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Evgeny Malkin (L) of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jekabs Redlihs of Dinamo Riga look on during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) match in Riga October 22, 2012. (INTS KALNINS/REUTERS)
Evgeny Malkin (L) of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jekabs Redlihs of Dinamo Riga look on during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) match in Riga October 22, 2012. (INTS KALNINS/REUTERS)

ERIC REGULY

Even with locked-out NHL stars, KHL still a mess Add to ...

Sweeping change

Vladislav Tretiak, the Russian goaltender in the 1972 Summit Series, has a successful dual career as head of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation and deputy in the Russian Duma, the lower house in parliament. He is gracious and engaged even though he is still shaken by the murder of a political colleague only five days before he met me at the Ritz-Carlton hotel near the Kremlin in Moscow.

His local constituency aide and fixer was gunned down in a fitness club in the city of Ulyanovsk, in the Volga region well east of Moscow, proving yet again that politics, like business, can still be a blood sport in Russia. He declines to talk about the killing, politely insisting that the topic is hockey and only hockey.

Tretiak, 60, is still unmistakably the goalie beloved by three generations of Canadian and Russian hockey fans. He is six-feet tall, probably 220 pounds, with a bit of a paunch. He still looks powerful even though he no longer hits the rink to keep fit. “Bad knees,” he says through an interpreter.

He represents the golden era of Soviet hockey, in the 1970s and into the first half of the 1980s, when the national team was the dominant force in the international game and the KHL’s predecessor league could still hang onto its best players. Tretiak’s teams won gold in the 1972, 1976 and 1984 Olympics. Between 1970 and 1983, they captured 10 world championships and, in 1981, the Canada Cup. During that time, he also won 13 league titles with CSKA Moscow, better known as the Red Army team, the shock troops of the Russian ice for decades.

A lot has changed since then, and not necessarily for the better.

In his youth, Soviet hockey was more than a national passion and a source of national pride; it was a training program instilled with military-style discipline that produced cracking great results. Tretiak entered the CSKA sports school at age 11 and trained three times a day to utter exhaustion. He remembers being weighed down with cruel equipment. “The stick was so heavy that it was difficult to hit the puck away,” he says. “In the third period, I couldn’t lift my legs because the shin pads were so heavy. They were stuffed with horse hair and it sucked up the water.”

The endless training produced some of the world’s best players and teams. CSKA was particularly strong, winning 32 championships in the post-war decades. If it spotted a young player it didn’t want to lose to a rival team, such as Dynamo, which was controlled by the KGB during the Soviet era, it simply drafted him into the army and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Its best players became stars and were well paid by Soviet standards, where ownership of a Lada was considered a rare privilege. “The hockey players were the first to drive foreign cars in Moscow in the 1970s,” says Ilya Kochevrin, the KHL’s commerce and communications vice-president.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and so did Soviet Hockey League, as it was called, to be replaced by the sorry Russian Hockey League. With the Russian economy in free-fall – the country defaulted on its debt in 1998, shortly after the oil price collapse – the teams were starved of investment. “There were no salaries, no jobs,” Tretiak says.

Arenas fell apart for lack of maintenance and some doubled up as clothing and food markets – the ultimate dishonour for a once-proud league. Kochevrin estimates that two-thirds of the very best Russian players fled, most of them to NHL but also to leagues in Scandinavia and Germany, even little Croatia.

As the arenas crumbled, TV coverage became shabby and the top players fled overseas, fans disappeared in droves as the games turned into amateur shows. Alex Kravtsov, a Moscow PR man and one-time hockey fan, says “It was painful to watch the KHL games.”

Arenas turned into echo chambers. In the dark days of the late 1990s and into 2000 once-thrilling teams like Saint Petersburg could barely draw an audience. In a 12,000-seat arena, the team often had trouble drawing 500 spectators. “Just die-hard fans were there,” Kochevrin says.

Tretiak rolls out some grim statistics to illustrate hockey’s decline in Russia. The country has just under 400 covered hockey arenas left in operation. And Canada? Try 2,500. About 500,000 Canadians of all ages play hockey. In Russia, whose population is four times that of Canada, there are only 86,000 players and virtually no female players. “We don’t have the infrastructure,” he says.

Stuffed with Russia’s best, the NHL went through something of a renaissance in the last decade at the Russian league’s expense. The league, by then known as the Russian SuperLeague, was killed off in 2008, to be replaced by the KHL. The idea was to create a product that would restore the fan base within Russia, expand outside Russia, protect players and owners through proper legal frameworks and create profits for the teams’ owners.

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