This week, six-time national best-selling author John U. Bacon comes out with his 10th book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” a collection of his top 40 stories from his 25-year career covering sports for a dozen regional and national publications, including The Detroit News. This excerpt tells us the story of Slava Fetisov’s heroic escape from the Soviet Union, all the way to the Detroit Red Wings. It originally ran in The Detroit News in July 1997.
Sometime this summer, Detroit’s 39-year old defenseman Slava Fetisov will have to decide whether to return to the Red Wings for one final season, play somewhere else, or retire. For many players, this would be the toughest decision of their lives.
For Slava Fetisov, it’s almost trivial.
Just a few days past New Year’s 1989, Fetisov sat in a room at the Hilton Hotel in East Rutherford, New Jersey, debating the decision of a lifetime.
The Red Army leader and his team were in the middle of the “Super Series,” a two-week run of exhibition games against NHL teams. A few hours before that night’s game against the New Jersey Devils, their general manager, Lou Lamoriello, tried to convince Fetisov to defect right then and there, to leave his title, his team, and his homeland behind forever. But if Fetisov agreed, there would be no going back.
While teammate Igor Larionov translated for Fetisov, who could not speak English then, Fetisov’s options became clear: He could defect and enjoy previously unimaginable wealth, a beautiful suburban home, and almost limitless freedom. Or he could stay with the Red Army team and earn the same modest pay as the worst player on the team received, spend 11 months of the year in an army barracks, and live his life as a glorified prisoner.
“Lou said, ‘Defecting is easiest way,’” Fetisov recalled earlier this week.
That might have been an easy decision for most of us to make, but not for Fetisov. With little hesitation, Fetisov selected a third option, more arduous than the second: Go back to Russia, try to beat the system that ruled his life, risk losing what few luxuries he had, and endure endless indignities in the process — all with no guarantee of success.
“I have to go back and fight for my rights,” he told Lamoriello. “I want to open doors for others, and not just hockey players. Musicians, ballet dancers, all people.”
Lamoriello remembers the conversation well. “He declined and understandably so, knowing the type of person he is. I didn’t ask twice.”
Just a few months later, that single decision by a single man would dramatically change the way hockey was played around the globe; it would help bring down one of the world’s most powerful governments; and it would change one man forever.
This is Slava’s story.
We know Fetisov as a solid, steady defender on the Red Wings’ blue line, and as the “Papa Bear” of the five-man Russian unit.
But before he ever played a game for the Red Wings, before he even took his first shift in the NHL in the fall of 1989, Fetisov had already lived a full hockey life. His 13-year career for the Red Army and the Soviet national squad — probably the best hockey team ever assembled — earned him thirteen Soviet league titles, seven World Cup championships, and three Olympic medals.
Fetisov’s first hockey life was filled with unbridled adulation, spirit-crushing frustration, and scorching public humiliation — but because of his iron will, it ended in a resounding international triumph.
Fetisov was born on April 20, 1958, in Moscow, where his father worked in construction and his mother toiled in the Pravda building. Slava started playing hockey on ponds at age 4, in the Soviet national hockey camp at age 8, on the national junior team at 16, and on the Red Army team in 1975 at 18.
It was a heady time for Fetisov. Three years before he joined the Red Army club, the Soviets shocked the hockey world by taking a team of Canadian NHL all-stars to the last minute of their eight-game Summit Series, before losing the final game 6-5, and the series, 4–3–1.
But the incredible Summit Series guaranteed many more emotional contests between the East and West. The final battles of the Cold War would be staged on a hockey rink.
The Soviet Union was hockey crazy. It was Leonid Brezhnev’s favorite sport, and the perfect showcase to display the Soviet values of communal responsibility and shared rewards. In the Soviet Union’s last decade, nobody represented that stoic spirit better than Slava Fetisov, the most popular player on the team, and the best defenseman in the world. In his prime, Fetisov could run the puck end-to-end like the Red Wings’ Paul Coffey, come back to play rock-solid defense like Boston’s Ray Borque, and control the play in the middle of the ice like only Slava Fetisov could.
