At a time playoff hopes look shaky, Washington Capitals’ fans at least can dream. How’s this? Next spring, the Capitals roar through the Patrick Division playoffs with crucial help from their torrid East European line. East European line? That’s Dimitri Khristich, Michal Pivonka and Peter Bondra, three of the fastest skaters this side of Siberia.
Dream on, you say? The alarm clock that probably will obliterate these fantasies, which include defensive heroics and lightning slapshots by Mikhail Tatarinov, is (except for Pivonka) the imports’ lack of National Hockey League experience. But next best to dreaming is a realistic thought by the team’s general manager, David Poile: “They’re going to get better.”
This season, the Capitals -- at a critical point in their history, with predictions rife that they might finish last -- have taken advantage of the new access to Soviet and Czechoslovakian players, hoping it will pay off over the next several seasons while harboring notions that it could make a difference in the next few months. At Capital Centre, the doors to the East have been opened.
The winds of good will have blown in (aided by enough American dollars going out in payment) and enabled the Capitals to catch up to other NHL clubs in numbers of Soviet and Czechoslovakian players -- and young, promising ones at that. There are 12 Soviets playing in the NHL, most having arrived last season when they had to be 28 or older to have their country’s approval to play for NHL teams.
But the younger Soviets have the greater promise; this season’s hottest Soviet property is potential rookie-of-the-year Sergei Fedorov, 20, who bolted from his Soviet team at the Goodwill Games in Seattle and joined Detroit, where he has helped make an early success of Bryan Murray’s initial season as coach and general manager of the Red Wings. (Fedorov’s Americanization has included a taste for corn flakes and the purchase of a burgundy Corvette.)
As a group, however, the Soviets have not taken the NHL with the fury of a winter storm as many had expected. Fedorov excluded, the bulk of them blend in as just other players except for “The Tank,” Vladimir Krutov, who was such a washout he was shown the door by the Vancouver Canucks. While he complained of not getting a real chance, he appeared to the Canucks to be overweight and sullen, his Western adjustment the equivalent of a crash into the boards. “Tanks A Lot,” blared a headline in the Vancouver Sun.
Krutov is an extreme example of what Poile calls the “period of adjustment” needed by the East Europeans. “There will be a lot of highs and lows in the period of adjustment,” Poile said recently after a practice. “Both on and off the ice.”
Hockey players are like anyone else in a work place: Who knows, for instance, when their attention can be diverted by a difficulty on the home front? In the case of the newly arrived Easterners, they have to solve their problems despite a language barrier and unfamiliarity with the way of life.
Take Tatarinov, the Capitals’ new defenseman. One day recently, his 2 1/2-year-old son, Vladimir, came down with flu and his concerned parents -- they live in suburban Washington, as do Pivonka, Bondra and Khristich -- thought he should be examined at a hospital. Tatarinov’s wife, Natasha, knew the way. Although the Tatarinovs are being tutored in English and still have a way to go before being fluent, they managed to make themselves understood and work out their problem by themselves.
A few weeks ago, New Jersey defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov learned that his father was ill in Moscow. Although suffering from bronchial pneumonia himself, Fetisov made it to the Soviet Embassy in New York where he stayed until 2 o’clock in the morning trying to make sure that the proper medicine was being sent. For staying out so late, doctors had Fetisov check back into a hospital as a precaution.
Hockey may be a universal language -- Rod Langway may be able to put a clearing pass perfectly on Tatarinov’s stick -- but it helps for Tatarinov to know all the nuances. So it was that a shrill whistle sounded in the quiet of the rink the other day as Coach Terry Murray addressed the troops. Tatarinov was signaling John Chapin, an interpreter hired by the Capitals, to come to the boards and fill him in on what the coach had to say.
“It simply takes time,” Poile says. Even for Westerners. “Look at (John) Druce. He’s been around five years (including the minors) and he’s just now starting to play.” Same for the East Europeans, such as Pivonka. This is his fifth Washington season; at last, he admits to feeling at home. “Of course,” he said in his now easygoing manner, “I had to jump over the wall.”
As Chapin put it, Pivonka is “as American as anybody.”
“Gimme a break,” Pivonka could be heard saying while joking with teammates. Indeed, he has adjusted, but it’s taken time.
Poile said the Easterners are used to playing with “more finesse. They’re less physical. They play half as many games as we do in the NHL. Here, every night we’re asking our players to get up, that this is the biggest game of the year. That’s the type of mentality we have.”
Even if Soviet touring teams such as Khimik or Moscow Dynamo tie or knock off NHL teams, it doesn’t mean that Soviet players will dominate in the NHL. These are exhibitions that the Soviets get motivated for, whereas NHL teams view them as games that don’t count in the standings.
With the exception of Fedorov, NHL fans generally aren’t seeing Eastern stars shining as brightly in the West. In the Capitals’ case, questions surround all the visitors from the East:
-- Will Tatarinov, 24, live up to his credits as one of the very best defensemen in the Soviet Union, a veteran of four seasons with Sokol Kiev and four with Moscow Dynamo?
-- Will Khristich, 21, get flying consistently at wing, as everyone connected with the Capitals hopes and as he has recently hinted? Supposedly, he has the potential of Fedorov.
-- Can Bondra, 22, play back to his promising November when he was the NHL’s rookie of the month and get his defensive game somewhere close to his offensive potential on the wing? Recently, he’s slowed offensively.
Tatarinov, who found himself benched during the third period against Quebec Dec. 29 but subsequently regained stride, is being asked to take up where Scott Stevens left off when he played out his option and went to St. Louis. Tatarinov wears Stevens’s old No. 3 sweater, and while he can’t be expected to be another Stevens right away he is thought of highly and being counted on heavily in a shored-up defense. A knee injury suffered against Chicago Dec. 19 emphasizes a question about him: Can the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder take the NHL’s nightly bruisings?
