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NHL Stars Welcomed Home by Reborn Russia

November 16, 1994|BETH KNOBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — Five years ago, the Soviet government branded them traitors. Now, they're the toast of the Kremlin.

When Russian hockey stars started to defect from the Soviet Union in 1989 to play for big bucks in North America, the government got angry, calling the players capitalists and criminals. Soviet fans grew despondent, sure that they would never see their favorites skate on Russian ice again.

But thanks to a more forgiving Russian government--and a labor dispute that has stalled action in the NHL--a "Dream Team" of more than 20 Russian NHL stars returned home for a recent five-game series against local teams.

The NHL squad included some of the league's top talent: Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings, the league's most valuable player last season; Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres and Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks.

"We are glad to welcome them in Russia," Oleg Soskovets, Russia's first deputy prime minister, said at a gala Kremlin reception.

"The past is forgotten. They came to an absolutely new country, to an absolutely new society."

Some of the players, like Mogilny, had not been home for years because criminal proceedings had been started against them when they left.

"This has been a thrill to come back here," he said after the closing game on Nov. 7. "Everywhere we went, it was a warm welcome."

One element of new Russian reality--tight security--was particularly evident during the tour. Because some Russian NHL players have received threats from extortionists in the past, each was protected by round-the-clock bodyguards.

Spectators had to pass through metal detectors on their way into Moscow's Palace of Sports for the closing game and security guards with high-tech communications gear were placed in the crowd.

Although Russia has changed dramatically, the action on the ice was just as it had been in Soviet days--bruising and tough.

In the final game of the series, the NHL team--calling itself the Stars of Russia--defeated Moscow's Red Army team, 6-5.

Before 5,000 content fans, among them Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the NHL team jumped to a 6-1 lead. But with the crowd jumping, the Red Army rallied in the third period, scoring four goals and sending the fans home happy.

"All our fantastic players here at once--I love it!" said Mars Monsurov, an army officer who brought his young son, Sasha, to his first hockey game. "It may only be a training game, but it's great anyway."

Throughout the series, the NHL team faced serious challenges. The Stars of Russia even lost once, 5-4, to the Yaroslavl Torpedo.

With owners and players in the NHL still far from agreement, some of the Dream Team members are considering deals with European clubs to keep them on the ice.

And tour organizers hope to bring the Kings' Wayne Gretzky here in December, if the lockout continues.

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