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Original Issue

Home, Sweet Home

A team of idled NHL stars returned to Russia and got a hero's welcome

As the first notes rumbled over the public address system last Friday night, Sergei Fedorov pivoted to his left and fixed his gaze at the white, blue and red flag hanging from the rafters of Sokolniki Arena in Moscow. In 1990, at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Fedorov had heard vastly different notes, the siren song of freedom or wealth or whatever it is that makes a man follow the tune in his head and defect. But now he was on Russian ice, staring at the Russian flag, listening to the Russian national anthem. Impossible.

"When they played the anthem, I seized up," Fedorov said later that night. "I'm thinking, Gee, after everything that's happened, now they're playing the song for us. It made it extra special. This was history."

Sometimes history is made by great men and their revolutions. Sometimes history stems from something as small and slapdash as the Superseries, the boastful name of the five-game homecoming tour of Russia by a group of former Soviet players who opted for a better life in the NHL. The series—the brainchild of free-agent Slava Fetisov, late of the New Jersey Devils—is based on a rollicking mix of persistence, confusion and good intentions, with its proceeds promised to Russian youth hockey. For Russia, with love.

Certainly of all the make-work projects for NHL players during the owners' lockout—including matches against Canadian junior teams, a round-robin tournament in Hamilton, Ont., scheduled for this weekend and a proposed Wayne Gretzky-led European tour—the Super-series is the most profound.

The Superseries harkens back to the days of the Big Red Machine, before it was stripped and sold for parts. For last Friday's opening face-off against Spartak of the Interstate League, the Stars of Russia sent out what was once the Soviet Union's Big Five: Fetisov and his defense partner Alexei Kasatonov, and the K-L-M line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, who in the 1980s were considered Russia's most artistic trio since Chekhov's three sisters. The stumpy 34-year-old Krutov, who now resembles a second-line winger in a beer league, was summoned from his Swedish pro team to complete the portrait of a group near or at the end of its hockey-playing days. "The last time we played together was the 1989 world championships," said the 33-year-old Larionov, who is now Makarov's linemate on the San Jose Sharks. "There have been a lot of reunions lately—the Rolling Stones, the Eagles. But we're not Mick Jagger. We won't be playing when we're 50. This could be the last chance."

But the K-L-M guys weren't the returning heroes. The 4,700 fans who packed Sokolniki were there to see another line: center Fedorov with wings Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny, who were three promising youngsters with the Central Red Army team (CSKA) when they bolted separately. Mogilny, then 20, defected first, leaving after the 1989 world junior championships in Stockholm to join the Buffalo Sabres. He wasn't merely a sports star who took a hike but a Red Army officer who went AWOL. A military court convicted Mogilny, in absentia, of treason. Fedorov skipped in Seattle a year later, to the Detroit Red Wings. Then in '91, the 20-year-old Bure left to join the Vancouver Canucks.

Considering that Bure signed a six-year, $25 million contract in June, after two 60-goal seasons, he has done O.K. In fact, all the boys have fared well, with Mogilny, who had a 76-goal season in 1992-93, getting a four-year, $10.8 million contract last November and Fedorov signing a four-year, $11.7 million deal during last season, when he was the NHL's Most Valuable Player and its best defensive forward. "We were never stars in Russia," Fedorov said. "We were young guys and, yes, bad guys. This series was important to show our fans what we have done in North America."

On Nov. 2, during the last leg of their flight from New York to Helsinki to Moscow, Mogilny and Fedorov sat together, their legs literally shaking. Said Fedorov, "I wasn't sure how our comrades with guns would greet us at Sheremetyevo [airport]. I didn't know what would be waiting for us."

The answer: a limousine.

On the 40-minute ride into Moscow, they were modern-day Rip Van Winkles. It was as if they had gone to sleep in the Soviet Union and four, five, six years later awakened in a new Russia. There were fancy hotels and foreign cars, but there was also the pulsating spirit of a city on the make. The schism between the rich and the poor was much greater, and a whiff of anarchy rode the first snow flurries of a Moscow winter. "Now everyone looks to see how people are living and what's new," Fedorov said. "We look at faces."

