Former Soviets star in North American hockey
Some players face struggle with culture shock in West
By John P. Wallach
SPECIAL TO We/ÌÛ
WASHINGTON-While many Russian and Ukranian hockey players enjoy considerable success in North America's National Hockey League, sometimes turning perennial also-ran teams into contenders, not all are succeeding, and their inability to adjust to the West appears to be the major reason.
Where they are playing now
Detroit Red Wings
lgor Viazmikin *
Evgeny Belosheikin *
New Jersey Devils
New York Rangers
Vaierei Kamensky (injured)
San Jose Sharks
Mikhail Kravets *
Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kuzmmsky *
Sergei Kharin *
Sergei Sorokin *
* Playing for a minor-league team
The four teams that have the best of the new Russian recruits - the Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers - all are at the top of their divisions and are threats to win the coveted Stanley Cup.
The Red Wings, who have both Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov, are contenders for the first time since 1955. "When I took over this team in 1990," says Detroit coach Bryan Murray, "there were only two teams that had a poorer record."
In Vancouver's case, lgor Larionov and rookie sensation Pavel Bure have made such a huge difference that the Canucks will finish with a better than .500 record for the first time since 1975-76. Both the Capitals and Rangers also have improved dramatically with the addition of Dimitri Khristich and Sergei Nemchinov.
Fedorov is helping rewrite the image of Russian hockey players.
"The reputation of the Russians was they were skilled players offensively but didn't play much defense," says Dave Sell, the hockey writer for The Washington Post. But, "Federov is one of the best two-way centers in the league."
He is so good playing both offense and defense, says Sell, that Detroit is considering trading its top defenseman. All-Star Steve Yzerman, to Quebec to get the hottest prospect in a decade, Eric Lindros, the 6'3" star of the Canadian Olympic team, who was lowly Quebec's top draft choice but has refused to play for the team.
And the Rangers are so enthralled by their 15th round draft pick, says Sell, that "they are chomping at the bit" to get him - Russian center Alexei Kovalev. In fact, there are now more than 20 Russian players in the systems of the 22 NHL teams.
It's been two full seasons since the Russians stopped defecting and began legally negotiating their "release" from their home hockey clubs. In the interval, the bloom is off the rose of excitement that originally surrounded them.
Some players, like Federov, Nemchinov, Bure and Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny, have emerged as potential superstars. Others who were expected to become great, such as Khrutov, Mikhail Tatarinov and Alexei Kasatonov, have failed to live up to expectations.
The ability to communicate is of major importance in the mostly English and French speaking NHL.
"The most important thing for a European player is that they try to adapt, try to be one of the team. If you don't try to make that adjustment; if you don't come in and say 'Good Morning' to the guys whenever they say 'Good Morning,' then it's like you're not trying," says Capitals coach Terry Murray.
In Tatarinov's case, he knew no English when he arrived in October 1990 and never made much of an effort to learn.
"Maybe he thought that, hey, he was a star in Russia, why should he learn English?" says Lou Corletto, the public relations director of the Washington team. When Tatarinov wanted to talk to teammates, he had to go through a laborious process.
He would first have to buttonhole Peter Bondra, a Czech defensemen who spoke some Russian. But Bondra, like Tatarinov, spoke little English. So he would have to comer Michal Pivonka, another Czech player, and tell him in Czech what Tatarinov said. Pivonka, who spoke English, would then relay the message to the intended American or Canadian teammate.
By contrast, Khristich, a Ukranian who was 19 when he joined the Capitals, had studied English in high school and worked hard to learn the language. His attitude was entirely different, says Corletto. "Tatarinov had his own ideas. Khristich just had his mind made up he was going to fit in and be one of the guys."
Ukranian forward Dimitri Khristich has emerged as a leading scorer for the Washington Capitals since leaving the Kiev team at age 19.
Murray says that a second problem Tatarinov had was that he was older, 26, when he joined the NHL, and had played what he thought was NHL-style hockey when the Soviet team played against Western clubs in the Canada Cup and Olympics. Tatarinov was no longer an open slate on which his coach could draw.
"Everybody has to play the system, and if one guy doesn't, then the whole team is going to suffer. That's where Khristich made a very good adjustment: he's young, hasn't played a lot in North America and he's very receptive to the style we want him to play," Murray explains.
Loneliness can also be a problem. Tatarinov's season with the Capitals was complicated by his wife Natasha's unhappiness and an unexpected problem with his son Vladimir, who developed a heart murmur. Then there were the rumors that followed Tatarinov that he had a drinking problem and had a "torpedo" surgically implanted in his thigh to help him break the habit.
The torpedo is a somewhat crude but effective medical device that was commonly used among Soviet athletes. It induces vomiting when a user has even a small drink. "He told me when he first got here he had had a drinking problem while in the Soviet Union," recalls Sell. But Corletto says that alcohol wasn't among Tatarinov's main problems.
"That was a big knock on him for a while, that he was having drinking problems back in the Soviet Union. He wasn't as notorious as everybody made him out to be. We never had a real problem with that," he says. To help combat loneliness, Khristich this season brought a secret weapon with him from Kiev, his mother. "I can speak with her in the Russian language. I need to speak in Russian." explains Khristich.
He also is learning more English since he found an American girlfriend, Erin, who speaks no Russian.
But the most important criteria tor success in the NHL, all agree, is the attitude the player arrives with. That, according to Murray, is critical.
"If you're a superstar in the Soviet Union, you expect to be treated that way here. That doesn't happen. In the NHL, they don't care where you're from. Everybody was a superstar someplace. When you come to the NHL, you've got to start all over and prove yourself again."
"Tatarinov, he says, failed "because he had a tough time making people believe he was a superstar."
Last Fall, Tatarinov was traded to the Quebec Nordiques. He is having a mediocre season with one of the poorest clubs in the NHL.