Although Fetisov scored 466 points in just 410 Soviet league games, Hall of Fame goaltender and current Toronto Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden admires Fetisov more for his textbook work in his own end.
“The way he played defense was like a bulldog,” Dryden told me, “always on you, yapping at your heels, never letting you go, never growing tired of it, just doing it all game long. And he of course was a great star. I’ve always been a big fan of Fetisov’s.”
But with age came responsibility, on and off the ice. In 1982, Fetisov’s teammates elected him captain of both the Red Army and Soviet national squads. Not long after, he married Ladlena Fetisova. These two seemingly unrelated events would one day create a conflict between the incredible demands of the Soviet hockey system, and Fetisov’s desire to lead a normal home life, which came to a head in the late 1980s and changed the lives of thousands of people.
If you are one of the top 20 players in the Soviet Union, you will likely be recruited to play for the Red Army squad, a team that won the Soviet league title 13 times in Fetisov’s thirteen years; a team that, during one of those seasons, lost one game.
Because most Red Army players also play for the Soviet national team, you will be forced to live 11 months each year at Arkhangelskoye, just outside Moscow. It’s a beautiful barracks in a beautiful setting, but a barracks just the same.
You and a roommate will live in a small room with two beds, a sink and a tiny closet, like a college dorm room.
“No,” Fetisov says, with a slight grin. “I have been in college dorm room — they are much better.”
You work out four times a day, every day, then try to kill the rest of the time reading, playing chess, or talking, talking, talking with the teammates you know better than your own wife. One player’s wife added up the number of nights during the year he spent at home: 13.
Everything you need you must get through your coach, Viktor Tikhonov. He controls your access to hard currency, visas, cars, apartments, even day care for your children — and he is not bashful about using this power to coerce your cooperation.
Every night you rush to get in line to use the single phone in the lobby. After you finish your two calls, you must return to the end of the line.
“Sometimes you get lucky and go first,” Fetisov says.
You might think of escaping, but you better think twice: the place has a 12-foot-high fence, and a single gate which soldiers patrol 24 hours a day. Fetisov says lots of guys have tried to escape, but they were always caught, then punished severely. When you travel abroad, you will receive your passport and visa from a KGB agent just a few feet in front of customs, then you will hand them back to another KGB agent on the other side. They are not for you to keep.
In the global marketplace, you are one of the sport’s greatest commodities. You are an international superstar, but you are treated like a prisoner. “No, worse than prisoners,” Fetisov says, grinning again. “Sometimes prisoners get out.”
Then Fetisov’s expression turns serious. “This was total control. When you’re 18, you’re so ambitious, you don’t care about much else, just hockey. You live in barracks all year, it’s OK. But later, you see life is too short to be robot.”
Viktor Tikhonov is a driven man. According to Ken Dryden’s excellent book, “Home Game,” Tikhonov dropped out of school after the seventh grade to work and play hockey, but he was a mediocre defenseman whose career fizzled in the 1950s. He went to night school to get his high school diploma, then pressed on to finish college and the four years of training necessary just to coach midget hockey in the Soviet Union.
He embarked on a single-minded climb up the coaching ranks, reaching the pinnacle in 1977, when he was named coach of the Red Army and national teams.
The arduous climb instilled determination — Tikhonov only sleeps four or five hours a night — but also bitterness and insecurity. Tikhonov seems to resent being at the mercy of players with more talent than he had, and he’s paranoid about losing his hard-won power to those who enjoy more popularity and respect.
“Only his wife and his dog like him,” Alexander Mogilny said. “And I don’t understand how they do.”
With the noted exception of the United States’ incredible upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, Tikhonov’s first decade on the job was extraordinarily successful, capped by a gold medal in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. With their hockey supremacy restored and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost gaining currency, Communist officials began entertaining Fetisov’s request to join the New Jersey Devils, who drafted him in 1983 on a whim. Whenever talks warmed up, however, they abruptly ended, only to pick up again later.