Even more surprising was the reception they received from the new authorities. At a press conference last Thursday, Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Valentin Sych said, "I congratulate Alexander Mogilny for taking such a courageous stand to go where he wanted to play." Later, at a reception, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets declared, "The past is forgotten. They came to an absolutely new country, to an absolutely new society." Fedorov received a Russian passport upon his return. Mogilny's criminal case had already been closed, after an appeal to Alexander Korzhakov, the powerful chief of Boris Yeltsin's presidential guard. Yeltsin, reputedly a Spartak supporter, didn't attend last Friday's game, but he is expected to watch the tour finale on Nov. 14, when the Stars meet CSKA, for whom most of them played, and Viktor Tikhonov, the coach many of them loathed.

Tikhonov was in the Sokolniki VIP section on Friday, doing a little scouting and a little politicking. "We've all missed our talented players who are playing overseas," he said. Several rows away sat Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary Soviet goaltender of the 1970s and early '80s, who declined an offer to strap on the pads for the Superseries. "I am very happy. This is the best week for Russian hockey in years," said Tretiak. "The best players are all in the NHL. Our league is too young now."

That was one more thing that had the returning players rubbing their eyes: Russian hockey had reached a nadir. "It's all NHL here now," Bure said. "When I was growing up, I didn't even know the names of NHL teams." With the NHL having served since 1989 as a haven for most of the Soviet Union's best players, the top Russian league now looks dowdy. Sokolniki was sold out for the Stars—tickets cost between $3 and $10, although scalpers were getting as much as $16—but usually there are 500 fans rattling around for Spartak matches. The Red Army school still trains future hockey stars, beginning at age six, but, Sych said, Moscow has only "10 or 11 rinks in a city of 10 million. Only one rink in all of Russia was built last year because of the economic problems."

One hope was that the Superseries would trigger a revival in Russian hockey by reenergizing league play and helping to underwrite a nationwide youth tournament called Zolotaya Shaiba—Golden Puck. Fetisov had only three weeks to pull the tour together. When the NHL locked out the players indefinitely on Oct. 15, Fetisov got on his omnipresent cellular phone and began twisting arms. The Russian government agreed to wipe the defectors' slates clean. Sun Microsystems, a California-based computer company with a strong presence in Russia, signed on as a sponsor. Twenty NHL players from the former Soviet Union were enlisted, even though there wasn't much in it for them. (Mogilny did win a $10,250 bedroom set from a Russian sponsor, Venitsia—"We will deliver over the sea!"—for scoring the first goal in the Stars' 5-4 win over Spartak.) While no one would openly discuss how much the Stars would earn, a source said each player will make $10,000, with more going to Bure, Fedorov and Mogilny.

In persuading his countrymen to return home, Fetisov's toughest task was assuaging their worries about security. The new Russia has given rise to an emboldened mafia, which has tried to shake down some of these players and their families the past few years. The players were offered bodyguards, and there were "10...or more," as Fetisov put it, surrounding the Stars at all times. The bus that carried the players to their hotels from a reception last Thursday had two Red Army soldiers riding shotgun, and Fedorov said it took a circuitous route for safety's sake.

If a Moscow channel surfer hit Channel 1 last Friday night, he might have been startled. Other than RUSSIA in Cyrillic on the front and their names on the back, the NHL players' blue jerseys, with white stars on the shoulders, made them dead ringers for North Americans. Of course, they didn't play like a dump-and-chase NHL team, especially when the Fedorov line, reunited after five years, was on the ice. On the expansive international ice surface that line worked some impossibly sweet give-and-go's despite the rust of a month's inactivity. Mogilny scored two goals, Bure one.

"We played O.K.," Mogilny said, "but we have an expression in Russia: 'The first pancake always has lumps.' "

That seemed to be one of the few Russian expressions Mogilny remembered, as he constantly searched for once-familiar words, turning to teammates for "misunderstanding" (niponimaniye) and "dinner" (uzhin). When Bure was whistled on a two-line offsides pass, he mouthed, "Oh, come on." And some children reproached Fedorov because he began signing autographs in English instead of Russian.

"I was impressed by Bure, Mogilny, Fedorov," Tretiak said. "I hope we can keep developing players like them. I hope one day we will have an economy strong enough to have a league as good as the NHL, that our arenas will be bigger, that the atmosphere and the service will be better, that the hockey will be as good. Maybe. Who knew perestroika would be like this? Our country is pregnant with unexpected events."

Bure, Fedorov and Mogilny in Russia: another miracle on ice.



Fans, beauty queens and even the police were thrilled to see Bure (far left), Fedorov (91) and Mogilny (lower left) back on Russian ice.



The new face—and Air—of Russia were apparent to Fetisov (far left) and his fellow expatriates.