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Russian Hockey Great Wants To Cage Homegrown Talent

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) with Soviet hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov (left) in Sochi on May 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) with Soviet hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov (left) in Sochi on May 16.

In a bid to recapture past Russian ice-hockey glory, a legend of the game has pulled a page from the old Soviet playbook by demanding players not be allowed to play abroad until they turn 28.

In comments to Russian media, Vyacheslav "Slava" Fetisov expressed frustration with the decision by a growing number of Russia's most talented hockey players to leave the homeland to play abroad in North America's National Hockey League (NHL).

Speaking to the Russian R-Sport news agency on May 21, Fetisov, who now represents Primorsky Krai as a lawmaker in Russia's upper house of parliament, said the country's Labor Code should be amended to deny players the right to play abroad until they turn 28.

Such laws during the Soviet era denied Fetisov and other Russian hockey greats of his era the chance to test their skills in foreign leagues. It was Fetisov himself who led the fight against the draconian communist system by successfully suing for the right to play abroad. At the age of 31 and in the twilight of his career, Fetisov made it to the NHL in 1989, trailblazing a path for others to follow. But now it appears Fetisov is campaigning to rebuild a bit of the old Soviet sports system that he once condemned and helped tear down.

In his remarks to R-Sport, Fetisov said that up to 40 young, talented, Russian hockey players are now planning to leave the mainly Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for the NHL.

"It is those players that fans come to see," the 57-year-old Fetisov explained.

His comments come after the Russian national team was humiliated 6-1 by Canada in the final of the World Ice Hockey Championships on May 17 in the Czech Republic. Making matters worse, the team skated off before the Canadian national anthem was played during the awards ceremony, sparking outrage abroad and some embarrassment in Russia.

Silver might be good for some countries, but not Russia, which has made the restoration of the ice-hockey success it enjoyed under the Soviet Union a point of national pride.

Between 1956 and 1988 at the Winter Olympic Games, the Soviet Union won seven golds, one silver, and a bronze in 1960, their "worst" showing in that period. The medal haul, however, has been humbler in recent years.

The team's last Olympic medal -- a bronze -- was won in 2002 when Fetisov was behind the bench coaching during the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Expectations were high in 2014 when the Olympics came home to Sochi. But again the team came up short, finishing fifth.

A League Fallen On Hard Times

Back home, the KHL has apparently dropped its dreams of one day competing with the NHL and is now struggling to keep teams afloat.

Teams in Prague, Bratislava, and Zagreb that were established in a wave of westward expansion are now gone. The loss of Lev Prague in 2014 was particularly embarrassing for the league, coming after the Czech team had made it to the KHL final, the Gagarin Cup.

Fetisov, pictured second from right, in the Soviet Olympic hockey team.
Fetisov, pictured second from right, in the Soviet Olympic hockey team.

Now Russian-based clubs are experiencing hard times as well, highlighted by Spartak Moscow's decision to leave the league indefinitely in 2014 due to financial woes.

The KHL's hardships contrast with the vision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to create a showcase league. Backed by energy giant Gazprom, the KHL splurged on league salaries, luring back from the NHL a few notable stars, tops among them Ilya Kovalchuk, whose sudden departure from the NHL's New Jersey Devils in 2013 was a minor coup for the league.

But the generosity lavished on the league by Gazprom and other state-owned energy companies diminished greatly after international sanctions imposed over Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis and low global energy prices hit the Russian economy hard. A weaker ruble made KHL salaries lower in real terms, sparking many KHL players, not just Russians, to consider other options.

In the May 21 interview, Fetisov noted with concern the sudden exodus of top young talent, including SKA's Artemy Panarin, who recently signed with the NHL's St. Louis Blues. Others are expected to follow, notably Lokomotiv Yaroslav's Sergei Plotnikov.

Fetisov's comments have sparked debate among Russian sports officials.

Yury Nagornykh , a deputy sports minister, spoke of the "pluses" more seasoned Russian players could gain from leaving the KHL for the more prestigious NHL.

But Nagornykh told R-Sport on May 25 that younger players would still be better served staying in Russia.

It seems the ultimate irony that Fetisov would be the one champion the state's right to handcuff athletes with restrictions given his own past.

In 1988 the Soviet Union's team -- known as the Red Army -- won its second straight gold medal in Calgary, Canada. It earned Fetisov -- a hulking, yet skilled, defenseman -- the Lenin Award, the country's top honor.

Fetisov played with fellow defenseman Aleksei Kasatonov, as well as forwards Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and the late Vladimir Krutov, to form the Russian Five -- arguably the best unit ever. The tale of that team mainly through the eyes of Fetisov was recently retold in the highly acclaimed 2014 U.S. documentary Red Army.

After Calgary, Fetisov hoped the Soviet authorities would let him leave the Red Army team to play in the NHL. But one man stood in his way, Viktor Tikhonov, the Red Army coach, who was not only a masterful tactician, but a dictatorial coach who had near total control over his team.

Due in part to Fetisov's stubbornness, Soviet authorities allowed Fetisov to leave for the NHL in the fall of 1989, when he joined the New Jersey Devils as a 31-year-old NHL rookie. He would later win two Stanley Cups with another NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings.

In a March interview with the NHL website, Fetisov takes credit for fighting against the Soviet system that "opened the gate not only for hockey players but the NHL."

Now it looks like Fetisov wants to partly close the gate he once helped open.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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