It Took Musician to Bring Soviets to NHL
Those who loathe the Soviet Union or want a piece of the bounty may disagree, but Mark Malkovich III helped script perestroika’s greatest sports story.
Malkovich, a classical music impressario, is director of the Newport (R.I.) Music Festival. He also is the festive “Big Daddy” who stepped behind the Iron Curtain to negotiate the long-awaited release and three-year National Hockey League contracts of the famed KLM Line: Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov.
The Red Army’s most feared attack unit and defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov, whom Malkovich also represents, are among the nine Soviet players scattered throughout North America arenas as the NHL starts its 73rd season with the greatest array of talent in its history.
Larionov, the witty, sharp-tongued center, and left wing Krutov, the often disagreeable “Tank,” are in Vancouver, British Columbia. Right wing Makarov, talented and adaptable, is with Stanley Cup champion Calgary.
Fetisov, the fierce defensive giant of Soviet hockey, and his old army buddy, Sergei Starikov, wear the red and green of the New Jersey Devils. Helmut Balderis, the non-conformist Latvian and Guy Lafleur’s equal in the 1970s, is making a comeback bid in Minnesota at 37 after coaching in Japan.
Goalie Sergei Mylnikov, who showed up overweight, is in Quebec. Sergei Priakin, a Soviet-NHL test case released last March and earning little more than peanuts, already is in place in Calgary. And winger Alexander Mogilny, 20, the swashbuckling defector must create a new life in Buffalo.
Malkovich chuckles when asked if an impressario has any business invading the world of pro sports. What he has done is analogous to the director of the Bolshoi Ballet signing Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to play in Moscow for the next three years.
After years of frustrating dealings with the Soviets, Malkovich outmaneuvered the NHL brass and some powerful hockey agents to hasten the release of the country’s top performers and score a fascinating sporting coup.
But can he tell the difference between Berlioz and Bourque? Mussorgsky from Gretzky?
Malkovich chuckles. He has heard the question before on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
“I was asked by Pravda why an impressario thinks he can negotiate in hockey,” Malkovich said. “It’s very simple. We are dealing with great artists. It is art in just another form. I was president of a chemical company when I was in my 20s. So, these contracts were small potatoes compared to what I did then.
“Moscow has several million people, but it’s a small community. The priviledged people know each other. It’s common for a hockey player to know a pianist. One of the world’s great tenors is a former soccer player.”
Malkovich, the son of a Catholic Yugoslavian immigrant, grew up in the northern Minnesota mining town of Eveleth, the home of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. He was a much better student than hockey player, but he grew up next door to John Mariucci, the godfather of Minnesota hockey, and lived down the block from immortal goalie Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek. John Mayasich, another American great of 30 years ago, was an altar boy at his church.
“Where I grew up, you skate first, walk second,” said Malkovich, who will dedicate a statue to Mariucci next week in Eveleth.
It wasn’t hockey roots that won him the trust of the great Soviet players. It was his treatment of Russian artists over the years. Bella Davidovich, a world famous pianist, and her son, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a celebrated violinist, immigrated to the United States in December 1978. The two lived with Malkovich and depended upon him until they got settled. “Malkovich is Big Daddy,” Larionov said.
As part of Gorbachev’s glasnost, Davidovich and Sitkovetsky were honored last December on the 10th anniversary of their departure. They were the first Soviets invited back to play with the Moscow Philharmonic.
As Larionov said, only four or five years ago a Soviet couldn’t even mention he wanted to contact the NHL without getting into trouble.
“And now they’re saying things like this in a public speech, and everybody’s agreeing. Wow, what a change,” said Malkovich.
At the turn of 1989, the Soviet Red Army went on tour of North America and arrived in Hartford, Conn., for a Jan. 8 game against the Whalers.
“There are so many groupies at something like that, but Mike Hume (an administrative assistant) of the NHL was wonderful to me and recognized I was legitimate,” Malkovich said. “He gave me their room numbers. I arranged to get my room on the same floor of the Sheraton. When they saw me, they were so pleased they invited me back to their reception. Fetisov and Larionov came to my room and talked until 3 in the morning.
“At one point, Igor said, ‘I want to be out. I want to be out of the Army. I want to be free to make my own mistakes.’ I said, ‘Any way I can help you. If you want to defect, you can live with me. You want money, we’ll get it.’ This whole thing would have been different if I hadn’t gone to Hartford. I knew then, this was all going to happen somehow.”
