Home ice: Russian stars return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

YAROSLAVL, Russia -- Here in the heart of ancient Russia, on a bluff above the wide and venerable Volga River, the prodigal sons of Russian hockey turned out before a tolerant but vastly amused crowd and were beaten by the home team.

Hooting and whistling with glee, 4,300 fans at the Avtodizel Palace of Sport went out into the snowstorm Sunday night after the game to relish the thought of underdog Yaroslavl taking on the millionaires from the West and coming out on top.

That the touring "Stars of Russia" team of NHL players had lost to the Yaroslavl Torpedo will not amount to much in the tempestuous history of this 984-year-old city. But it certainly ranked as one of the city's more delightful experiences.

"It was -- well, it was wonderful," said Raisa Nosova, the mother of a youth league hockey player. "Such a good show!"

Said a Torpedo official: "Raw ambition beat talented professionalism."

The romantic tale wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

Here were players who had gone to the West as long ago as 1989, players who quietly had been making millions while Russia careened from one wrenching change to another. Now, they were taking to the ice again here as if they had stepped out of a fable.

It was a moment that Yaroslavl fans long will cherish. It was as if another of the great, ugly legacies of Communism had been swept away. The best were back. What nobody was counting on was that these golden knights of the NHL would lose.

Who would have thought, especially after the visitors scored three goals in less than one minute in the first period, that the Torpedo would come back as a 5-4 victor?

There was nothing poignant or soulful about that.

Fans cheered and laughed and happily admitted that the Torpedo isn't up to NHL standards, but why not enjoy the show?

"This arena can seat 4,000, but it sounded like 10,000 out there," said Pavel Bure, who scored 60 goals for the Vancouver Canucks last year but went scoreless against the Torpedo.

"Look, of course, the Stars are much stronger," said Vyacheslav Voronin, another hockey parent. "They just weren't playing hard. They eased off, and then when the train left, it was too late to catch up."

Yaroslavl was the second stop on a four-city tour by 23 Russian players idled by the NHL lockout. For some, it is the first chance they have had to return to Russia. Those who left in the Soviet days, such as Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres, essentially defected and faced prosecution if they ever came back.

The Russian government had to clear the way for the tour by dropping charges against several players, promising that no "repressive measures" would be taken against them.

And, indeed, they have been given a glorious welcome, even if a few are speaking rusty Russian with a little bit of an odd accent these days.

"The fact that Mogilny has not been here for five years is a disgrace -- not to him, but to the authorities," said Vadim Blokhin, a railroad dispatcher.

"Of course, I was sorry they all left. But I was proud of them, too, because I knew they would go to that other country and show them how to play hockey."

Maybe Yaroslavl's factories are closing down or cutting out shifts. Maybe salaries get delayed by weeks or even months. Maybe life leaves a lot to be desired. But people are happy to see these fabulously wealthy hockey stars come back from the West, Blokhin said. Yaroslavl looks on someone such as Mogilny with pride, not resentment.

"That's money he earns with his own sweat," Blokhin said.

Said Olya Kandaurova, a nursery school dance teacher: "I say they're good guys. They haven't forgotten their native country. They were invited over there, and they have a God-given gift. Why not work there? It's not a betrayal of their country to fulfill that gift."

When he first set foot in Moscow last week, Mogilny said what he had missed most in five years away was "our Russian cooking. For so long I've wanted to taste our borscht again."

But people in this hockey-mad city realize the Russia many of these players left behind is gone forever.

This is how the president of the Torpedo, Yuri Yakovlev, a former player who wears dark suits and a gold bracelet, puts it:

"For the last five years, our country has been reconstructing everything, and hockey is not immune. The definition of a professional athlete is changing. It's not only attitude or prestige. It also includes business and commerce."

But from his seat in Sector 4 in the north bleachers, Blokhin saw the new influence of money differently, as he gestured toward the management's private enclave high atop the south wall.

"Tell me," he said, "in America, do they have sections like that one, where high officials and other criminals get to sit?"

The answer was drowned out when Dmitri Yushkevich, a former Yaroslavl player now with the Philadelphia Flyers who was playing for his old team against the Stars, whipped the puck into the goal. The band played, pandemonium broke out and Blokhin forgot his question.

For one evening, anyway, happiness and hilarity reigned in Yaroslavl.

By yesterday morning, the glow had faded and life was pretty well back to its routines.

Just another day -- but one that had a certain unmistakable joy-in-Mudville memory to it.

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