“They play with my head all the time,” Fetisov said of this confusing time. “Always go back and forth. They said as soon as 1988 season over, I’d start in NHL next season.”
Still, nothing happened. Finally, Fetisov’s close teammate, Larionov, who was fed up with the labor camp conditions and false promises of freedom, published a bold article in the USSR’s most popular magazine, Ogonyok, writing that Tikhonov “doesn’t treat his players like men. I used to say to him, ‘You can’t treat people this way. It’s almost as if we are slaves here.’ He says to me, ‘There were guys like you before who said that. There’ll be guys like you after. You’re not going to change anything.’”
Fetisov had other ideas. With Fetisov playing at the top of his game, the team continued its dominance by crushing all comers in their 1988 Izvestia tournament, handily winning the championship. At the time many believed that would mark a peaceful end to the growing tensions. Tikhonov would step down, and Fetisov would be free to leave, with both in good standing.
That’s when the Russian national team went to the United States for the Super Series, Fetisov met with Lamoriello, and rejected the idea of defecting. Fetisov returned to Moscow optimistic that things could still work out for him and his teammates.
In early January 1989, on the same day Fetisov signed a contract with the Devils, he received the Order of Lenin, given for outstanding achievement in science, technology, literature, or the arts.
After the elaborate ceremony at the Kremlin, several high-ranking military officials came up to Fetisov and said, “Slava, you’ve done a good job for us. Now it’s time for you to go somewhere else.”
But Tikhonov never stepped down, and wouldn’t allow Fetisov to leave either, stripping him of his captaincy just for asking.
The stage was set for a high-stakes showdown. On one side was Tikhonov, the Communist press, and the Communist system itself. On the other side stood Slava Fetisov, the greatest player in Soviet history, but just a man, alone.
The battle would leave all sides bloodied, but only one man standing. “You feel once in a lifetime you have to do something special,” Fetisov says. “So you take a chance.”
Slava Fetisov took many. On January 16, 1989, he walked into Tikhonov’s office and said, “I will not play for CSKA anymore.” Fetisov’s life would change literally overnight.
‘For all Russians’
The morning after his announcement, Fetisov’s wife, Ladlena, picked up their phone to discover it was dead. Once word got out of Slava’s meeting with Tikhonov, the young couple lost almost all their friends. Fetisov was banned from practicing anywhere, even at his old childhood rink.
The Fetisovs’ private troubles turned public the next day, in the pages of Sovietsky Sport. Tikhonov suddenly decided to explain why he had stripped Fetisov of his captaincy a few months earlier. After a fall game in Kiev, Tikhonov claimed, Fetisov had gotten drunk, punched out a hotel worker — who was also a decorated World War II veteran — then showered soldiers who tried to calm him down with punches and profanity.
According to Tikhonov, Fetisov subsequently offended nurses at an alcohol rehabilitation center, then bellowed, “I am the famous Fetisov. I have received many honors. The NHL paid a million dollars for me. What about you?’” Tikhonov concluded, “The famous Fetisov decided long ago to sell his famous soul.”
The real story is less dramatic. “The police took me and beat me up,” Fetisov says, without emotion. “Yes. They beat me up pretty good, and then blame me for it.”
The same government officials who disconnected the Fetisovs’ phone reconnected it a few days later — not as a peace offering, but the better to harass them.
“They tried to scare Slava, his parents, my parents — always calling,” says Ladlena. “Some scream, some act like friends. They tell me, ‘Slava can end up in Siberia, then you won’t have apartment, hot water, bathrooms inside.’ And I say, ‘OK, no problem — we’ll just buy warm clothes and go there.’” Ladlena still laughs at this.
“They probably didn’t know Slava so well,” she says. “If he believes in something, he doesn’t even question his own well-being. He must do it. He’s that way. Nothing will change him. And that’s probably why I love this man so much.”
