Sunday, April 12, 2009
In the northern part of Russia, well, Soviet Union, we had the winter almost eight months. So I skated a lot. It was like minus 35 Celsius, so they would cancel school, and we would go and skate for, like, five, 10 minutes, come back, get warm and go skate again. When I was 12, our team went to Belorussia, a couple thousand kilometers away, to play exhibition games. They had a hockey rink, and the local hockey coach asked me to come back and be part of their team. So I went and lived at the school -- it was a sports school -- and practiced pretty much 11 months out of the year.
I made a professional hockey team when I was 15. Played a few games, finished school, and then I got drafted by Red Army, which is a big club in Moscow, a superpower of Soviet Union hockey back then. I still didn't know if it was serious or not, but I just liked doing it. What do you know when you're 15, 16? What do you know when you're 20? That's when I defected, when I came to North America.
The Detroit Red Wings approached me in 1989. They gave me a letter first, in Europe. I had, like, a secret meeting with them. Back then, everything has to be secret because you can get in trouble and never play, never have any chance to even leave Russia if they catch you. Then a year later, we traveled to North America to play some exhibition games in Portland, [Ore.,] for the Goodwill Games. We had a guy, I believe, from KGB traveling with us, overseeing the whole team on the road, so I had to sneak out. I kind of knew it was dangerous, but, you know, at 19, 20, you don't realize. I figured: I'm going to get to play in front of 20,000 people; get a guaranteed contract, I'm not going to starve to death. So I decided to leave. It sounds simple, but I guess it wasn't.
I walked out of the hotel and jumped into a car with the assistant GM and an interpreter, went to the airport, and four hours later, I was in Detroit. I was nervous, you know? I didn't know what to expect, especially with the hockey. But three [Stanley] Cups later, 18 years later, I'm feeling good, still playing, still keeping up with the youngsters.
Interview by KK Ottesen