Mr. Macpherson sent some literature about the tour, but something still seemed strange The travelling team featured former greats such as Alexander Mogilny, Alexei Kasatonov, Victor Shalimov and Alexander Golikov, as well as three veterans of 1972: Mr. Yakushev, Yuri Liapkin and Yuri Shatalov. They were scheduled to travel to California and Nevada to play hodgepodge teams of former professionals. I watched them play in Las Vegas, then Santa Monica, Calif. They embarrassed teams that included such NHL greats as Rob Blake, Evgeni Nabokov and Ron Duguay. Oddly, few people bought tickets. The only spectators were the Russian wives, who yelled shy-boo (literally, Russian for “puck”) and blew horns to encourage their boys.
The answer to many of my lingering questions about the team’s financing revealed itself among its defence corps. For the most part, the players’ passes were crisp, their shots accurate – except when they came off the blade of No. 65. I ran my finger down the glossy roster produced for the tour: Ruslan Gutnov.
Far from a household name here or in Russia, Mr. Gutnov runs a massive development company in Moscow and is worth upward of $1-billion. For several years, he has pumped millions of dollars annually into this team, sending it on trips to Israel, New York, Sweden, France and beyond. The California tour alone was expected to cost more than $500,000. The players, essentially, are employees; they are paid a salary to practise and play. the communist amateurs have gone pro in their old age. One proviso: Mr. Gutnov gets to play, too.
It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago, Canadian journalists Gary Mason and Mark MacKinnon, both of whom now work for The Globe and Mail, tracked down several Summit Series alumni for separate newspaper stories. They found that the greats had been treated shabbily by the country they had represented. Some lived in freezing apartments and survived on little more than bread and water. Those revelations embarrassed the Russians. Soon after, pensions for former players were increased and financial support from oligarchs began to flow.
Organizers with the team offered two main reasons for the viability of the Hockey Legends, which has the appearance of a giant vanity project – a rich man paying for the camaraderie of his hockey heroes. One, Mr. Gutnov loves hockey. He feels good about putting money in the pockets of the country’s hockey greats. Two, President Vladimir Putin has taken up the game and encouraged business leaders to pump money into building arenas and honouring retired players. If one is to remain in the government’s good books, – a prudent idea in Russia, where business tycoons who fall from political favour occasionally land in prison – then pouring money into an old-timers’ team is a sound investment. The President has blessed the team and practises regularly with its members, bestowing the Hockey Legends with great appeal among foreign companies that want to do business in Russia’s tightly controlled market. Invite Yakushev and company to town, and they just might put in a good word with the brass. Just as the original Summit Series was conceived of as a tool of political diplomacy, the legends team is a tool of business diplomacy.
They took the ice earlier this month when Mr. Gutnov and Gazprom executive Alex Medvedev financed a slate of lavish celebrations in Russia. They paid for 14 members of Team Canada to come and brought along the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for good measure.
In Canada, meanwhile, organizers of 40th-anniversary celebrations have struggled to stir up any financial or political interest. Neither corporate Canada nor the federal government was willing to back the anniversary event as originally planned, with all living members of the Soviet team flying to Canada. “In the end, there was more interest on the Russian end than the Canadian end,” said Mr. Macpherson, the Soviet legends manager who recently moved on to a role with the Sochi Olympics. “In the end, we didn't think it was right that the Russian side had to pay for both sides of an event.”
As this project unfolded, a A trend became clear: While Team Canada scrounged for travel money, the Russians sipped champagne in the penthouse suite.While corporate Canada snubbed the country’s hockey greats, Russian companies underwrote millions of dollars in hockey programs.
“Hockey is key to a healthy nation,” Mr. Yakushev explained. “We feel that the country cares for us.”
“Don’t go making it too popular,” I said. “Or else Canada won’t be able to compete.”
“Too late. Look at our juniors, look at the world championships. They have beaten the Canadians regularly. And, of course, the next Olympics is in Russia.”
Team Canada may have won in 1972, but the true victor of the most intense rivalry in hockey history has yet to be decided. And perhaps it never will. Russia continues to draw on memories of the series to develop the game and the country. For them, to dishonour the past is to concede defeat. And in that regard, I learned, they may have us beat.