On a rainy, windy night last May, Yuri Kharlamov, an Army lieutenant who plays forward on the Soviet national hockey team and has a reputation for driving his specially fitted Russian Volga with about as much daring as he skates, crashed into a telephone pole and broke both his ankles.
Millions of hockey fans who learned of the accident only from a laconic six-line announcement by Tass, the official news agency, worried for months until Kharlamov finally reappeared in December, a little slower and taking tranquilizers for the pain, according to his friends, but still a star, one of the country's biggest.
Kharlamov, Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Yakushew, Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Alexander Maltsev, Alexander Sidelnikov. These are household names in the Soviet Union, the mainstays of Russian hockey.
Thirty years ago the game - known as khokkishaiba (hockey-puck) to distinguish it from bandy, played with a tennis ball - hardly existed here and today it is probably the country's most popular spectator sport, with as many as 50 million people regularly tuning in to championship matches on television.
The Soviet Hockey Federation says that 600,000 people play on organized teams, including the "Higher League" and "Class A" clubs from which the big names are drawn. About three million youngsters take part in the round robin "Golden Puck" tournament with national finals at the end of March, closely watched by coaches, scouts and I-layers from the celebrated teams looking for future stars.
Soccer, the old Russian favorite, is now only a close second in popularity, judging from attendance figures and the reactions of fans. It is as though a game like field hockey in the United States that is decidedly second-string stuff suddenly took off and in a matter of years was crowding football, baseball and basketball as the national pastimes.
From their first appearance in international competition in 1954 the Russians have put forward dazzling teams. They have won the world championship 14 times and carried away four straight Olympic gold medals. Pitted against North American professional clubs in recent years, the Soviet All-Stars now have a substantial lead in victories.
That kind of Soviet domination raises the hackles of other hockey playing countries, particularly the United States and Canada, which complain that the Russians are not really amateurs since the top players get salaries, called euphemisically a "stipend" or a bonus, and devote what amounts to full-time attention to the game.
Looked at dispassionately, however, Russian hockey is neither as sinister as the angry Canadians felt it was after that trip to Moscow (they portrayed a long and not unusual delay at the airport, for instance, as an-effort to throw the visiting players out of whack), nor is it as professional as outsiders sometimes assert. But the issue is a complicated one.
The Russians do seem to revel in their international triumphs. They regard their victories in athletics as more of a symbol of national strength than Westerners do. "Why don't you Americans try harder in the Olympics?" a Russian journalist asked as he watched a Soviet hockey team train, "Going soft?" The Soviets do what they can to sustain their superiority, even if that extends to bending the rules on amateur standing.
Yet the game is still ultimately a sport here, played brilliantly at its best and with considerable zest; it is not a business.
Take superstars like Kharlamov and Tretiak, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, or "Sasha" Sidelnikov, who was chosen player of the month in February, although his club, Wings of the Soviets, is way down in the standings for the national championship: they are famous and, by Soviet standards, privileged. But there is none of the frenzied aura of money and celebrity surrounding them as there is with a Joe Namath, a Muhammad Ali or even a Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr.
As an army officer (the Central Army Sports Club team is generally the best and has clinched this year's championship) or as a student in an institute of physical culture (the case with most of the regulars on the Wings), players can expect to get 200 rubles a month (around $250), perhaps a bit more in the case of a Kharlamov. It is difficult to pin down exact figures.
Where the players do much better is in things like skipping the line for good sized, well-located apartments or finding fresh foods in the winter months.
Players on the national team get bonuses - reportedly about 2,000 rubes (around $2,500) for an Olympic gold medal or a world championship. And when they travel abroad, another plus of being a star, expenses are paid in hard currency so there is cash for the snappy clothes, records and knick-knacks young Russians enjoy just like their Western counterparts. Totaling it all up, the benefits are considerable, but hardly lavish.
And for all the official admiration accorded hockey stars, authorities actively discourage what they call a "star disease." Our society, unlike the capitalist world," intoned the Young Communist League newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a couple of years ago, "does not need supermen but rather human beings with all-round development, sportsmen who could serve as an example to others."
There are five "Higher League" teams in Moscow, one in Leningard and the rest in smaller cities. These 10 teams have the largest followings and are the ones from which the national team is picked for international play. Many of the smaller clubs get strong local support, but few have anything like the talent, equipment or facilities of the big time.
The Wings are a typical model of the system. The team was founded in 1947-48, coach Tuzik said. The Masters' team is the apex of a network of teams sponsored by the aviation industry starting with 10-year-olds and progressing up to juniors who can be as old as 19. Youngsters are recruited for the club by scouts or show up at tryouts.
Clubs like the Wings are fully subsidized so the question of gate receipts is less important than for a North American team. But a consistently poor record can mean being dropped from the "Higher League" with a serious loss of stature and, presumably, access to funding and facilities. This has happened.
The Soviet regular season wound up the week of March 20. Coaches are looking ahead to the world championship - which for the Russians is the game's biggest annual event. A strong national team is being sent with high hopes for avenging last year's victory by the Czechoslovaks.
But as senior coach Boris Kulagin put it, "This time it will be very difficult to win," primarily because Canada is sending its best professionals, something never done before. The Russians are wary of the pros and cover that concern with talk of "sports barbarism."
Assessing the championship games recently, one top coach wrote tartly, "Harsh punishment should be provided for anyone who wants to bring in evil and hooliganism to our beautiful hockey."