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Big Red Merchandise : Russian Hockey Team Turns to Capitalism

August 14, 1994|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Viktor Tikhonov was once the very symbol of the Soviet hockey system, the Big Red Machine that dominated international competition for so many years.

As coach of the national team, he watched his players celebrate Olympic gold three times--as well as mourn an ignominious defeat, the loss to the U.S. team at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. His Central Red Army teams, made up of men whose service to their country was to train 11 months out of the year, won 13 national championships.

But since the collapse of communism, Central Red Army--once among the elite teams in the world--has been sapped of much of its financial support and more critically, its best players. Young men such as Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny--all once promising young Central Red Army players--now make millions starring in the NHL.

By last March, it had come to this: Tikhonov, 63, sat in a Moscow meeting with a Walt Disney Co. official, discussing what sort of logo Disney should put on the chests of Central Red Army players.

Last year, the Central Red Army team--or CSKA--entered an unprecedented working agreement with American investors led by Pittsburgh Penguin owner Howard Baldwin. The group quickly renamed the team the Russian Penguins and worked capitalist magic with a new logo, creating an incongruous but marketable design--a cartoonish penguin on skates wearing the army's red star and Cyrillic lettering on his jersey.

This June, Disney Sports Enterprises, flush with the success of the Mighty Duck logo after it led the NHL in sales--bought a 32.5% interest in the group and set out to create still another logo.

Kevin Gilmore, who is director of hockey operations for the Ducks and is overseeing many aspects of the project, had a feeling before he entered the meetings in Moscow that something like 'Mighty Penguins of Moscow' was not what Tikhonov had in mind.

The team wanted to return to something more traditional, Tikhonov said.

Traditional? Gilmore asked him to elaborate.

Yes, something with red, white and blue, Tikhonov said.

And eagles. And a star.

Gilmore almost fell out of his chair. What he'd just heard sounded like a cross between the Stars and Stripes and the Presidential seal. And had he looked at Tikhonov's biography, he would have seen that the coach was born on the Fourth of July.

"I'm thinking, 'Wrong country there, Viktor,' " Gilmore said.

Actually, Gilmore realized, the colors are those of the old Russian tricolor flag, which has replaced the hammer and sickle. And the double-headed eagle, he learned is another traditional symbol, as is the army star. So Walt Disney Imagineering, given the symbols of Russia's past as raw material, created an official-looking logo much as it might for an imaginary entity in one of its parks.

The difference is that this one becomes semi-official because a real team will wear it. Naturally, the design will soon be available on T-shirts, jerseys, ball caps, pennants, water bottles and the like on at least two continents. The merchandise will be sold on the Russian team's U.S. tour and probably will find its way into many of the Ducks' outlets, if not the Disney parks as well.

The arrangement emphasizes merchandising--it's the Disney way--but it also brings other advantages. With travel within Russia and the other former Soviet republics now considered dangerous enough that the U.S. government has warned its employees against flying the local airlines, NHL teams are concerned about their ability to scout out the best talent. By affiliating with CSKA, the Penguins and Ducks have access to scouting input from not only Tikhonov, but also American employees who work in Russia as liaisons, such as Mark Kelley, who is the son of Penguin President Jack Kelley.

Another likelihood is that newly drafted players from the former Soviet Union might play for CSKA for a year before coming to North America. Less likely, but still possible, is that young North American players might play in Moscow. And just perhaps, Tikhonov might come to the U.S. to conduct clinics.

Disney was brought into the deal, though, for the merchandising.

Mike Jacobson, an editor at Sporting Goods Dealer magazine, said the popularity of the logos of expansion teams has led to a stream of what he calls "novel licenses," where companies try to take advantage of the appeal of virtually anything "new" related to sports. An example would be the designs pairing Warner Brothers characters with pro sports logos.

"One company even came up with logos from fake minor league teams, with weird towns or weird nicknames," he said.

CSKA is real, but it still has an otherworldly aura. Though the players wear a Coke patch on their uniforms and American pop music plays over the sound system, the atmosphere is not all-American. For one thing, tickets cost the equivalent of 25 cents.

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