After Tikhonov declared Fetisov persona non grata, many of his teammates were not willing to shake his hand, or even be seen in the same room with their former captain.
Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov had been inseparable for 12 years. They were paired together on defense, they roomed together on the road, and they lived together in the barracks. They saw each other far more often than they saw their wives or families.
“Kasatonov was my best friend,” Fetisov says.
But when Fetisov decided to take on the system, Kasatonov wanted no part of it.
“They told him they would give him everything, if he say these things,” Fetisov says. “All of a sudden, he gets scared of system and say things to protect himself. Alex would scream at me in meetings, saying Tikhonov was right. It hurt, yes. But better to lose this kind of friend early than late.”
Not all the Fetisovs’ friends turned on them. Gary Kasparov, the Soviet chess champion, is an old friend of Fetisov’s. During Fetisov’s loneliest winter, Kasparov called him to bolster his resolve. “‘Only you can break system,’ he tells me. ‘You’re going to break this world. But you have to realize it’s going to be tough.’ Well, I knew it was going to be tough, but not that tough. It was very scary time.”
Soon after Kasparov told the Fetisovs how important their struggle was to the entire country, a chance encounter in a marketplace convinced them of it. A middle-aged stranger came up to shake Slava’s hand. “You are not only standing up for players,” he said, “but for all Russians.” He was crying as he said this.
Three months after Fetisov made his stand in Tikhonov’s office some brave teammates, led by Larionov, went on national television to say that if Fetisov did not play in the World Cup that April in Stockholm, they would not play either.
Their bold play worked. Fetisov was invited back to the team without having to rescind his request to leave for the NHL. All his teammates voted to reinstate him as captain, except one: Kasatonov.
Inspired by Kasparov’s support, Fetisov decided to play a clever chess game of his own. Despite President Gorbachev’s professed desire to instill democracy, almost all the people in power were Communists, but now they had to make a show of democracy to appeal to international opinion.
Fetisov calculated that an internationally-recognized figure like himself might be able to call their bluff.
Tikhonov claimed he had signed Fetisov’s release papers, but Dmitri Yazov, the minister of defense who would lead the coup attempt against Gorbachev two years later, would not sign them. Fine, Fetisov said, I’ll go ask him myself. To do so, Fetisov had to meet Yazov in his elaborate, intimidating office, where he was surrounded by five generals at the table.
Yazov started stomping around the table, yelling at Fetisov.
“Why are you screaming at me?” Fetisov asked. “I only want to get out of the army. It’s my right.”
That made Yazov shout still louder to scare Fetisov. When that failed, Yazov changed tactics. “You can be a general of sport,” he offered Fetisov, sweetly. “We’ll give you a nice apartment, a dacha in the countryside.”
“No thank you,” Fetisov said. “You can give it to someone else.”
Then Yazov turned angry again: “We’ll give you 10 days to accept, or send you and your family to Siberia.”
This was not an idle threat, as millions of other Soviet leaders had suffered that fate over the decades. But the move only bolstered Fetisov’s resolve.
“I know I could not back down now, or it’s over for all players, all people,” Fetisov recalls thinking. “No one would try such a thing again.”
Fetisov could not know if he’d come out of this battle of wills safely, but he knew he couldn’t go back the way he came.
“I tell him, ‘In 10 days all I want to hear from you is that you will release me from army.’”
Fetisov guessed right: They couldn’t banish such a public figure with the world watching. Yazov did not send him to Siberia, but he did not release him from the army, either.
So, Fetisov then shifted strategies. “I tried to fight legally, openly, but it was not easy. It’s a really tough system.”
Since he couldn’t get out of the army, Fetisov went to court to see whether a Soviet soldier could sign a contract with another party — in this case, the New Jersey Devils.
The Russian constitution is a private document, not hung in homes or taught in schools. Thus, it was widely believed that it was unconstitutional for an army soldier to sign a contract, but only a few knew for sure until Fetisov’s unprecedented court case proved that it wasn’t.
