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  Talent Drain to the NHL Ends Russia's Dominance

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 1994; Page G7

LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 24 — Russia's demise as the world's hockey power has been predicted for six years and three Olympics. But it never seemed as imminent as it did Wednesday night in Lillehammer.

Russia had scratched back twice to pull even with surprising Slovakia, knowing a loss would ensure a non-medal finish for the first time since the Soviet Union debuted at the Games in 1956. But now overtime had arrived and defeat was riding on every Slovak slap shot. Until ...

Winger Andrei Nikolichine, already playing with a broken jaw, fought off two defenders and somehow shoved a sideways pass to teammate Alexandre Vinogradov before being ridden hard into the boards behind the net.

Nikolichine didn't see Vinogradov whistle the puck past Slovak goalie Eduard Hartman's snapping glove. But he had to hear the crowd's roar. And see his teammates spilling over the boards, eager to mob him and Vinogradov.

Perhaps he even caught a glimpse of what was happening back on the Russian bench — that amazing out-of-character victory jig that was being done by usually grim-faced coach Viktor Tikhonov, the 64-year-old who has presided over the Olympic team from the Cold War era to today's talent wars with the National Hockey League, always cleaving the team's path through the years like the prow of a ship.

Russia had won, 3-2, with only 1:11 left in sudden death and it was the Slovaks, instead, for whom "life stopped at five minutes to midnight," in the words of Slovakia Coach Julius Supler.

Russia had earned a meeting with defending world champion Sweden Friday in a medal-round semifinal game. And Sweden will be favored in many quarters to win.

If that happens, the Russians will be shoved into the bronze-medal game opposite the Canada-Finland loser. It's not hard to predict how that would play back in Moscow. When the 1980 Soviet Union squad coached by Tikhonov finished second to the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. team, the Americans later heard the Soviets never bothered to take their silver medals home because they were so ashamed about the loss.

This time around, the Russians know they aren't as dominant as they've been in the past. But they have won eight of the past 10 Olympic golds in ice hockey. And their struggles through the preliminary rounds here touched off plenty of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing back home.

Russia finished only third in its six-team pool here, and it is hard to decide which of its two record-tying losses was worse: The 4-2 loss to the unremarkable German team, or the 5-0 pasting that Finland, now the tournament favorite, laid on them.

It was the first time Russia hadn't scored in 68 Olympic hockey games dating back to 1956. Afterward Tikhonov told a Russian journalist: "I cannot understand what has happened, why we suddenly cannot skate."

One answer, of course, is the NHL's raiding of Russian talent. The economic upheaval gripping Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union has fueled a talent exodus to European and minor leagues too. And players are leaving at younger ages than ever before.

Russian Olympic Committee President Vitaly Smirnov estimates more than 200 Russian hockey players have left for the North American and European leagues since the Communist bloc broke up and the borders opened, lured by the money and promise of an easier life.

By Smirnov's count, 46 Russian-born players are now with NHL teams, while the proud clubs back in Russia that used to churn them out are struggling to stay afloat.

Watching the hockey team wobble as it has here has Smirnov talking strongly that "something has to be done." It's important for the hockey team, Smirnov said today, and it's important to the Russian people.

"Athletics help our people feel more convinced, help our children feel more convinced, that we are normal people — we are comparable to other people of the world despite all that we are going through," Smirnov said. "We need to do something for our future generations of athletes too.

"As it is now, a private {Russian} person signs and there is no sign of the money coming back to the club that developed them," Smirnov added. "The club should get a part of the salary. There should be some kind of system in place, where if {a league like the NHL} takes 20 players away, two get to come back to play in the Games."

The NHL, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation are now talking about it. If the Olympics compromise by altering the current hockey competition format — perhaps by seeding the top four teams or so into the medal round without having to play the preliminary round — the NHL will compromise by shutting down for 8-10 days. That, theoretically, would allow stars to return to play in the Games for their countries.

The NHL and IIHF also are discussing a way to have transfer fees for all European-born players funneled through the international federation for payment to the player's club teams. "In the past, transfer fees have been paid by our teams," said an NHL source, "but you never knew where the money was actually going in Russia. Or to whom."

But until the changes take place, Tikhonov and Smirnov try to bridge the past and present for Russia as best they can. A lottery has been started in Russia to help finance the sports programs. The Russian government still provides some subsidies. The Russian Olympic Committee negotiated a deal to have Reebok outfit and house the 1994 Russian Winter Olympic team. While all of that is nice, it won't be much help in Friday's game against Sweden.

"We have a chance," Russian assistant coach Igor Dmitriev said. "But it's not a big chance. We have to find a way to score more goals."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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