He had the reputation for toughness in the Soviet Union. But New Jersey defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, at 6-1, 215, has it over Tatarinov in size. Kasatonov has been giving and taking the hits -- and on a controversial play in a September exhibition head-butted Philadelphia’s Craig Berube. But like so many of the Soviet players new to the league last season -- and he may well have been the best last season after arriving in December -- Kasatonov, at 31, is past his prime. Tatarinov could be classified as a young veteran; at 24 he has eight solid years of play in the Soviet Union to support his NHL promise and, while being tested hard by NHL opponents, has shown he can skate and shoot. “Hockey has been his life,” Chapin says.
The son of a miner, Tatarinov was born in Angarsk, Siberia, and was skating on the lakes when he was old enough to stand. If he comes from an area of seemingly endless forests, lakes and mammoth rivers, isolation didn’t prevent him from being discovered. It’s one place the Soviets look for future hockey stars. By the time Tatarinov was a teen-ager he found himself five time zones to the west, in Kiev, enrolled at a sports institute and then playing for Sokol Kiev. Taking a small chance, the Capitals drafted him low, way back in 1984. Not even the Capitals knew then if they’d ever suit him up; by chance, his arrival and Stevens’s departure coincided.
“He’s a very good offensive defenseman,” said his former Kiev coach, Anatoli Bogdanov, who stopped off to watch a Capitals’ practice while touring as an assistant coach with Khimik. Tatarinov is known for his slapshot.
Bogdanov professes to have “about five” players on his team good enough for the NHL, but for now the Capitals and just about all other NHL teams want to see what the current crop does. (Bogdanov said in perfect English that he has a “big star” in 18-year-old defenseman Alexander Chetmek, but was more certain of the player’s illustrious future than the spelling of his name.)
Known as Misha to teammates, Tatarinov -- a world traveler in the past with Soviet teams -- seems as well-adjusted as possible. Kuralt-like, he is in his ninth year on the road.
After he landed at Kennedy airport in October, he was given a “fistful of dollars” by Chapin, who met him. Later, Tatarinov received a briefing on American life: the Social Security system, health insurance (he’s had a lot of dental work), rates of interest and certificates of deposit. He likes the “variety” America offers -- in stores, on television.
Khristich, perhaps, has a better grasp of English, having studied it in school in Kiev, where he grew up. He learned still more while rooming at Sokol Kiev with American Todd Hartje, a Winnipeg draft choice out of Harvard. “He’s big, strong, an extremely fast skater and has very fast hands,” Bogdanov said of Khristich, whose father is a factory manager.
“It’s easier to listen than to speak,” said Khristich, for now more interested in scoring points than diagraming sentences.
Called Dima by other Capitals, Khristich is 6 feet 2, 190 and looks young enough and strong enough to take the pounding without getting hurt. He scored the winning goal for the Soviet Union in the gold-medal final at the Goodwill Games. On Nov. 25, he found out he’d be coming back to America and the fact that his suitcase got lost in Prague in his rush to get here concerned him little. Possibly too much too soon is expected from Khristich because of Bondra’s hot start.
Bondra and wife -- they have a year-old daughter -- had barely arrived from Czechosolovakia just before this season when he caught the Capitals’ attention with his offensive skills and flair. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, he also has the size. It’s his defense that needs work, and in a recent game against Pittsburgh he lost his man, resulting in a goal.
Probably what shifted Bondra’s destination from the minors in Baltimore to Washington was what Murray called his “natural instincts that I can’t teach.”
Bondra was born in the Ukraine. When he was 3, his family moved to Slovakia. Although he grew up in Czechoslovakia, he is a Soviet citizen.
Enthusiastic in conversation, energetic on the ice, Bondra quickly hit a groove here learning English and scoring points. On Nov. 29, he took a streak of 12 points in 12 games into Madison Square Garden. That night he got a hat trick. As quick as he’s been with English, Bondra had so many interviewers he needed Pivonka to translate.
More recently, Bondra managed only one goal and two assists in 13 games and was scratched for Quebec. But he may have enough support eventually to make his adjustment complete. In contrast, Pivonka pointed out, “I was by myself my first year here.” Bondra has Pivonka and his experiences to draw on. Bondra’s wife is friends with Tatarinov’s and Pivonka’s wives. Most of all, Bondra seems to have grasped Poile’s guidance that success takes time; while working hard now, he’s already thinking of improving himself for 1991-92.
“After the season, I will go home and get ready for the new season,” he said through Pivonka. “I want to be stronger. I will practice at home.”
His motivation was clear enough: “It’s a good life here.”
That is what is bringing the Soviets and Czechoslovakians to North America. A freedom to come to the West and their home clubs’ need for money has made it possible. But before any Stanley Cups are counted because of the newcomers, consider the trials of Buffalo’s Alexander Mogilny and Krutov’s lament when he was cut by Vancouver.
Mogilny, who defected from the Soviet Union last season at the age of 20, listed a number of problems he faced: the rough hockey, the language barrier, loneliness, frequent flying. The flying was the worst. “So many times we were on a plane,” he said. It got so that he couldn’t fly at all last season, and for a while tried to keep up with the Sabres by car. He was given a leave of absence from the team. This season, he’s flying again, but not flying particularly high on the ice.
Krutov, meanwhile, was a famous Soviet forward, the “K” of the famed “K-L-M” line on the Soviet national team. “I wasn’t fully aware of the situation and the necessary adjustments at the outset, and probably if I had a chance to do it over again I would have tried to arrive earlier to Canada,” he said through an interpreter after the Canucks dropped him. “The cultural changes and the adjustment process would have been something I would have given more thought to, rather than arriving to play without all those preparations.”