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THE INSIDE TRACK | PAGE TWO / RANDY HARVEY

In Russia, Sudden Death Can Really Mean the End

May 07, 1997|RANDY HARVEY

In novels such as "Black Knight in Red Square" and "Death of a Dissident," mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky created a Russian Columbo, a war-wounded, barrel-chested detective named Porfiry Rostnikov who solves crimes in Moscow.

It's time for Kaminsky to write another novel, this one assigning Rostnikov to the intriguing but potentially deadly case of Russian ice hockey. It would take a book to even begin to sort out who's behind the murders, kidnapping and extortion.

In a few paragraphs, all I can hope to convey is that even intense playoff games such as the one Tuesday night at the Pond between the Ducks and Detroit are merely that, games, to the eight Russian players involved.

The fact that organized crime has infested almost every aspect of Russian life, sports included, is no news flash. But it recently resurfaced in worldwide headlines when Valentin Sych, president of the Russian ice hockey federation, fell victim to a gangland-style killing.

"I have an alibi," the Red Wings' Viacheslav Fetisov said.

It was a joke, albeit a morbid one, because it's well known that Fetisov and Sych were rivals. Even if Fetisov were a suspect, however, he would have to stand in a line all the way to Vladivostock.

Sych was a former KGB agent who had numerous enemies, leading to the possibility that his death was unrelated to hockey.

Answers aren't easy to get. One person I called didn't want to discuss such a sensitive subject on the telephone. Another wouldn't allow his named to be used.

The Russian Mafia, both explained, has long tentacles.

Russian NHL players, most recently Alexander Mogilny, have reported extortion threats against them. It's likely, though, that the situation is even more pervasive and dangerous than described in the North American media, primarily because most Russian players believe going public will exacerbate it.

It's no game. The equipment manager, photographer and a star player for Fetisov's former team, the Central Red Army, were murdered in 1996.

"If something like that happened to a team in the NHL, there would be an investigation to end all investigations," one Russian hockey expert said. "Over there, there's a chance none of the deaths are even connected. It's bizarre."

*

The Ducks' most costly error this season didn't come on the ice but in the front office, where the failure to re-sign Coach Ron Wilson during the season probably will force Disney to pay considerably more than it budgeted. . . .

Wilson says he would prefer to remain in Anaheim, hoping to become known as the NHL's Don Shula because of his time on the job with one team. . . .

However . . .

"The stars only align so many times in your life," he says. "For me, everything might be lining up,". . . .

So might teams trying to hire him, although I'm not sure about media speculation that Detroit could be one of them. . . .

I would be surprised if the Red Wings are looking for a new coach. So would their coach, Scotty Bowman. . . .

Also, despite his family ties to the Red Wings, Wilson has made few friends in Detroit with his unflattering remarks about their "dirty, cheap" style of play. . . .

The Pond crowd Tuesday didn't fail to notice the red tint to the Red Wings. Whenever Detroit's five Russian players were on the ice at the same time, the fans chanted, "USA, USA, USA.". . . .

They're more clever than the fans in Salt Lake City. The next one who believes they're insulting us by saying something about "La-La-Land" will be the one millionth. Congratulations. . . .

Four extremely clever former athletes, Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge, Purdue defensive back Tim Foley, Florida swimmer Tracy Caulkins Stockwell and Cornell gymnast Ellen Mayer Sabik, were inducted into the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame on Tuesday night at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. . . .

Introducing the honorees earlier in the day, Dick Enberg said he once congratulated former NFL wide receiver and coach Raymond Berry for his selection to the first Academic All-America team in 1955. . . .

Berry told him he tried to keep it a secret at the time because he was afraid his SMU teammates might think he was a nerd.

*

While wondering if UCLA has learned that its softball team shouldn't play hardball, I was thinking: Two names I'd like to never read again are Tonya Harding and Tanya Harding, Rick Pitino found out the money was greener on the other side, what Wilson really means is that he'd like to have more dirty, cheap players.

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