LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- NHL players with ties to the former Soviet Union are being pressured to pay protection money to guarantee their families safety, including one incident that is being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department, according to reports Thursday and Friday.
The players are denying the allegations, although it is unclear whether they are doing it out of fear of reprisals or because those incidents have been exaggerated.
The Vancouver Province on Friday quoted city police sources as saying Canucks right wing Pavel Bure has been a target of organized crime groups and had made two payments to a man who had befriended Russian players. Until this week, Bure was the NHL's highest-paid Russian player at a salary of $930,000. Bure's father, Vladimir, and Canucks general manager Pat Quinn denied that any money had changed hands.
The Province also cited an unconfirmed report that Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alexei Zhitnik had been physically harmed by gang members.
Kings general manager Nick Beverley indicated Friday that the club is taking the matter seriously.
"There are things I can't talk about," he said. "I don't know to what degree I can say what has transpired because it involves the authorities. There are elements I can't talk about. What I can say, is he says he was not roughed up."
A spokeswoman for the L.A. Police Department said she could not confirm a report in Friday's editions of The New York Times that police are investigating at least one suspected case of intimidation of a player. That player might not necessarily be Zhitnik, because Bure spent last summer in Los Angeles.
La Presse, a French-language newspaper in Montreal, on Thursday identified New Jersey Devils defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov as a target of an organized crime group. The newspaper did not identify its sources.
"I never paid anybody. I don't know where this comes from," Fetisov told the New York Daily News.
La Presse also said players who have refused to cooperate have been threatened with having their legs broken or having their families harmed.
Some general managers, though aware of the problem, say its scope cannot be ascertained because players are unwilling or afraid to cooperate with authorities or club officials.
Without specifically addressing the issue of extortion, St. Louis Blues forward Vitali Karamnov acknowledged he fears the burgeoning criminal element in Russia, where hard currency -- particularly American currency -- is highly prized.
"When I was in Russia this summer, I don't have problem," he said. "I am afraid because lots of businessmen. . . . Why? Because I have money. And in Russia there are lots of criminals now.
"Maybe this summer I stay here. Maybe, I don't know. Every day in Russia, more criminals. I call my parents and my parents tell me: 'outside, guns.' You know, not good. I don't have problem now. But I am afraid."
Fifty-two players from Russia, two from Latvia, one from Lithuania and four from Ukraine have played at least two games in the NHL this season.
Their salaries, though generally below the $520,000 league average of a month ago, would exceed those of most of their compatriots and make them potential targets for extortion or other schemes.
A prominent player told friends recently he had been approached by gangsters before leaving his homeland and that "if I go back, the Mafia will want to cash in."
He also said that when he played in the then-Soviet Union, he had to give extortionists expensive gifts to ensure his safety and that of his family.
"If I promised them a radio, now it's a stereo system," he said.
The player would not permit his name to be used in published reports, for fear of retaliation.
Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings, a native of Pskov, Russia, said Thursday that he had never been threatened by any of his compatriots and did not believe extortion was a major concern.
However, Fedorov might be less vulnerable to threats than other players because his family is with him in the United States; his father and brother joined him here recently, just before he announced he had agreed to a new four-year, $11.7-million contract that makes him the highest-paid Russian in the league.
Ron Salcer, an agent who represents Bure and Zhitnik, refused to confirm or deny whether his clients or their families had been victimized.
"I don't feel comfortable commenting on it," Salcer said. "It's not a topic I'd like to discuss. There's a lot of problems there -- period.
"Generally speaking, it's bad. Like the Wild West. It's a free-for-all. If you have hard currency, you're a target."
Anaheim general manager Jack Ferreira said he was unaware of any problems experienced by forward Anatoli Semenov or defenseman Alexei Kasatonov or by Mikhail Sktalenkov, a Moscow native who is playing for the Mighty Ducks' farm team in San Diego.
"I haven't heard anything about any of our guys being bothered," Ferreira said. "No one has said anything to me about it."
Mark Gandler, an agent who represents about two dozen players from the former Soviet Union, also said he has not heard of any incidents involving his clients.