From a North American standpoint, touring Soviet hockey teams no longer create much of a stir. There are no fans throwing bags of red paint on the ice to protest human-rights violations, such as occurred on Long Island in 1976. And there is no championship flavor to the games themselves, as when the Philadelphia Flyers defeated Central Red Army the same year for world bragging rights.
Plain and simple, the ongoing visit by three Soviet teams is a menu of 21 exhibitions, regardless of the "NHL Super Series" label attached by the cosponsoring NHL and NHL Players Association. Where the game is part of the season-ticket package, attendance has been respectable. Where it is not, the whole assemblage could fit in a few center-ice sections.
Some NHL teams have iced regular lineups. Others have summoned farmhands for a quick look. The only clubs that have looked forward to the games have been those struggling to escape slumps. The exhibitions have offered opportunities to experiment without paying a two-point price.
If the hosts are blase, however, the Soviets are delighted to continue the rivalry. The coaches pull out all stops to try to win and the players go all out in an effort to attract the attention of NHL scouts. Then they visit department stores and buy as much as they can haul away.
"The Soviets are very excited about being here," said Darcy Rota, the NHL representative who is accompanying the visitors. "It's great exposure for them, and the coaches take the games very seriously. Certainly, they show more interest and intensity in the games than the club teams here."
When Rota rides with the Soviets, he always occupies the front seat on the bus so he can advise the driver. Accordingly, he puts his luggage in the lower bins at the last moment, so it will be readily accessible on arrival. When the first visitor, Khimik, set out on the last stage of its tour, Rota followed that procedure on the bus headed for Boston's Logan Airport.
"Every bit of space was completely full, down below and on the bus," Rota said. "They'd been shopping like crazy the last few days and they bought everything they could carry. I wound up putting my luggage on top of the bus."
Unlike past trips, when players were closely guarded and restricted from contact, they now are able to roam the malls and discuss possible NHL careers with agents and club officials.
There is enough interest within the Soviet Union for Soviet television to transmit four of Central Red Army's games to the home fans -- those in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver. CBC is showing the seven games to be played in Canada, but SportsChannel decided not to bother with the U.S. schedule.
Of course, a major reason for the lack of curiosity about the visitors is that so many Soviets already are in the NHL. Here in Washington, fans can watch Mikhail Tatarinov and Dimitri Khristich skate with the Capitals. They hardly are inspired by the thought they might see a future Capital in Andrei Kovalov, a draftee who will play for Soviet champion Moscow Dynamo at Capital Centre Jan. 8.
Possibly, the players can add some spice to the actual event. The Capitals have been teaching Tatarinov and Khristich some nasty English words. Perhaps the two Soviets could pass on a few Russian expletives to their new teammates, as a surprise for the men of Dynamo.
The NHL added some genuine interest with a shootout during the second intermission. Fans have responded to it very well, especially in St. Louis, where the event was tied after five shooters and Rod Brind'Amour won it for the Blues in sudden death. In Detroit, Sergei Fedorov scored the shootout goal that enabled the Red Wings to beat his old Red Army teammates.
The Army won the game itself, 5-2, on Wednesday (Dec. 26) in its first of seven here, as the compulsory season-ticket attachment resulted in a paid attendance of 19,342. Dynamo will open its seven-game segment Tuesday (Jan. 1) in Toronto. Khimik divided its seven matches, 3-3-1.
Khimik won all three games against Adams Division teams, in varying fashion. A crowd of 16,245 watched the Soviets defeat Montreal, 6-3. At the other extreme, only 2,820 saw a 5-2 victory over a Boston team that had six Maine farmhands in the lineup. On a middle level, Khimik beat Buffalo in overtime, 5-4, before 13,771.
Khimik lost to Los Angeles, 5-1, before 10,762; 4-2 to St. Louis before 11,398, and 6-4 to Minnesota before 4,250. The tie was a 2-2 affair against the New York Islanders, with only 2,752 in the seats.
Ten teams chose to include the games in the season-ticket package -- Washington, Buffalo, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Quebec, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
The latter group is becoming larger each year and it now seems likely the Soviets will be told to stay home for the foreseeable future.
Plans are afoot for each NHL team to play an Olympic squad next year, although there appears to be some disagreement on whether the games should be in the preseason or fitted like the Soviet visits among regularly scheduled contests. If it goes through, U.S. teams would play the U.S. Olympians, Canadian clubs the Canadian Olympians.