Once the Russian officials lost the case, they decided to turn lemons into lemonade by trumpeting Fetisov’s success as proof that democracy was working in the Soviet Union. True or not, the additional publicity it created forced them to carry out Fetisov’s wishes.
After an 18-month struggle, on Aug. 13, 1989, Slava and Ladlena waited in Moscow’s international airport to board a 1 p.m. flight to New York. They hugged their friends and family, all in tears, then boarded the plane going to America.
The Fetisovs were seated in first class, but stewed while they waited for the plane to pull out of the gate.
“Until Aeroflot plane took off,” Fetisov says, “I didn’t believe it would happen.”
New Jersey to Detroit
Though Fetisov had won a historic battle, his war wasn’t over. When he arrived in the U.S., he recalls, “I was empty physically and mentally, and I got only two weeks to get ready.”
Everything was new, from the language to the NHL’s style of play, and none of it came easily for Fetisov. Making matters worse, thanks to the lingering hostility over the Cold War, Fetisov says, “People in my own dressing room hate me.”
Current Red Wing Doug Brown was just four years out of Boston College when Fetisov joined the Devils, Brown’s first NHL team. “Some of the boys weren’t too excited to have him on the team,” Brown confirms. “‘You’re taking our jobs,’ ‘Let the Commies stay over there,’ all that stuff. But we became best friends almost immediately, and roomed together for four or five years. He’s the godfather of one of my sons.”
When the others got to know Slava personally, they came around, too. Unlike most Americans, Fetisov does not give off sparks when you first meet him, but if you get to know him, he radiates a quiet, lasting warmth like slow-burning coals. Fetisov is a man of great pride, but little ego — a rare combination that helped him adjust to his new role.
“The thing I found almost as amazing as Slava’s stature before he left Russia,” Dryden says, “is that he left at a time when his best days were past him. He didn’t have that kind of standing (here). He had to start over and earn it, and earn it when he was less able to earn it.”
Having adjusted to the culture, Fetisov still had to master a fundamentally different style of play.
“If I was gonna dump it in for (Sergei) Makarov or Larionov, once, all right,” Fetisov says of the Russian style. “Two times, they get pissed off. Third time, they say, ‘You go in and get it.’ But in NHL, I get so much heat for holding the puck. The forwards would skate away from me, and I still have puck. I look like idiot!” Fetisov says, laughing again at his own expense.
Fetisov’s new opponents were even less concerned with making him feel welcome than his teammates were.
“When you play in NHL for 13 years, like Stevie (Yzerman), you don’t have to prove anything,” Fetisov says. “But I was new. All this close-checking from behind, you feel this atmosphere around you. Only my wife support me at this point — again.”
Brown attests that Fetisov didn’t get much help from the refs, either, who “constantly turned a blind eye.”
Brown remembers Toronto’s Wendel Clark taking runs at Fetisov during their first meeting, challenging him to a fight — something few European players are trained to do — and beating him up. The next time the two teams met, Fetisov lined up Clark for a thundering hip check, one that left Clark flat on his back long enough to reflect on what had just happened. “I don’t recall Clark taking too many runs at Slava after that,” Brown says, with a chuckle.
“These (Russian) guys were tough,” Dryden says. “They had to be tough to withstand Tikhonov, they had to be tough to become the best in their homeland, they had to be tough to ride out the fight to leave, and they had to be tough to make it here.”
They were determined. The same season Fetisov joined the Devils, seven Russians signed with NHL teams.
There were snags around every corner. Not willing to go through Fetisov’s nightmare, the other Russian ex-patriots settled for 50-50 contracts, where they got half the money and the Russian Sports Federation got the other half, which they claimed would be spent on rinks and equipment — but the money ended up in various pockets along the way. But Fetisov had won the right to keep whatever money he earned.
People who file lawsuits and athletes who hold out for “renegotiated contracts” always say it’s not the money, it’s the principle. Almost as often, they’re lying. Not Fetisov, who donated $100,000 of his own money directly to the youth organizations who needed the cash, and made certain it got there.
Only one other Russian player was allowed to keep his entire NHL salary: Kasatonov, who joined the Devils midway through Fetisov’s first season.
“Lou (Lamoriello) says, ‘We need him,’” Fetisov recalls. “And I say, ‘If it help the team, it’s OK.’ Never put own ego ahead of team. When Alex got here, I was still waiting for explanation, but it never happen. It was hurt, oh yeah. Tough to make good friends, tough to lose.”
“Slava never allowed that to affect his play on the ice,” Lamoriello says. “His professionalism never left him.”
Nonetheless, when the Devils told Fetisov they were trading him to the Red Wings — right before the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995 — “He was flying around the house, packing,” his wife recalls. “And when Detroit traded for Igor (Larionov), Slava was so happy.”
Instead of having to adjust to the NHL style, the Red Wings’ five-man Russian unit could now make the NHL adjust to them, just like the old days.
‘This was my time’
Herb Brooks coached the University of Minnesota, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, a pro team in Europe, and four NHL teams. He understands the Russian style as well as anyone. “This is not to take anything away from the tremendous hockey players in Detroit,” he told me, “and that’s important to say, but (the Russians) showed everybody what puck possession and regrouping means, how to play east-west hockey, and how to play without the puck.”
With the Russian Five flying, Fetisov’s final goal of winning the Stanley Cup seemed within reach last year, until the Colorado Avalanche stunned the Red Wings in the conference finals.
“So many ironies,” Fetisov says. “We fight against the most powerful system in the world and Igor and I never cry. Then we get together again (in Detroit), and Igor is crying when we lose to Colorado. We get on the bus, and I said, ‘Igor, our dream is gonna die.’”
But their dream did not die. After the Red Wings swept the Philadelphia Flyers this spring to win Detroit’s first Stanley Cup since 1955, captain Steve Yzerman raised the Cup over his head, then handed it first to Fetisov and Larionov, something Yzerman had decided he would do a few days before.
“Those guys have been through so much,” he said. “They deserved it.” Instead of taking jobs from Canadians, as originally feared, the influx of Russians, Swedes, and Americans has allowed the NHL to expand.
Fetisov can readily tick off the nationalities of the Red Wings. “All Canadians except five Russians, three Swedes, one Yankee,” he says, remembering Doug Brown. “So much trouble in the world, this has to be good. We are great example. That’s why we’re here, to help change people’s minds.” The once despised Russian players are now treasured by fans and teammates alike.
“It doesn’t take long,” Fetisov jokes. “Only eight years.”
Nothing made Detroiters’ affection for the Russians more obvious than their response to the limousine accident that injured Fetisov and left Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov in a coma. Fans held all-night vigils at the site of the accident and flooded the hospital with letters and packages, including dozens of teddy bears for Fetisov.
“We are quiet people, we don’t socialize a lot,” Ladlena says, “but after accident our neighbors started knocking on the door to go to the store, take care of our daughter, anything to help.”
When asked if he could have imagined the American fans’ affection for him in the fall of 1989, Fetisov says flatly, “No ... no.” But then his face breaks into the craggy, warm smile his teammates know so well, the one that makes him look as if he’s holding a happy secret. Just as surely as he believed Americans could never accept him eight years ago, he is just as certain now that they have not only accepted him, but embraced him.
For Fetisov, it’s all been worth it.
“For some people, life is easy, but for me more difficult,” he says. “My life was this way. But if I try another way, maybe I wouldn’t be here now.
“If you have a chance to do something special, and not to help yourself but to help others, you have to do it or always you will regret. I realized I had a chance to help.
“This was my time.”
John U. Bacon will be appearing at the Ann Arbor District Library May 11, Traverse City’s Hotel Indigo May 29, and Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor June 12. You can find more information on johnubacon.com.