Matters began to move quickly. Malkovich, 58, read later in January that Larionov and Fetisov had said publicly that they wanted to be released from the Red Army. He called Moscow, and the two told him to come over. He formed a company, SPORTS USASR, with his son, Mark, and Malkovich signed secret contracts with Larionov and Fetisov in February.
During this time, Fetisov publicly called Red Army and national coach Viktor Tikhonov a “dictator.” Tikhonov returned the favor by calling Fetisov “a drunkard” and removed him as captain of the national team.
Larionov criticized Tikhonov in the Soviet national weekly magazine, Ogonyok, for oppressive training, restrictive lifestyles, unimaginative strategy and poor handling of the young free spirit, Mogilny. Tikhonov retaliated by calling Larionov “self-centered.”
“At that point, they didn’t really care what happened,” Malkovich said. “They were so fed up. They were very anti-Tikhonov. They all hated him. Instead of being a benevolent father, he was more of a dictator.”
During these times of profound change in the Soviet Union, Malkovich learned about the adjustments in Soviet laws that would allow certain people with valid contracts with foreign employers to leave starting in July for a five-year period.
“I was prepared to circumvent Sovintersport (the Soviet’s ruling body) at that point,” Malkovich said. “They wanted 97 percent of the players’ contract, then 90, then 80. At that point, I flew over and told the players if they’re going to let you go out, I won’t stand in your way. We’ll simply tear up the contracts after you’re free. They told me they didn’t want anything to do with their federation. They were determined to make a stand for civil rights.”
Instead of meeting a May 26 appointment to formally sign their releases from military obligation, Fetisov and Larionov brought Makarov, Krutov, goalie Alexander Tyzhnykh (a former national team goalie who dropped from the elite league after a dispute with Tikhonov) and assistant coach Yuri Mosieev to Malkovich’s hotel room in Moscow to sign contracts with him.
Also during the spring, Mogilny, one of the great hopes for Soviet hockey future, defected at the World Championships in Stockholm. The Soviet federation began to realize it would continue to lose young stars if it didn’t develop an organized system for releasing older players who had served well. So it began to relent.
“All this gave me renewed vigor,” Malkovich said. “They wanted to form a joint (contractural) venture, 60-40 in their favor, then 50-50. I can say in all honesty, they ended up getting less than 50-50. There was some confusion for a while, but I knew what I wanted to accomplish and it turned out better than I thought.”
On July 1, Vancouver General Manager Pat Quinn and Calgary General Manager Cliff Fletcher were in Moscow to sign Larionov and Makarov. At Larionov’s urging, Krutov decided he too would come. In September, he was signed.
The three KLM members are making about $300,000 each a year, with slightly less going to the Federation. Malkovich, who said he was receiving a normal hockey agent’s commission (about 5 percent), explained that all their salary is kept on this side of the Iron Curtain and a company, on their behalf, is being set up through the Bahamas for tax purposes.
“For a while all hell broke loose,” Malkovich said. “People in hockey were saying, ‘Who is this Malkovich?’ (NHL President John) Ziegler, I believe, sent a letter to the Soviets to deal only through the NHL. Ziegler wanted to know who the heck I was. When he found out I grew up with Willard Ikola (another hockey Olympian from Eveleth), a college classmate of his, he relaxed.”
New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who had been in contact with Malkovich throughout the process, took a different track. Lamoriello signed Fetisov and Starikov on June 26 and created a flap by bypassing Sovintersport. The Soviets requested the players be blocked from playing in the NHL. After allowing Mogilny, a defector, to play, however, Ziegler wasn’t about to stop Fetisov.
Some players resent the Soviets because they are taking jobs. Other don’t like hundreds of thousands of dollars going to the Soviet Federation. A few say they will take runs at the Soviets. More say these Soviets will have a terrible time disciplining themselves off the ice.
Malkovich remains confident about their adjustment.
“The first thing the wives want to do is get microwave ovens. That’s fine,” Malkovich said. “These guys have been in the spotlight as world-class athletes for a long time. My job is to advise them. I have a great deal of faith in them. “Within a few months, it will all die down. They’ll make a lot of friends. They’ll make a few enemies. Just like everybody else. The wonderful thing is that the world of hockey is opened up for tremendous artists.”