is the only major hockey power to refuse to sign on to the NHL's compensation policy. Instead, Velichkin says Metallurg wants $2 million for Malkin and has threatened to sue the Penguins and the NHL.

Velichkin estimates Metallurg, Magnitogorsk's steel production enterprise, has invested millions of dollars more in Malkin's development - from the age of 6 - through hockey school and junior leagues.

"It's kind of like a factory here," Velichkin said. "We take 100 boys when they're 6, and when they're teens maybe 25 are left. We're taking sand and trying to find gold inside. And that isn't easy."

No comments: