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Hockey In Russia Fights For Survival

As Valentin Sych headed toward Moscow from his suburban dacha one Tuesday morning in April, his chauffeur-driven Volvo slowed to make way for a car parked awkwardly on the side of the road. As they passed the green Moskvich, two men appeared with a Kalashnikov and shot Sych several times in the chest and head. He died instantly. There are no suspects.

The 59-year-old Sych was not a banker, businessman, politician or gangster. He was president of the Russian Hockey Federation, the organization meant to support the national hockey team and help develop clubs and youth programs.

“Whoever the next president is, he had better not have anything to do with hockey, and he had better not be poor,” said Alexander Petrov, editor of Hockey Newspaper.

During the federation’s emergency session Saturday, more than 100 delegates, many of whom traveled from Siberia and the Far East to vote, chose the president of Moscow’s renowned Dynamo hockey club, Alexander Steblin, to replace the hard-nosed Sych. Though he does not fit the profile some had hoped for, Steblin does have a strong federation following. Steblin received 112 of 119 votes.

As the federation’s new president, Steblin will not only have to protect himself, he will also have to redeem the reputation of a sport that has seen enough in-fighting and corruption scandals in recent years to rival the Kremlin itself.

And as the Winter Olympics approach, he will have to soothe prickly relations with the National Hockey League if his national team is to include such players as Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov, all of whom are currently engaged in trying to help the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.

“Russian hockey is a microcosm of the society,” said Steven Warshaw, who ran a joint venture between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Russian Army team, CSKA, for two seasons before the deal soured in 1995. “There’s money out there now, and people are killing each other to get it. It’s a jungle.”

Ice hockey was once the nation’s pride. The Soviet national team won an astounding 22 world championships and the nickname the Red Machine. Like the other Soviet Union’s showpieces, hockey was generously funded by the state, especially under Leonid Brezhnev, a fan.

Now, with miserly state patronage and the best players lured abroad, formerly packed Moscow arenas are half-full at best, and once-powerful clubs are scrounging for cash. “Imagine if the 30 best NBA players went off to play for Great Britain,” explained one former Russian hockey fan. “No one would watch anymore. It’s just not interesting.”

Despite partial sponsorship - L&M; cigarettes supports CSKA, and Samsung electronics and several Moscow banks back Dynamo - Moscow clubs say they are unable to pull together the estimated $2 million to $3 million dollars a year they need to survive.

If Moscow was hockey’s mecca in Soviet times, now clubs in the provinces, often supported by industry (the Magnetogorsk metallurgical plant has an eponymous club, and Avtovaz, Boris Berezovsky’s car empire, backs the Lada team in Tolyatti) are thriving. Provincial Yaroslavl’s Russian league championship this spring was an unprecedented coup, confirming the capital’s faded glory.

And along with Moscow’s clubs, the Russian Hockey Federation is running out of money as well. According to the Izvestia newspaper, under Sych the federation used its customs tariff exemption to secure more contracts than any other importer of alcohol and tobacco in Russia. Though the federation would not confirm the figures, some estimate earnings in the millions of dollars. The exemption was annulled in 1995, but not before becoming a windfall for the federation, and the similarly troubled National Sports Fund.

According to federation officials, the organization still lives off the waning alcohol profits. The federation has also started its own travel agency, Classic Sport Tour, to raise money, and stiffly denied a comment by the fund’s vice president, Boris Fyodorov (himself shot and stabbed last year in what was apparently an attempted contract murder), that the hockey federation owed $7 million from its former import activities - a possible motive for Sych’s murder.

Sych was not the first to be murdered in the Russian hockey world; in the past year CSKA lost a player and an equipment manager in seemingly unrelated murders. Nevertheless, the Russian sports community dismisses the idea of organized crime involvement in ice hockey.

“There’s not enough money in it,” said Dmitri Filipchenko, a sportswriter for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. “So Pavel Bure makes $5 million a year. That’s middle class by Moscow standards. There are people here who make $5 million a day.” If anything, gangsters are fans too, and may actually funnel money in to help their favorite team or player, as they do with soccer.

But isolated incidents of extortion and embezzlement are fairly common, plaguing the sport’s efforts to resurrect after losing scores of its stars to Europe and North America, where crime sometimes follows them. In United States Senate hearings held last year on Russian organized crime in America, an “anonymous Russian criminal” testified that the star forward Alexander Mogilny of the Vancouver Canucks, Aleksei Zhitnik, a defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres, and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov of the Montreal Canadiens, had all been hit up for money by Russian gangsters. Other incidents of attempted extortion - like the kidnapping of the Phoenix Coyotes’ Oleg Tverdovsky’s parents in his native Ukraine - have also been reported.

Agents, still considered by some here as pillaging Russian hockey, are sometimes threatened, too. Paul Theofanous, an agent for about 15 Russian hockey players, shrugs it off. “Yeah, I’ve been told I’m going to be killed and the rest of it,” he said. “But what can you do? You just keep working.”

The biggest money in Russian ice hockey is in transfer fees. Before an agreement in 1994 among the International Ice Hockey Federation, the NHL and various national federations, agents and clubs simply haggled over valuable players, who sometimes brought a club like Dynamo up to $1 million in compensatory fees.

“Back then, it was quite hectic at times,” said Mark Gandler, an agent representing Russian players since the first wave left Russia in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “You had to fight for every player. And sometimes players weren’t allowed out right away. Since the agreement, it’s been rather boring.”

But others say the agreement, whereby the N.H.L. pays a yearly investment (now $3.9 million a year) and Russian clubs receive a set sum of about $250,000 per player in installments, is to blame for the impoverishment of Russian hockey. ‘It’s similar to buying an all-day pass at an amusement park,” Warshaw said. “You get to go on as many rides as you like for one price.”

A former agent and team manager who asked that his name not be used said the Russian federation signed the deal because it could skim off the top. “By the time the money gets to the team,” he said, “there is barely any left.” Yuri Korolyov, federation vice president, denied any contact with transfer fees, however, explaining that the money went directly from the IIHF to the clubs.

As in most Russian businesses, graft is dealt with internally and the authorities are rarely informed. Journalists, too, are afraid to dig. “Of course we hear about corruption, about certain incidents,” said a hockey writer for Sport Express newspaper, “but we don’t write about them because we don’t know the facts. No one knows the facts.”

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